It has not really been about football. As I said in my blog, I'm not competent to say aything about it despite reading avidly The Secret Footballer which lifts the lid on what goes on in the beautiful game. But even football cognoscenti take care what they say and where. Like religion at both its best and its worst, football arouses fierce passions and loyalties. At their best they inspire and exhilarate and build up community. At their worst their power can be frighteningly destructive. Think of homophobia and racism: not a happy story for either.
Some people thought I was indeed transgressing into football commentary. The comments on my blog speak for themselves. I decided not to delete them – it’s instructive to read them just as they are, even the ugly ones. A few seemed to think that all that mattered was Sunderland AFC and its football fortunes, whatever the manager-coach said or did. I hope I made it clear that it mattered to me too. But not at any price. There has to be integrity in public life: ethics is important. Premier League players and managers are as visible as you can get. They are influential role models. That’s why PDC had to make it clear that he did not endorse fascism in any form. It’s still a puzzle to me why he did not do that when he was asked to at his first press-call. But that’s history.
Others asked how I dared to pronounce on PDC’s personal beliefs and motives. Now I was careful not to impute anything to his thought-world. What I was concerned about was what he had publicly said and done. This is all any of us can be judged by. A propos of that, it's been bizarre to have readers speculate about my motives too. I've been accused of wanting my 15 minutes of fame; someone even said I had whored myself to the media. This just shows how wrong people can be when they try to get behind the things we say or write. I don’t take it amiss when someone disagrees with what I say or do: open debate is healthy and good. But I do demur when I am placed on the therapist’s couch and diagnosed from afar on the basis of a few hundred words in a blog.
A more serious accusation was that the church should stay out of such matters. This is an old chestnut. Political leaders of every hue, with whom the church strongly disagrees at times, nowadays acknowledge its proper role in critiquing the life of society. Faith is about the whole of life, not simply the 'religious' part of it. To put it simplistically, God cares about the city of Sunderland and the Black Cats just as much as he cares about its churches and believers. That’s why the church must be in conversation with the affairs of our life in society. It’s as much God’s business as the church service.
So it’s right at times to raise questions about fairness, truth-telling and ethics. And this is all I was doing: asking questions (firmly, but courteously I hope) and inviting a response. I should perhaps not have thought that I could do this merely as a private individual under the rubric of ‘all views my own’: inevitably, my public role as dean came into it. But if the office helped lend weight and secured the desired outcome, I do not think I should regret it.
I did not publish my blog without first taking stock: wisdom lies as much in choosing when to speak as it does in choosing what to say. It is perilously easy to abuse the office of a vicar, dean or bishop. I would like to believe that I tried to be responsible in this. Some asked why I chose this particular issue: why not all the other injustices and atrocities being perpetrated across the world? Well, we can’t take on every wrong under the sun. But I do have a particular interest when it comes to Sunderland and the North East. So if there is a chance that by trying to bear witness we might just make some small difference, isn’t that better than doing nothing? Yes, we risk making mistakes. But when the day of reckoning comes, I’d rather be accused of having done something, however flawed it may be. As Burke said, evil triumphs when good people do nothing.
I admit that I was not expecting my blog to be noticed by anyone other than a few friendly followers on Twitter (and thank you to them and others for helpful, encouraging comments). But let me end by saying something positive about the media’s role in all this. It’s easy to knock the media but the coverage, at least of my bit of the story, has been exemplary. I have been fairly reported, often quoted at length. Some columnists even found something to smile at (football and religion also have in common that they can be seriously short on humour).
Today’s story is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapping. Maybe I should have heeded the old publishing adage ‘never explain, never apologise’ rather than write a further blog. But there's no prohibition on reflection. As for the coming week, that could prove even more eventful if the Black Cats win tomorrow. That will be something to celebrate. And why not? Go for it, I say!