Thinking Anew – Things that have a value, not a price

 “The marketplace is an important part of every economy but when it is driven by greed then it must be called to account.” Photograph:  James Gill/Getty Images

“The marketplace is an important part of every economy but when it is driven by greed then it must be called to account.” Photograph: James Gill/Getty Images

 

When the millionaire owners of some of Europe’s leading football clubs decided to form a super league to make more money, they unleashed a furious reaction among soccer fans, especially in the UK. A protest banner summed up their feelings of hurt and betrayal by the money men: “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich.” That was almost a true statement but not quite; it would have been more accurate to say, “Created by the church for the poor, stolen by the rich.”

Southampton Football Club is an example. A far-seeing 19th-century vicar of St Mary’s Parish Church in Southampton was Canon Basil Wilberforce – grandson of William Wilberforce the anti-slavery campaigner. His parish was one of extreme poverty and he responded by providing recreational activities at St Mary’s, including cricket and rowing, a night school for “rough and neglected” lads as well as three soup kitchens. In 1881 St Mary’s formed a Young Men’s Association for “aiding the spiritual life, not omitting the manly exercises of the physical life”. Like most such clubs they played cricket first, before in 1885 forming the football team which became the Southampton club of today. In 2001 when the club relocated it acknowledged its church roots by naming its new stadium St Mary’s.

Some years ago, a retired schoolteacher named Peter Lupson, wrote a book called Thank God for Football in which he researched the development of football in England and discovered that most major clubs originated “as church teams, encouraged by Christian men in grim industrial districts who believed that sport offered physical exercise for lads with little to occupy them, and nourishing human values too: teamwork, friendship, courage, self-reliance.” These included many of today’s top clubs such as Manchester City, formed by a working men’s group at St Mark’s Church; Aston Villa; Barnsley; Tottenham Hotspur; Birmingham City; Bolton Wanderers; Everton; and Fulham and many more.

But what has that to do with today’s readings? The psalmist reminds us of people like those founders of football clubs whose good works survive them: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked . . . They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.”

In the gospel reading (John 17) Jesus prays for women and men of faith engaging with the world: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” The “evil one” can turn up in the most unlikely places, even in the board room of a sport prompted by a marketplace motivated by greed.

The marketplace is an important part of every economy but when it is driven by greed then it must be called to account as those football fans did. In his book Morality published shortly before his death earlier this year Jonathan Sachs, one-time chief rabbi of England, stressed the need for standards in business: “Markets”, he said, “need morals, and morals are not made by markets. They are made by schools, the media, custom, tradition, religious leaders, moral role models and the influence of people. But when religion loses its voice and the media worship success, when right and wrong become relativised and all talk of morality is condemned as ‘judgmental’, when people lose all sense of honour and shame and there is nothing they will not do if they can get away with it, no regulation will save us . . . Markets were made to serve us; we were not made to serve markets . . . They depend on respect for the people affected by their decisions. Lose that and we will lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.”

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