Imbibing the politics of friendship

By Giles Fraser
October 13, 2006

What’s in a label? Neatly stitched on the back of the caps of the members of the recent American Ryder Cup golf team, every player had his own name displayed. On the back of the European caps, each player had just one word: Europe.

Remembering some of the contrasts in talent and experience, it’s hard for some of us not to read the United States’ golfing defeat as an indictment of the bowling-alone individualism that is often said to characterise much American culture. Europe, on the other hand, played as a team.

Given this, it is worth noting that many of the US team were and are Christians. The American captain, Tom Lehman, once wrote: "God has definitely used golf in a great way over the last several years. I think of myself as a Christian who plays golf, not as a golfer who is a Christian."

The Americans, unlike the Europeans, also had a chaplain as a part of their entourage. Throughout the golf tournament, Mr Lehman could be seen fiddling nervously with his WWJD bangle (‘What Would Jesus Do?’, for those not in the know). It was also an image picked up by the cameras.

It is interesting that Jesus apparently didn’t seem to have induced a greater camaraderie or team spirit among the Americans. The seemingly godless Euros expressed a fierce and emotional solidarity that was, so we gather, found lurking at the bottom of several pints of Guinness. The boozy rituals of sports bonding seemed to draw players closer than the emotional intensity of pious prayer meetings.

Years ago, I played in an American clergy golf competition in Alabama, USA. I am still in contact with many of the players. I have no idea what they make of gay vicars or women bishops, though many are from conservative dioceses. But, if we did have a row about it, the friendship we forged will make it so much less likely that we will want to walk apart.

Here is the punchline. If Christians, and not least Anglicans at the moment, spent more time developing friendships with each other, we would be so much less willing to press the self-destruct button at the first sign of disagreement.

Maybe we need a bit more in vino veritas down the bar, a bit less manipulation through mini-sermons masquerading as prayerful intercessions. There might even be some good biblical precedent for this if you think about it. The kingdom of God is a feast and the wedding at Cana showed unifying celebration at its best.

What the current crisis in many of our churches demonstrates is that a number of us, and the clergy especially, have not been good at investing in friendships with each other. It is no wonder, therefore, that we don’t play as a team. For Anglicans like me, for example, diocesan conferences, with all that competitive niceness, are no place to make real friends.

In answer to Mr Lehman’s ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ question, we ought to recall how often Jesus himself was accused of wasting his time by eating and drinking with friends, and indeed sinners and outcasts.

So can I put in a plea to the organisers of the next Lambeth Conference of worldwide Anglican bishops, where a big punch up over sexuality and other issues is widely predicted? Make them laugh, make them cry, and, for goodness’ sake, get them drunk.

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