Doctrine of Creation and the Women’s World Cup

The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

This post is from the Revd Prof David Wilkinson’s reflection on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ programme on 21st August 2023. A link to the show, with audio of the reflection, can be found here.

Good morning. Well done England, even if they didn’t get the final prize. I was cheering, shouting and willing the women on with most of the country – although as a British male, religious leader and academic, I’m part of a legacy that has not always been positive about women’s football.

In her doctoral thesis, Dr Jess MacBeth used Scottish church registers to show that women may have played football as early as the 1620s. But these registers also show that many clergy were unsupportive, complaining about clashes with church worship, and how these ‘amusements are of the masculine kind’. Similar studies in Wales noted in 1918 that two Swansea chapels objected publicly to women playing describing it as a ‘great degradation’.

By 1921 there were about 150 women’s clubs, and some matches drew crowds of up to 45,000. However, at the end of the year, the Football Association banned the women’s game from using its pitches, stating ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’. The ban would last for nearly fifty years. Some academics of the time argued it was physically dangerous for women’s bodies, but perhaps the strongest reason for the ban, as pointed out by my Durham colleague Dr Stacey Pope, was that it challenged traditional gender roles and saw football as the masculine game.

I grew up surrounded by these attitudes. But my Christian faith, rather than reinforcing them, has subverted them, not least in its affirmation of the importance of the physical to God. Both women and men are created in God’s image – not as spirits but embodied in community, where work and play, the cheers of celebration and the tears of failure are at the heart of being human. Further, God becomes embodied in Jesus and hope is focused on a bodily resurrection. The apostle Paul writes that ‘the body is…for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.’ This means for me that sport should be valued as a gift for all.

This World Cup, with its record crowds and global viewing figures, is a celebration of the body, not as sex object or ornament, but as power, skill and resilience. It also challenges me that support is both cheering a particular team and changing the structures of society to give opportunity for all. I remember many early Saturday mornings in the balmy wind and rain of a North-Eastern December watching my daughter play football. She never won anything, but I was thrilled by the joy that it gave her to kick a ball.

Article By The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

David is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology.


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