The Olympics triggered a palpable shift in national mood, brought about by the opening ceremony and then enthusiasm for the Games themselves. The British seemed to suspend their trademark cynicism to come together and be proud of their nation. Has faith played a part in this, and can Christians learn anything from it?
The Opening Ceremony was good (and a bit Christian)
No one was more surprised than me.
On Friday, 27th July, a peak viewing figure of 26.9 million people tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. To put that in context – the Royal Wedding’s peak viewing figure was 20 million. This year’s Wimbledon final clocked up 16.9 million, and a paltry 13 million watched The X Factor final in 2011.
Danny Boyle’s humorous and wondrous masterpiece, which took in punk, Michael Fish, the NHS, the industrial revolution, and even a hilarious skit with the actual Queen acting with James Bond (Daniel Craig), brought about a collective sense of something approaching, well, excitement about being British...
‘It should have been jingoistic, or clichéd, or obvious’, wrote Tom Fordyce for BBC Sport. ‘Maybe to foreign eyes it was. But to those lucky 80,000 in the stadium and millions watching on television, there was something else, something not always felt: genuine pride in the little pieces of all of us that were being shown to the world.’
Not only that, but the ceremony was shot through with Christian influences, including a moving rendition of ‘Abide with Me’. More pertinently, the theme running through the entire production was Jerusalem.
‘...We hope...that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world’, read the programme notes, ‘the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring notion that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.’
‘The idea of Jerusalem, the hope of a better world, [is] a deeply eschatological concept,’ says Elizabeth Hunter, director of the public theology thinktank, Theos. ‘Christianity was far from explicit, but was woven through the ceremony in a way that connected with the imagination of millions. In an extravaganza which above all made Britons proud to be British again, a new world, hope and the value of all human beings (including, very visibly, the disabled) was emphasised, tinged with echoes of the gospel.’
And everyone loved it. Well, nearly everyone. It came under criticism for being too socialist, Aiden Burley MP called it ‘leftie multicultural c***’, but David Cameron called that remark ‘idiotic’.
By and large, the usually cynical media and the until-that-point mostly disinterested general public could talk of nothing but how good it was.
‘Because of a cynical press, we feared the worst for the opening ceremony,’ says Andy Reed, a former MP and now chair of the Sport and Recreation Alliance and director of Saje Impact Ltd. ‘I was dreading it. It was actually a collective sigh of relief, that it was great. It reminded us of what we had to be proud of.’
The media fawned, Twitter tweeted of nothing else, and 28 million people shed a tear.
The national mood lifted… and churches seized the moment
The reaction to the Opening Ceremony reflected, or perhaps precipitated, a change in the national mood of the nation. It got more hopeful. There was a party atmosphere. People talked to each other in the street. In London, the standard acceptable way to behave on the tube is to pretend you’re the only one there. During August, actual strangers exchanged words as they travelled. At Victoria underground station, the announcer’s ‘Stand behind the yellow line’ before the train departed was replaced by ‘Ready. Set. Go!’
‘It put a little spring back into people’s steps,’ says Andy Reed. ‘We saw it a bit in the jubilee. The Diamond Jubilee was the start of a process which the Olympics has continued – it’s given people a sense of community again.’
Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis and a Christianity columnist, was chosen to carry the torch the day before the Olympics began.
‘It was extraordinary,’ he says of the experience. ‘Genuinely extraordinary. I have never seen the streets of London so packed. It was absolutely staggering. I brought the torch back to the Oasis Centre [in Waterloo]. We did a little lunch for people who wanted to come and get their picture taken with it. There were so many people it was impossible to get them in the building. Everyone was just so excited about the Olympics.’
Not everyone had a torchbearer as a pastor, but More Than Gold, an organisation dedicated to helping UK churches to engage with the 2012 Games, reports that hundreds of churches across the country got involved with the ceremony. All Soul’s, Langham Place, where John Stott was once rector, showed the opening ceremony on a big screen and ran events throughout the Games.
‘[The Opening Ceremony atmosphere] was fantastic, it was really festive,’ says Jane Barrett, who was on the organising team. ‘We had visitors from all around the place, lots of different nationalities. As the athletes were walking in [it became] a competition for which country could get the loudest cheer. It wasn’t just the church, people were coming in off the streets, or who had seen the adverts on Facebook.
‘We’ve been preparing for the Games for months and trying to instil a sense of excitement in the church family and preparing them to be welcoming. Our slogan was “Welcome the West End, welcome the world."'
Other Christians have been involved as Games Pastors and evangelists within the Olympic park itself. ‘I have found that people are very open to what the Church and Christians are doing during the Games,’ says Jon Burns from More Than Gold. ‘I have talked with people about faith on the streets, in pubs and parks – people are very open to genuine conversations.
‘We have many churches realising that various programmes have genuine legacy after the Games. Youth café, community festivals and sports outreach are ideas that will change the way churches engage with their communities for years to come.’
But will it last? And where do we go from here?
You will probably be reading this just as the Olympics end, and the Paralympics gear up to begin. We don’t know whether this change in national mood will last. Will surly Londoners still be laughing at ‘ready, set, go’ on the tube and joshing with strangers when it’s all over? What we do know is that we can make the lessons we’ve learned have a lasting impact. This time has been a ‘thin place’; it’s opened up something more truthful, more real, about the deepest human longings.
‘I think somehow the Olympics offer people a sense of hope. They lift people out of the ordinariness of life and promises them something extra, something more than getting by. It offers a little bit of excitement, life, something extra; people yearn for that,’ says Steve Chalke.
‘It’s created a sense of community, community built around something that we can share together. People yearn for community, some transcendence in their life.
‘That’s our mission all of the time – to bring something into life that lifts it from mere existence. The Olympics promises that, but actually it can’t deliver that. It’s a temporary thing; the mood will change back. The local church can offer that on a permanent basis. The Church is the real thing.’
We have learned from this extraordinary summer that human beings yearn for two things: community and identity. The Olympics and its rather special opening ceremony might have shined a light on this for us, but it’s up to us where we go from here.
Additional reporting by Angela Mikhail and Jamie Cutteridge