My New Year’s resolution this year was try and get a little more exercise and so I decided I would take up walking football. I was aware that there was a group in Ilkley, called the “Ilkley Strollers”, and I thought it was time to give it a try – you have to be over 50 years of age to qualify!
So, early in January, on a very dark evening I went down to Ben Rhydding’s astroturf pitches to have a go. What surprised me, first, about the experience was how nervous I was beforehand. I experienced a whole mixture of anxieties and questions: What would the other men be like?; How would they welcome me?; Would I fit in?; Would I make a complete fool of myself - as I haven’t played any football since I was at Theological College nearly thirty years ago; Would I get injured?
There have indeed been one or two pulled muscles along the way, but that first experience was so important and formative. I was welcomed warmly, and given space to experience how the game worked. The others were kind and forgiving when I made a mistake – or broke into a run! It was a positive experience based mainly upon the attitude of those who received me. I suspect if it hadn’t been so, I would have been very much more reluctant to return.
This voluntary organisation relies on the commitment and good will of those who lead and participate in it. There are clearly some frustrations for the organisers when people don’t respond, fail to turn up, or simply take the existence of the club for granted. This can easily spoil the game for others. Just as important too is the way in which the players conduct themselves during the game. Aggressive or unhelpful behaviour easily ruins what should be a positive and enjoyable experience for all – though I am pleased to say there has been very little of this. It is good to do your best and compete with and for your fellow players but courtesy and thoughtfulness towards all is even more important. It is very heartening to see older men building new friendships through a common interest. There is a real concern for others if someone is injured or falls ill. A card was sent to the widow of one player who sadly died and some of the men attended his funeral.
As a parish priest of many years it has been interesting to reflect on this experience over the last eight months and draw the parallels with the life of a parish church. The welcome we offer to those who come for the first time is so vitally important. My experience reminded me of the anxieties people may well carry when they first visit. The way we are with one another and our attitude towards each other, particularly towards someone we haven’t met before is so important, and the responsibility truly lies with us all.
The dynamics and frustrations of the organisation are also deeply similar: those who contribute immensely through their commitment, but also the disappointment and cost through those who don’t; the essential need for the virtues of kindness, thoughtfulness and consideration; the importance of fellowship and friendship to belonging; going the extra mile for those experiencing sadness or trauma.
Thank you for all that you do to make St Margaret’s the Church that it is, and may we long cherish it for it is the place where we meet Christ our living God.
Your friend and parish priest