The Belfast City Marathon is one of Northern Ireland’s premier sporting events. More than 20,000 people hit the streets on Bank Holiday Monday for the race, including 3,300 marathon runners and 11,000 who participated in five-person relay teams. The event raised thousands for charity. It is mass participation sport at its very best.
Now that this year’s marathon is over, there is a movement afoot to switch the race from Monday to Sunday. This would save significantly on the costs of policing the event, and limit traffic disruption in the city on the increasingly busy Bank Holiday Monday.
Athletics Northern Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland, co-sponsors of the marathon, are willing to support the marathon on whatever day of the week it falls. But Belfast City Council has not committed to a Sunday date, in part due to concerns that this would impact negatively on Christians’ participation in the event.
I took part in the Belfast City Marathon, running a leg of the relay for Abbey Athletics Club. The Sunday before, I had run the London Marathon. The fact that I took part in the London Marathon on a Sunday already ‘outs’ me as a non-Sabbatarian Christian.
Dr Stafford Carson, moderator of the Presbyterian Church, has written to the Lord Mayor Naomi Long outlining his concerns. Carson praises the positive aspects of the marathon but points out that ‘40 churches lie close to or on the actual 26-mile route’ and that the marathon will disrupt travel to and from those places of worship.
That’s a practical concern, one that could be remedied by changing the course (which has happened before in the history of the Belfast City Marathon). But Carson’s second reason is principled, and this is,
… many Christians from all across Northern Ireland and beyond, who have participated in the charity aspect of the marathon don’t wish to take part in sporting events on a Sunday. This will therefore diminish one of the very positive benefits that the Belfast City Marathon has brought to our community life and will exclude those who are committed to their local church on a Sunday.
Sabbatarianism is a principle deeply embedded in the traditions associated with Reformed Protestantism in Northern Ireland. Strict Sabbatarians, drawing on the commandment to ‘remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,’ see attending or participating in sporting events on Sunday as a violation of the commandment.
I think that the Biblical principle of having at least one day of rest from all your labours is a sound and sensible one – a gift from God, really.
But for me, sport isn’t work or labour – it’s an intensely pleasurable activity. Rigorous exercise is worlds away from the work I do as a lecturer (and the work most of us do in the West), which involves sitting behind a desk typing. Indeed, for some of us, rigorous exercise could be considered a ‘Sabbath respite’ from the labours of our sedentary, desk-bound lifestyles!
For me, most of the time it’s possible to attend a Sunday service and take part in my sport. If a Christian attends a church that has only one Sunday service, the choice may be more difficult.
But I think the issue of sport on Sunday obscures bigger issues about the way we have organised our society, in which we have no full rest from economic activity. We have no break from the demands of capitalism, with shops open seven days a week.
The Sunday afternoon traffic of the people of Northern Ireland as they clog the doors of shopping centres to consume more products seems to me far greater than the traffic of people going through the doors of our churches on Sunday mornings.
Is this healthy for the people working on the weekends?
Is this healthy for the people who go to the shops out of boredom not necessity?
Is this healthy for the world’s environment, which is groaning as it strains to keep pace with the West’s endless demands for goods and services?
As a society, I think we could be asking ourselves bigger questions about our values rather than whether it is okay to hold the Belfast City Marathon on a Sunday – just one Sunday in the whole year.
If the Belfast City Marathon happens on a Sunday in the future, I hope that Christians feel they can participate with the full support of their congregations, and with the thought that they are doing something charitable – even pleasing to a God that created us to enjoy sport.
(Photo sourced from Athletics Northern Ireland website)