Should the Belfast City Marathon Run on Sunday?

image 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)

7 Responses to Should the Belfast City Marathon Run on Sunday?

  1. Monty May 5, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    Excellent points in the main, Gladys. As a non-Sabbatarian CHristian I also would not regard the Marathon as work- well, ok as a totally unfit Christian it would be horrendous work- but you know what I mean. I certainly would be happy for members of my congregation (were i in Belfast) to participate regardless of the day. However, I feel Stafford’s points are still well-made: the issue of the route and preventing (or making it difficult for) people to attend their church is a valid concern that would not be alleviated by changing the route (think of the number of churches in greater Belfast!) Realistically, holding it on SUnday will force many previous participants into choosing to run OR to attend public worship that day. For ministers and leaders with responsibilities in the church they will effectively be unable to run (the minister who covered for me on SUnday returned North to participate on Monday, and is a keen runner) On the route issue, one alternative would be to have it in semi-rural surrounds and thereby take away from the very ethos of a city marathon. Secondly, even if I have no objections to running on a Sunday, I acknowledge that many still do (including, I imagine, some of the largest fundraising teams) and therefore I would not want to exclude them. The need for change is less urgent whilst we already have a very good and well-functioning marathon. (DJM- veteran of the 2003 event (walking))

  2. Jon May 6, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Two thoughts come to mind: The scripture says to honour the Sabbath, not Sunday. Your sabbath can be any day- or part of a day- of the week. The point was consciously setting aside a time over which commerce had no hold. The ‘conscious-ness’ is important, specifically deciding to live a certain way as opposed to mindless conformity to the market.

    Second (and I speak as a practicing Christian), Christians must understand that they don’t ‘own’ Sunday. The law allows for the practice or non-practice of religion as one sees fit. If a Christian’s conscience keeps them from taking part in the marathon, that is a matter for their own particular conscience. A hard choice might need to be made. The value of their religious practice would come under introspection. But that’s life. It would certainly be easier for me to give up caffeine and chocolate for Lent if none were available to buy, but to try to pass a law to remove coffee and sweets from the shelves for forty days would be absurd.

  3. Tanya Jones May 7, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    Jon’s second point reminds me of Eric Liddell who is of course famous for having jeopardized his own Olympic hopes by refusing to run on a Sunday, but later in life, when interned by Japan during the second world war, apparently refereed a game (football or hockey, the sources disagree, or perhaps it was both) on a Sunday in order to bring happiness to others.

    (Phew, that probably should have been more than one sentence!)

    Another point that occurred to me was that by saying that a Sunday marathon would disrupt travel to and from places of worship, Dr Carson was presumably assuming that most people would drive or be driven to church. It would be interesting to know how far these worshippers are actually travelling, and whether it might be a challenging and rewarding experience for them to leave their cars at home for one spring morning and try out the bodies their Creator gave them.

  4. Tim Moore May 9, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    I attend a church in the centre of a city (Manchester) and it’s an 8 mile/12km commute to get there. Often I will arrive a little earlier and go for coffee and read newspapers before church. On the one hand, I am making purchases on a Sunday and requiring people to work to serve me, yet on the other hand, the open shops on Sundays mean there is a regular bus service which will get me into town in good time for church.

    Most members of my church travel in by public transport and older members of my congregation tell me how much more difficult it was to make the journey to church before Sunday trading became widespread in the 1990s. The congregation was much smaller back then and has recovered since. In short, Sunday trading sustains my church and enables members to attend.

    Jon has pointed out the emerging school of thought among theologians questioning the concept of Sabbath, and whether this must necessarily be on a Sunday. Based on my own experience, resting from one’s labours and doing the “work of the Lord” doesn’t have to be on Sunday, and is about making choices and time to rest from the normal pattern of work.

  5. Bobby October 16, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    In the United States, the controversy erupted when organisers decided not to reschedule Bi-Lo Myrtle Beach (South Carolina) Marathon XIII 13 February when snow affected the area twelve hours from the start, with the snow heavily affecting the coastal resort region (because of the rarity of snow, only one snowplow, at the airport, was available). Organisers noted churches on course and volunteers who are with the respective churches on course that they could not run Sunday out of respect to the volunteers.

    Blue laws notwithstanding (no Sunday activities before 13.30 under state law as a general rule except for grocers and emergency situations; alcohol is prohibited on Sunday), the state’s history with athletics events also has precedence. On 2 April 1978 (Sunday), organisers held the inaugural Cooper River Bridge Run (Mount Pleasant-Charleston) 10k on Sunday at 10.00. The original course was from Patriots Point (a Mount Pleasant attraction of retired military ships) to the reversible lane of the Pearman Bridge over the Cooper, and to Meeting Street in Charleston, where the race finished at White Point Gardens, near the Battery. One problem — there are numerous churches on Meeting (Wesley United Methodist, Wallingford Presbyterian, Citadel Square Baptist, Trinity United Methodist, St. Michael’s (Anglican), Circular Congregational, First Scots Presbyterian, First Baptist). They complained when the race was run during church hour, and the result led to the 1979 race being moved to Saturday, where the past 32 Bridge Runs have been held.

  6. Grossman November 2, 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    Excellent points in the main, Gladys. As a non-Sabbatarian CHristian I also would not regard the Marathon as work- well, ok as a totally unfit Christian it would be horrendous work- but you know what I mean. I certainly would be happy for members of my congregation (were i in Belfast) to participate regardless of the day. However, I feel Stafford’s points are still well-made: the issue of the route and preventing (or making it difficult for) people to attend their church is a valid concern that would not be alleviated by changing the route (think of the number of churches in greater Belfast!) Realistically, holding it on SUnday will force many previous participants into choosing to run OR to attend public worship that day. For ministers and leaders with responsibilities in the church they will effectively be unable to run (the minister who covered for me on SUnday returned North to participate on Monday, and is a keen runner) On the route issue, one alternative would be to have it in semi-rural surrounds and thereby take away from the very ethos of a city marathon. Secondly, even if I have no objections to running on a Sunday, I acknowledge that many still do (including, I imagine, some of the largest fundraising teams) and therefore I would not want to exclude them. The need for change is less urgent whilst we already have a very good and well-functioning marathon. (DJM- veteran of the 2003 event (walking))

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Belfast City Marathon – 30 Years of Going the Distance « Slugger O'Toole - May 1, 2011

    […] Like many things in Northern Ireland, the marathon has had its share of controversy. There seems to be a perennial debate about whether the race should be moved from the Monday to the Sunday of the bank holiday weekend. I blogged about that last year. […]

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