In the reception area of Bukayo Saka’s old school, brightly-coloured pennants representing the competing nations in Euro 2020 have not yet been taken down. And last week, the 450 pupils at Edward Betham Church of England primary had one final euro-related task to complete. “We’ve been making a card to send to Bukayo,” said school head Caroline Chamberlain.
“A4 size with 15 sheets – one for each class. They’ve written to say how much he has inspired them and what a wonderful example he is setting. So many of our pupils have shared their disgust with us at the abuse England footballers had. They cannot understand the behaviour.”
England’s newest football hero maintains close links with the school on the outskirts of west London. Saka has previously donated a signed Arsenal shirt, which takes pride of place on the school’s “achievement wall”. A letter he sent to thank former teachers has been proudly framed. And for a school which actively promotes a Christian ethos, it would be hard to think of a better role model.
Like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, his England teammates, Saka wears his faith on his sleeve. Until he moved with his family two years ago, to be closer to Arsenal’s training facilities, he attended the Pentecostal Kingsborough Centre in Uxbridge. On winning the young London player of the year award this year, he tweeted “God’s Work”, making clear where he believed the credit for his starring performances truly lay.
“I love the way Bukayo speaks with such passion about his beliefs”, says Chamberlain, a churchgoing Anglican. “In days gone by you wouldn’t hear so much about people being practising Christians or practising Muslims. It seemed that famous people in particular didn’t really talk about their faith. I remember Alastair Campbell’s ‘we don’t do God’.”
In football, a religious transformation of sorts has taken place, partly driven by an influx of devout players from overseas such as the Brazilian Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker, (another Pentecostal Christian). Signs of the cross on the pitch, and hands raised in prayer before games and after goals, are now commonplace.
Matt Baker is the national director of Sports Chaplaincy UK, which provides pastoral support to professional footballers. He recently told the Premier Christian news website: “There’s a lot more people of faith and there’s definitely more Christians. We’ve seen an influx in terms of players of faith over the last 20 years. We get told that in society people are less interested in spiritual matters and not so many people go to church, but I find it actually the reverse within football in particular, in the playing side.”
The most successful England team since 1966 exemplifies the trend. But perhaps most significantly, 70 years after the Windrush generation brought its faith as well as its hopes and dreams to the “mother country”, it also highlights the distinctive contribution that black British Christians such as Saka are making to the national story. Alongside Saka, Rashford has talked about the example of his devoutly Christian mother, Mel, and said that “the faith we have in God is shown by the people that we are”.
In a biography of Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager, Raheem Sterling is described reading the Bible before a training session, as the usual dressing room bustle and banter goes on around him. In interviews (with Campbell among others) Sterling has said the importance of his faith is “massive”. Chris Powell, a former England international and member of Gareth Southgate’s coaching staff in the tournament, was another black Christian presence in a collective that won the country’s hearts through its humble approach and the famous commitment to social causes of players such as Rashford.
Selina Stone is a former community organiser who now lectures in political theology at St Mellitus college in London. She specialises in Pentecostal Christianity and its impact on issues relating to social justice. “Saka, Sterling and Rashford are embodying the best of the black British Christian tradition,” she says.
“Faith and spirituality are really at the core of their lives. That continues to be true for young black people even though they may not still be in the church tradition they grew up in, or necessarily be able to name the church.
“In some Christian practice there is a sense that faith is about assenting to a set of beliefs – you read the liturgy, recite the creeds, assent to doctrine. Black Christian traditions are more about the embodiment of faith, how you live out what you say in a Sunday service, how you are attentive to the felt needs of people around you as part of your faith commitment.”
The reasons for that distinct emphasis may be as much historical as theological. In A History of English Christianity 1920-1985, priest and historian Adrian Hastings wrote that during the 1950s, early black Christian migrants to Britain received a cool reception from mainstream churches. According to Hastings, they “found the existing churches mostly staid, elderly and very little interested in them”. The black majority churches (BMCs) that subsequently emerged embodied the collective resilience of communities doing their best to get by through helping each other. Pastors doubled as community workers and advocates, and churches provided social as well as religious services.
“When you think about 1948 onwards and the 50s and 60s,” says Stone, “you had significant amounts of Caribbean people moving to the UK. Churches were places not only for spiritual renewal but also sources of social and economic capital. They are the places where you find out about housing provision and can join informal credit unions to borrow money together. These kind of initiatives are very natural for communities trying to survive in a whole new context. Churches have been very central to that for black people in this country.”
This social legacy and tradition is evident at the Kingsborough Centre, where prayers were said throughout last week for Saka. The church runs a nursery, a food bank and offers business and social enterprise advice. While overall church attendance in Britain continues to decline at a vertiginous rate, BMCs such as Kingsborough are booming.
“Black Pentecostal churches in London are the fastest growing,” says Stone. “There is a deep commitment to religion and spirituality even among younger millennials who are no longer formally in church. For Saka, Rashford and Sterling, there is clearly a recognition that there is something of God’s blessing on them for them to be where they are, along with a recognition that, having been so blessed, they have to take responsibility for helping others.”
Contemplating the ugly online aftermath to Euro 2020, Saka’s former pastor at Kingsborough, the Rev Tunde Balogun, says simply “racism reared its ugly head”.
The lead-up to Euro 2020 was also dominated by race, amid the controversy over England players “taking the knee” before matches. That gesture, a plea for tolerance and a protest against racial injustice, was caricatured by the right as propaganda on behalf of “woke” liberalism and the supposedly “Marxist” Black Lives Matter movement. But as well as being divisive, this characterisation fundamentally missed what is most interesting about a team that came to stand for a new, diverse sense of Englishness.
According to Balogun, “Gareth Southgate and his amazing team represent our collective effort in nation-building.” Thanks to Saka, Sterling and Rashford, black British Christians and the best of their traditions were centre-stage in that story.