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Football and the General Conference Session

Supporters of women’s ordination have been ruing the decision of the thirteen division presidents to keep the issue off the agenda of this year’s General Conference session, even though few can have believed that, if female ordination were debated and brought to a vote, it would have passed. However, this year’s GC session may be a bigger lost opportunity than supporters had realized; and opponents, from Unions in the “Global South,” may have even more reason to be grateful that a debate has been postponed.

For what has not yet received sufficient attention is that this year’s General Conference coincides with what even many Seventh-day Adventists would see as a more significant event: the World Cup. Since many of the readers of the Spectrum website are from North America, where to be “World Champions” means to have emerged top of a sport played only in North America, and where football means a game played with an oval, not a round ball, it may be helpful to be clear—for the overwhelming majority of the world’s population, “the World Cup” means only one thing: the quadrennial global championship tournament of Association Football, alias Soccer. Only the Cricket World Cup can rival the global television viewing figures of the Football World Cup (and then only thanks to one billion Indians), but football is truly the global sport and nothing ignites the passions of football supporters like its World Cup.

It is held every four years which means it only rarely coincides with a General Conference Session, which is held every five years. The last time the two coincided was in 1990, when the World Cup was in Italy and the GC Session in Indianapolis. However, in that case, the scheduling of the two events had almost no overlap. The only games played during the session were, as it happens, the third-place play-off and the Final, played respectively on the first Sabbath and the Sunday (days two and three) of the session. Robert Folkenberg’s election, on day 2 of the session, July 6, 1990, did not coincide with a match!

However, in 2000, the 57th General Conference session in Toronto did slightly overlap with the quadrennial European Championships. One senior GC official recalls that a prominent Brazilian official arrived too late to take part in one vote (on a matter of no particular importance it should be said), and expressed his frustration since had been watching the European Championship Final between France and Italy and had left just before the end of the match, yet still hadn’t arrived in time to vote. But he was at least confident that Italy (which he supported, reflecting his ancestry) had won. To his chagrin an even more senior GC official informed him that France had equalised in the final minute to take the final into injury time. (For the record, France went on to win.)

This story tells something about the power of football to move even lifetime Seventh-day Adventists, especially in South America (where football could make a good case for being the real religion of most nations); the Final in question was of the European championship—yet it still was compelling enough for a Brazilian to watch.

What might happen when the countries with very large Adventist populations—Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana—are actually playing? And playing for the championship of the world at that? Even given that Adventism’s traditional allergy to competitive sports will mean many delegates will care little, it is certain that there will be many other delegates who care a great deal.

So here is the low-down on GC business sessions that compete with World Cup matches. In hindsight it will be interesting to see whether any unexpected decisions (and there are always some) coincide with World Cup match-ups that might have distracted a considerable number of delegates.

The World Cup begins this Friday, the 11th of June. The 59th Session of the General Conference begins on Wednesday, the 23rd of June, when the tournament will have started to get very interesting.

The first business session on June 24 clashes with Cameroon vs the Netherlands and Denmark vs Japan. While there aren’t many Seventh-day Adventists in the latter three countries, there are over 108,000 in Cameroon.

On June 25, the morning business session clashes with two matches from Group G. It is possible that no delegates at all will be tempted by the prospect of watching North Korea vs Côte d’Ivoire; but contrast that with the vital match, that probably will determine first and second place in the group, and the better ceding for the play-offs: Brazil vs Portugal! The afternoon business session clashes with Chile vs Spain and Switzerland vs Honduras.

Sabbath June 26 has no business sessions of course, but does see the first play-off round of the World Cup. Thereafter, every match is crucial because the loser is out. The next business session, on the morning of June 27, coincides with what will probably be a game between Germany and the USA. That afternoon, the business session clashes with what could be a titanic match, between Argentina (which will almost certainly top Group B and has a very significant Adventist population) and the second team in Group A—this could conceivably be France, Mexico or South Africa, and if it is one of the latter two, a significant decline in delegate numbers at the business session seems likely.

On June 28, the morning business session will coincide with a match likely to involve two countries without large Adventist populations (probably the Netherlands, but possibly Japan, against either Slovakia, or Paraguay—the latter has one of the smallest Adventist memberships in South America). In contrast, the afternoon business session will, to many delegates, be a definite clash: the winner of Group G (probably Brazil, but possibly Portugal or Côte d’Ivoire) against team 2 from Group H (possibly Chile).

On June 29, delegates could be tempted away from the morning business session by Italy vs the Netherlands—a classic World Cup encounter between Italian defensive finesse and Dutch attacking flair, that might well draw delegates from neutral countries. If Brazil places second in its group, it will play during the afternoon business session, most likely against current European Champion: Spain—another enticing prospect for football fans.

Thankfully for football-keen delegates (and perhaps for denominational business), there are no World Cup games on either June 30 or July 1. But the 2nd of July, the final Friday of the Session, which sees the final two business sessions, also sees the first two Quarter Finals. Unless South American and African teams have done unexpectedly, disappointingly badly, expect more soul-searching by a fair number of delegates, as to whether, say, a procedural vote, or a match that could leave their national team two wins away from winning the World Cup, is more important!

A prominent place in debates on this website about women’s ordination has been given to the influence of culture. Sport, both playing it and watching it, has been and is one of the most widespread and significant cultural practices of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is incredibly important to many millions of people globally, and we shouldn’t be surprised if, traditional Adventist attitudes notwithstanding, it is very important to many Seventh-day Adventists.

Indeed, the fact is that while Christians are not supposed to be of the world, we are supposed to be in the world. The reality is that many Adventists (including, as it happens, the current General Conference President) take an enthusiastic interest in how their national team does at the national sport. What’s more, we shouldn’t lament or regret this, for it if weren’t the case, we would be unable to talk to many “unchurched” people about one of their passionate interests, making it very difficult to communicate to them at all. Now, it would be tragic if Adventists were to be divided by the fate of their national sports teams! But it would be only natural if even Adventists senior enough to become GC delegates were tempted to see their nation play in the most important tournament in the world. If special interest groups, whether from the “historic” or “progressive” ends of the Adventists spectrum, were to take advantage of the absence of delegates watching the World Cup to pass some controversial resolution or regulation, that would be highly unfortunate. But we might reasonably criticise not only those who couldn’t give their complete focus to denominational business for nine days, but also those who chose to stage the GC Session, and its constituent sessions, in competition with the World Cup, when they could have scheduled, if not the whole event, at least business sessions, at other times.

If GC sessions continue to be quinquennial, and World Cups quadrennial, there won’t be another clash until 2030. If time lasts, I suggest that, in 2028, those charged with organising the 63rd General Conference Session, for a denomination with a membership potentially of some fifty million, most of it in countries where Football is the sport, might think harder about how they schedule its business sessions.

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