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Church or Olympics?

Clergy controversy over breaking worship to let congregants watch 2012 Games

BY NADINE WILSON Observer staff reporter wilsonn@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, July 29, 2012    

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SOME Jamaican churches are going the extra mile to ensure their congregants don't miss out on the 2012 Olympic fever in London, with some church leaders planning to adjust their Sunday worship services so that persons can be back home in time for the races.

Jamaicans have been anxiously waiting for four years to see whether the nation's athletes can dominate track and feild events as they did at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.

Then, the excitement generated was such that a few pastors were reported to have cut into their regular Sunday morning worship service to let their congregation watch the races live on television right there at church.

Members of the Fellowship Tabernacle in Pembroke Hall, Kingston were among those who watched live on a big screen at church as Jamaicans Shelly-Ann Fraser, Kerron Stewart and Sherone Simpson created history by copping a gold and two silver medals during the 100 metre sprint finals four years ago. That race was scheduled to run halfway through the church's praise and worship session, but that did not prevent the congregation from breaking from this to watch and cheer on the athletes as they ran to the finish line halfway across the world.

Deacon Alvin Miller told the Jamaica Observer following the service that it was part of the church's efforts to support nation-building.

"As a nation church, we believe we should get involved in anything that affects the nation because we want the nation to understand that the church is not separated from the world, but that we are to play our part in it," he said then.

The move sparked some controversy, but not enough to deter similar efforts to allow worshippers to indulge their sporty, nationalistic sides especially this coming Sunday when Jamaica's biggest athletics champions take to the track in London.

"There was a service planned for the time when it (the race) is scheduled for and we rescheduled the service for the purpose of accommodating that," said Bishop Alvin Baily of the Holiness Christian Church in Portmore, St Catherine.

The bishop said the church officials wanted to ensure that members could get home in time to watch the races which are scheduled to begin at one o'clock local time. Races scheduled for that day include the highly anticipated men's 100 metres finals which will feature Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell.

Head of the Jamaica Association of Full Gospel Churches, Bishop Rohan Edwards, doesn't have a problem with the rescheduling of church services to ensure that members get to watch the races live. He believes by doing so, members would be less tempted to spend the day at home watching television and come to church instead.

"If the Olympics is something that is concerning our nation, I am prepared to say to my congregation, I will make sure that we have our service and put it in a way that you all can come to church and make sure that you give your time to church as much as you schedule your time to watch the world games," he said.

Bishop Herro Blair, who had also allowed the members of his Faith Cathedral Deliverance Centre church, off Waltham Park Road, to watch the women's 100 metres live on a big screen during the last Olympics, believes nothing is wrong with making such an accommodation.

"In my lifetime, I have only done it once, in a sense, and that was in 2008, but I would not stop the service if it reaches particularly the praise (section) just for that. For instance, you couldn't stop the reading of the scripture, you couldn't stop a prayer if it is happening. Maybe you could have it being done on delay rather than having it live," he said.

But the act of rescheduling the service or breaking worship to allow members to watch the Olympics has not found favour with a cross-section of local clergymen.

"That is most ridiculous!" said archbishop emeritus Donald Reece, who is also the president of the Jamaica Council of Churches.

"If you are going to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, why should you entertain something else to break that concentration? It just doesn't make sense and is contrary to any aspect of religion at all, whether it be Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish; it is totally contrary," he said.

He said by making such an allowance, the sacred act of worship would be reduced to a social event. It would be better, he said, to allow those who want to stay home and watch the races to do so.

"Render to Caesar what is Caesar's," asserted the archbishop.

Director of communication, public affairs and religious liberty for the Jamaica Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Nigel Coke, said breaking services for a race is something that would never be accommodated by the Seventh-day Adventists. One of the reasons for this, he explained, is that they do not encourage competitive sports on the whole, although they engage in sporting activities for recreation.

"We wouldn't normally do that sort of thing. When we go to church, we go to worship the Lord," he said.

This view was similarly echoed by presiding bishop of the Emmanuel Apostolic Church Bishop Everton Thomas.

"The worship of God is something significant and important. Whatever you miss at a particular time that is set aside for worship will be repeated a million times after, so whatever you miss, it's not like you can't see it again," he said.

"There are so many ways that it can be seen subsequent to that service time, so I think if you have a set time for worship, I don't think you should be breaking during the worship time to watch a sporting event; worship is worship," he declared.

The bishop pointed out that he was not opposed to inviting church members to watch the races together following the church's worship service. In fact, he noted that he had done so during the 1998 World Cup football matches.

Meanwhile, general secretary of the Jamaica Council of Churches, Reverend Gary Harriott, said that while no one would want to miss out on the Olympic celebrations, he does not personally support the viewing of the races during the church's worship time.

"Worship is about God and the focus should be about God, so to become distracted by an activity like that, as important as it is, I'm not too sure how comfortable I am with that," he said.

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