Eric Liddell & A Rugby Ecclesiology

Eric Liddell is famous as the "Flying Scotsman" who won gold in the 1924 Olympics, whose story was told in the film Chariots of Fire. He withdrew from his best event because of his unwillingness to run on Sunday, and won a race he had only begun training for a few months before. If you saw the film, you know that in 1925 he left Scotland to serve as a missionary in China, where he lived until his death in 1945.

Tonight I'm delivering a toast at The Hall of Men, a group of fellows who gather a couple of towns over from me once a month. A keg of wholesome beer is tapped, dinner is served, the toast is given, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and drinking songs are belted out, and pipes and cigars are lit.

The toast is always in honor of a great (man) saint of old. I've chosen to toast Eric Liddell, to praise him for the courage he showed in sacrificing his life for others in God's name.

Everyone knows Eric Liddell as a world-class sprinter. Not many know that Liddell played in two Five Nations tournaments ('22, '23) for the Scottish national rugby union side. He started all seven of the matches he played in, scoring four tries (the equivalent of touchdowns) during that time. Although he looks a little bigger in the photo above (note the Scottish Rugby Union thistle on the chest) than he did during the Olympics, Liddell was a smaller speedster sort. He played wing way out on the edge of the field, waiting for opportunities to exploit his speed when the ball was spun out to him.

I'm a huge guy; in fact, I'm almost too big for rugby. Unlike American football, there's a legitimate argument to be made that rugby union is still a code (version) of soccer. There's a lot of kicking in the flow of play, play is very fluid, the clock is a running clock, and most players have to play all 80 minutes of almost non-stop action because substitutions are limited. There aren't any world-class rugby players built like American offensive linemen; those guys would be useless on a rugby pitch. So when I speak of forwards, those are the "big guys" in rugby terms. The physical equivalent of fullbacks and linebackers and strong safeties and tight ends in American football.

Everyone on the team has to carry the ball at some point in the game; everyone has to protect the ball at some point. The game is too fluid for there to be complete specialization. Nonetheless, it is the job of the back line to move the ball with skill and speed, and of the forward pack to secure possession of the ball as the team moves the ball downfield. Every time a man is tackled he must release the ball, and his teammates need to throw themselves over him to knock their opponents off the ball. There are a bunch of rules concerning how this should be done, but the basic idea is that you lower your head and try your best to blast the guys trying to get over your teammate and to the ball. If you don't succeed in blasting them off, or if things are too messy, you might have to stand there and take your blows as the opposing team's forwards slam into you. You must hold on until the scrum-half can get the ball out of where your teammate was tackled and get it back into the hands of runners. This fight over the ball that happens every time a man is tackled, which in rugby is every three or four seconds, is called a ruck.

You don't necessarily want your ruck to look like the one pictured here, but you get the idea. The guy at the bottom has been tackled and must release. The ball will be stolen unless the forwards blast their way in. What has happened in the picture is something of a stalemate, which should be good enough to get the ball out.

Whenever a runner breaks the initial line of defense, it is important that he have supporting players following him, either to field a pass, or to be in a good position to get to the tackled player first. If a man is tackled without any support, he is isolated, and will lose the ball either through a clean steal, or being penalized for not releasing. Because support is so crucial to maintaining possession of the ball, runners try to get tackled near forward support. This is usually done by running toward the middle, but it's not uncommon when a runner is on the loose to see him zigzag or slow down slightly in order to give the big strong guys time to get to him and help secure good ball.

The forwards and inside backs are busy people throughout the match, and depending upon the game the fullback can be very busy. These players do the bulk of the work that it takes to possess the ball and win a match. Wings do a lot of...well...let's be charitable and call it "positioning". They don't do a lot of running or tackling or being stepped on or any of the other staples of rugby life on the pitch. Nonetheless, they are vital. Without the threat of breakaway speed defenses can pinch in. And when a team is pushed back, there's nothing like a big run to relieve pressure.

When the wing does get the ball, it's usually way out on the edge near the sideline. If he gets past the first defender, he has to decide whether to cut inside to where help is, or to try to get as many meters as possible, and run the risk of being tackled without any support. If he chooses the latter, when he is tackled he must release, get to his feet, and try to pick up the ball again. If he does this, he will be pummeled, but he will have bought his team another second of time for support to arrive. Or perhaps another small back who has the speed to run with him will be there. Perfect, some support....except that the support is in the form of a small man who has very little hope of winning the ball. His only job is to ruck over and hope he can take the blows long enough for help to arrive.

Forwards often get annoyed at backs for outrunning their support, but objective forwards know that sometimes making forty meters then losing the ball is worth it...and hey, there's a small chance help will get there.

Here's where the cheesy sports metaphor happens. You and I are like the forward pack. We worship God with his people, we go to church, we work, we marry, we make babies, we make friends, we plant gardens, we establish. We are exactly how God's Kingdom advances in this world; we control the game and maintain possession of the ball. So if the forward pack is like the parish, the people, perhaps it can be said that the other backs are our pastors and elders and bishops and deacons and theologians and scholars and great men of any stripe. These are the ones who make the decisions. When to retreat and live to fight another day. When to wade into the fracas. When to try to slip past the defense. When to command the forwards to slam headlong into the defense. This is the Church, fighting its war against a determined enemy. Occasionally the players take a big hit, but every play is bruising.

The forward pack/people of God are the Kingdom, the possessors and conquerors, marching forward. The backs/pastors lead the pack and attempt to guide and pace them, then work off of their good work to make more substantial gains. But where does the wing belong, living outside the regular life of the rugby pitch, seldom carrying the ball, seldom rucking, seldom hitting?

In 1941, several years into the Sino-Japanese War (which was about to become part of World War II), the British government advised all its citizens to leave China. Eric Liddell sent his wife and children to Canada, but he stayed in China, moving to a rural ministry that aided the poor and sick. Although he protected his family, he was willing to put his life in danger to continue doing the work that he was called to do. In 1943, Liddell was interned at a Japanese camp, where he was known as a leader and peacemaker. In 1945 he died of a brain tumor, the effects of which had surely been exacerbated by hunger and overwork. Only in the last few years has it been revealed that, as a well-known athlete, Liddell was named in a prisoner exchange program between the Japanese and the British. He turned down his spot, giving it to a pregnant woman. He died as he inevitably would have in or out of the camp: of a brain tumor. He died a martyr.

For you and I,the things that were mentioned above as part of the life of the forward pack (being with God's people, going to church, having a job, a family, friends...) are not optional. They are the things God wants from us. The same is true for the backs. They must lead, they must decide, they must dirty their hands and throw themselves into the fray with us whenever necessary. But who are the wings in this rugby ecclesiology? Martyrs and missionaries. Go, live far away, where God's people are not. Go, live far away, where there are no churches. Go, live in such a way that you are denied payed work. Go, live in a place where you may not marry for fear of your family's safety. Go, live where you will have no friends for Christ's sake.

Go run as far as you can, away from where the strength is. Run knowing that when your work is done, it has only just begun. You must get to your feet, and die to self. You must get to your feet, and try to ruck over, even though your visible support is very far away, and the man across from you is much bigger and stronger. Look, here is a teammate who is isolated. The opponent's forwards are bearing in. You can be there first, of course; you're the fastest. Buy us all time. Buy it with your body. While you are being pushed and beaten and stepped on, help is on the way. The scrum-half seizes the ball and whips it out, just as you finally fall backward, unable to stop the inevitable. But the ball is out; the woman is safe.

Forwards often envy the wings. The stories a good wing gets to tell are way better. He does the sorts of things that will be in the write-up the next day, even though they never would have been possible if the forwards hadn't done all the grunt work. But here is the burden of the wing: he knows that if he has some success and breaks off a big run he'll be out there alone, maybe with one friend, and they'll have to do their duty.

Eric Liddell was willing to die far from his wife and daughters, surrounded by enemies. And it doesn't seem as if there was any great agonizing about it, either for him or for his family; it was the work he had been called to do. And for that, he is to be praised. Thanks be to God.


  1. Well said, Joffre. "Buy us all time. Buy it with your body."

    I didn't know about Eric Liddell's missionary work. Thanks.


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