Why I’m a Christian that won’t go to Church: The Non-Church Christianity of Ammon Hennacy … and Me

Why would a Christian not go to church?  This was the case with Ammon Hennacy, an American Christian that lived in the twentieth century until his death in 1970.  Ammon was an anarchist, pacifist and war resister who refused to pay taxes because they helped to build the war machine.  He was imprisoned for his trouble.  He lived simply, according to the ideal of voluntary poverty, and was a friend of the Catholic Worker Movement and its key founder, Dorothy Day.  Both Dorothy and Ammon were dismayed by the church for its failure to follow the teachings of the gospel and, in particular, the Sermon on the Mount. It was unacceptable, they argued, for the Christian church to pick and choose which aspects of the gospel they would adhere to.  The Church, they complained, steadfastly followed the gospel teaching on issues such as adultery (for which there was to be no excuse) but always found a reason to excuse war and violence.  For Ammon, this was the legacy of Paul who had corrupted Jesus’ teachings,which emphasised refusal of hierarchy and authority, by pledging obedience to the state (see especially, Romans 13).  It was also the legacy of Augustine whose ‘City of God’ theology buttressed Paul’s message by suggesting that the earthly city was inherently sinful and disorderly – thereby necessitating strong state authority and state violence to return society to order.  

Ammon and Dorothy were frequently at pains to stress that Jesus’ teachings pointed in exactly the opposite direction, i.e. they emphasised the inherent goodness of human beings and suggested that people corrupted by systems should be won over by love not force.  Gandhi became one of the finest practical exponents of this philosophy in the twentieth century.  Tolstoy was perhaps its finest intellectual exponent.  For his part, Ammon was influenced by all three (Jesus, Gandhi and Tolstoy) and lived his life in an equally exemplary manner, albeit without the publicity that they attracted.  What he added to their example, though, was an unambiguous philosophical and practical exposition of non-Church Christianity.  He provided us with a reasoned and exemplary account of why church is not an option for some Christians – especially Christian Anarchists like himself who emphasise the anarchist Jesus.  His non-church Christianity has certainly resonated with me for most of my life and – having tried the ‘Church thing’ over the last 5 years – does so now more than ever.  Below I explore why Ammon’s non-Church Christianity is consistent with Jesus’ teaching and why it makes perfect sense in my experience too.  

Jesus’ Idea of ‘Church’

One of the most obvious characteristics of Jesus is his refusal of institutional authority.  He regularly berated the religious authority of the Sadducees and Pharisees whilst pointing to the corrupting influence of hierarchy and institutional power.   A key feature of institutions is buildings which he also questioned.  Now, as Prior (1993) points out, the architectural largesse of buildings allows institutions to display their power.  A further feature of institutional power is the rules of access to buildings which regulate who is allowed in and who is not welcome.  Moreover buildings are ‘investments’.  Thus institutional behaviour is also driven by what is in the interests of the ‘property portfolio’.  Yet very little that Jesus did gives the impression that he saw the Church as an institution or that he valorised its buildings.  Quite the opposite.

Jesus may have preached in the synagogues and temple, but a more prominent feature of Jesus’ ministry is that it was integrated into his everyday life and activities rather than reserved for a specific time and place.  Accordingly, it took place in public spaces that were open to all – in people’s houses, on Mountainsides, at lake sides and so on;  wherever he happened or chose to be.  Significantly, and unlike the institutional church, this meant that he preached openly to all and not simply to those that were already ‘believers’ and members of the synagogue.  His message was for Jews and Gentiles alike.  And when he prayed, he did so alone and in lonely places (Luke 5:15).  There was nothing necessary about a building.

If Jesus’ experience of the synagogues and Temple taught him anything. it highlighted the corrupting influence of institutional life.  So he never sought to join the religious elite of the priestly class, the Sadducees.  Rather than valorising religious institutions and their leaders, Jesus was outraged at their behaviour.  He ejected the money lenders and traders that they had allowed into the Temple.   He was so dismayed by the Temple, in fact, that he then proclaimed that he would pull it down and rebuild it in three days – in the form of the risen Christ.  Crucially, then, he replaced the Temple building with his own body (Mark 14: 58) which he opened up in a radical act of sharing with “the many” at the Last Supper (Mark 14:23).  

Jesus’ democratic act of participation in his body represents a significant change of emphasis.  The focus is no longer on the synagogue or temple building but on the fact that spiritual participation in Christ brings the Kingdom of God within all of us (Luke 17: 20-21) in the form of love (Matthew 22: 37-40).  As The Waterboys song proclaims, then, Jesus introduces us into a the idea of a Church that is “everywhere and no place, a church not made with hands, not contained by man”.

If there is any further doubt about this then we need simply to remind ourselves of what John 4 recalls Jesus saying to the Samaritan woman about worship:  A time was coming when worship would not take place in Jerusalem, where the temple was located, but through the power of the spirit in our hearts.  His point was that God did not live in temples made with human hands; he was within everybody and therefore everywhere (Acts 17).  Fundamentally, God was democratic.  

All of this has has profound consequences for the way in which Jesus encourages us to understand the ‘church’ which, incidentally, means ‘assembly’ not an institution or a building.  Jesus made clear to his disciples that their social movement would eschew the idea of greatness and leadership in favour of an informal model of social organisation based on radical servanthood:  Each was to serve the other members of the group (Luke 22: 24-27) and others in society (Mark 9:35; 1 Peter 4:10; John 15:12-13).  Thus Jesus intentions for the church can be found in his clear instruction that the mutualist spirit and principle of egalitarianism should govern the community of disciples (Acts 2:43-47; Acts 4: 32-35).  

When the early church was established then, it was a leaderless and egalitarian community whose boundaries were porous and fluid with newcomers being added all of the time (Acts 2: 47).  Members of the community, and those who joined, relinquished all their possessions so that resources could be redistributed to where need was.  When it was recognised that this redistribution was not happening effectively enough, Stephen was placed in charge of finances.   However, his task was very different to that of the Church Commissioners that manage the ‘investment portfolio’ of the modern Church.  There was no business speak in the early church which was built on the needs of people not the management of assets.

A Lost Church

There are big differences between Jesus’ idea of the church and what it has become.  The church has become a powerful institution in modern society.  Its buildings and the ceremonial dress of its hierarchy speak of its greatness when it should be humble.  Its cosy relationship with the state is justified by the idea that a Christian voice is needed in public affairs in order to ensure justice but, as Stephen Shakespeare and Ray Gaston point out, its cosy relationship with the state paradoxically stops it from speaking out when it is most necessary.  The radical voice and message of Jesus is therefore silenced – by the church.  Moreover, when it does speak out, theologians such as John Milbank and William Cavanagh rightly point out that it does so on terms dictated by the state and often disappoints.  For instance, it is profoundly disappointing to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury using ‘just war’ theory in the House of Lords to argue in favour of government bombing campaigns in the Middle East.  But as John Howard Yoder argues in The Original Revolution, such is the nature of an institution that has lost its faith in Jesus’ message of nonviolence and thrown its lot in with state sponsored militarism – for its own ends.  Jesus advocates no such form of power and compromise politics.  

In contrast to the contemporary church which wants its ‘voice’ heard in political life (e.g. in parliament etc.) then, Jesus refused the temptations of power.  Instead, he sought to circumvent the state, which he ignored.   At no point, then, did he seek to influence the politics of the Roman Empire either by cosying up to it or by organising a protest movement.  So although the Sermon on the Mount was a mass meeting, its purpose was not to capture power and throw out the elite.  He was not a political leader that was going to change things for people.  Nor was his purpose to build a counter hegemonic movement – based on a new set of ideas about how political and economic life could be governed by his ‘party’.  

As Dorothy Day has suggested, Jesus delivered a ‘personalist’. rather than a political message, which asked people (not the state) to deliver justice from within the context of their own lives.  In other words, he was telling people that the personal was political and that, rather than look for answers in political leaders, they needed to change themselves and the way they lived their lives.  And he held many such mass meetings to communicate the same core message which was this:  People were to refuse violence and learn to love in another in their everyday lives.  Far from appealing to the state for justice then, Jesus’ prioritisation of love over all ruled out the state as the agent of change.  As an institution built on power, hierarchy and violence, and an abstract entity that is incapable of loving, the state was utterly incapable of delivering the change that Jesus required.  

Why go to Church?

So why would a Christian go to church or a Quaker meeting as I have done in the past?  I have asked myself this question over and over again.  My answer is that the church and my Quaker meeting make things too easy.  This has certainly been my experience, anyway.  For instance:

  • A food bank will suffice to tackle hunger – a weekly routine of providing food charity to the poor and hungry from the church premises.  Meanwhile for the rest of the week, church remains a nice middle class space that remains cut-off and and remote from the real world outside.  
  • Our overwhelmingly white, middle class demographic is not our fault.  It’s just the way it is.  A historical issue.  Moreover, we are open to people coming in if they want to.  But don’t mention using the building to offer hospitality for homeless people or asylum seekers because the ‘business plan’ won’t allow it.  

I no longer go to church or Quakers because they do not challenge me.  They make Christianity all too easy.  A bit of charity here.  A bit of outreach there.  But heaven forbid we allow poverty and suffering to intrude directly into our sacred spaces and into our lives.  This is not living in solidarity.  It is living in comfort.  It is imposing a boundary between the church or Quaker meeting and its outside.  Yet there is no such boundary.    

It seems to me that Jesus instructs the church to be an open and egalitarian community that is without boundaries.  Since God is to be found inside people – and not a building – a church should be a house of hospitality where all are welcome to reside and where sharing takes place.  It should be an exemplar of the new world that is being built inside the shell of a greedy capitalism that it will eventually replace – a place where possessions are shared and where the idea of ownership is questioned.  

So the reason I no longer go to church is because it makes things too easy.  By emphasising a bit of charity here and a bit of outreach there, it actually encourages me to sustain capitalism and its inequalities whilst abrogating me from having to change myself.  It is an institution that is corrupting me from being what I could be and from being what Jesus asks.  In fact, it is telling me I don’t need to be what Jesus asks.  Moreover, it puts obstacles in my way when I try.  And it is for this reason that I must now leave if I am to have any chance of being the change that Jesus asks me to be:  

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the Prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you!  How many times have I wanted to put my arms around all your people …. but you would not let me.  And so your Temple will be abandoned” (Luke 13: 34-35).  

So here it is:  I don’t need the church or a Quaker meeting when I have Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day, Gandhi and the like. They challenge me more than any church or Quaker meeting has ever challenged me.  Moreover, I am finding that, in meditation, I can use their inspiration to deepen, extend and change myself.  In a nutshell, I think I have a better chance of being who I need to be without the church or a Quaker meeting.   

At Home with AFC Liverpool

It was just like football in the old days.  Meet at 12 and we will get to the ground by 1ish.  This was the suggestion from Adrian who tells me that AFC are a few bodies down and will I come to help out?  Will I be the programme seller?  Of course I will.  So I was on the 11.38 train from Liverpool Central to Blundellsands and Crosby which, in Margaret Thatcher’s world, makes me a social failure:  “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”.  I am 47 this month so that surely takes me beyond redemption.  

I arrive at Dace cafe at 12 o’clock where I meet Adrian and Andy to discuss Formby’s award winning programmes (edited by Adrian) and an autobiography of non-league football fandom (courtesy of Andy).  Then it is over to the ground.  I have not been in a ground this early since I visited the San Siro and arrived about an hour and a half before kick off only to find that the Milan fans had had the same idea.  In an era when football fans now flood into the stadium 2 minutes before kick off this ranked as unusual.  But I was grateful.  Their flags, fire crackers and incessant noise kept me and my friends entertained – and in awe – until kick off.  And it surely helped the Milan team that the fans were already warmed up and raring to go when they came out to engage in Serie A battle.  

The same applied in the good old days at Anfield, of course.  My friends and I would wait outside the ground until the gates opened at 1 o’clock whereupon we would rush onto the Kop.  We would always occupy the top right hand corner as you look at the Kop from the front.  These were the days of terracing rather than allocated seating.  The fact that we claimed our own little spot on the massed terrace each week gave us a sense of ownership.  We chose it and it was our space.  It was where the convivialities of school friendships became solidarities that were aligned with something we all truly believed in – LFC. And that gave us a sense of belonging together and with LFC.  It was all a far cry, of course, from the modern system of buying a ticket several weeks or even months before a match and being allocated a seat wherever one happens to be available in the ground – next to people you have never met before and who you won’t get to know in the 2 minutes before kick off when they turn up.  

Anyway, we conclude our chatting in Dace at 1.30 and make our way to the ground which is just over the road.  As we approach the gate I see the Chairman, Chris, so I ask him if he has that AFC hoodie for me.  Alas, he has some bad news!  He put an AFC hoodie for me in the club shop but someone else has beaten me to buying it!  “Are you going to Bootle away on Boxing Day?” Chris asks.  As it happens I have already conducted that delicate negotiation with Pauline (who has released me from the first half of a family gathering to allow me to see both halves of the Boxing day match) so I indicate my anticipated presence.  Great, he will bring an AFC hoodie to Bootle for me.  

This exchange with Chris is not a straightforward commercial transaction.  It contains an act of mutuality (an ethic of doing things for each other) that epitomises what AFC Liverpool is.  And characterises what it is not.  Take the Anfield experience for instance.  People that work in the Anfield kiosks tell me how it works.  The kiosk workers are required to perform what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “emotional labour”.  This is the contrived labour that seeks to engender a positive emotional state in the customer. “Enjoy your visit to Anfield” they say with a smile to the customer that has just bought their £3.90 hot dog. Their task is not only to prepare and sell the hot dog, but to make the ‘customer’ feel good about paying £3.90 for a hotdog on their ‘visit to Anfield’. Welcome to the plastic world of consumerism where everything is done to make you feel good about parting with your money.  

The AFC experience could not be more different:  This is where Officials like Chris, Adrian and Andy and the various volunteers perform a labour of love – which includes bringing a hoodie to Bootle for me!  Unlike emotional labour which is false and contrived, their labour of love is born of a true and authentic passion for what they are doing.  This becomes obvious when I enter the ground through the turnstile and stand by the programme table from which I will be selling programmes.   As I start to sell the programmes I talk to our media officer, Greg, who is selling golden goal tickets alongside me.  

afc1

 

Greg tells me that he travels from West Yorkshire – where he lives – to be here.  As we talk it is obvious to me that Greg talks about his work at AFC Liverpool in a very different manner to the way he talks about the necessities of his paid work:  AFC Liverpool is the result of what Greg and the other officials have created through their own voluntary efforts.  It is a community resource that they wholly believe in.  They give up copious amounts of their time to keep the club going each season, whereas the huge amounts of passion and energy that they invest into the club define what it is.  This is a small but thriving community and, as today’s programme seller, I have a direct route into it.

Now sociologists will tell you that some communities are tight knit and unwelcoming to outsiders.  This was especially true of urban communities in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  However, sociologists will also tell you that other communities are open and welcoming – especially communities of people that are are involved in building something that is different from what already exists in society.  

As a relative newcomer to AFC I am in a good position to judge its community credentials and which of these two types of community it is.  On the one hand, I am not an insider so I have no reason to be defensive about it.  On the other hand, I have half a season of evidence on which to draw to make a judgement about it.  But after my cafe chat with Adrian and Andy, and as I stand here chatting to Greg, I have all the evidence I need that AFC Liverpool falls into the latter category.  This is not a little brother of the Liverpool FC that tells me I am ‘welcome to Anfield’ on plastic signage and where I enter the ground anonymously using a swipe card.  Liverpool FC is a place where nobody knows that Chris Allen is there – apart from a computer that adds my ‘bum on seat’ to the overall attendance figure!  It is a place where I am just a number.  

If AFC Liverpool has any relationship at all with Liverpool FC, it strikes me that it might be an LFC Mk 1, i.e. the people’s version that preceded the corporate machine.  You could say that it is the modern manifestation of the Shankly ethic:

The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life”.  

AFC Liverpool is embodied by people like Chris, Adrian, Greg and Andy who work in the service of their community with everybody – including me – having a share in the fruits of their communal labour.  This is, in fact, the point.  Unlike the Big Men that run ‘top’ football clubs to service their individual egos, AFC Liverpool officials are servants of a community of fans that collectively reap the benefits of their labour of love in the form of an Affordable Football Club.  How else does a football club like AFC provide ‘footie for a fiver’, unless its officials are willing to voluntarily give their time and energy to running it – so that ‘everybody’ can afford to access a match day experience that would otherwise be the preserve of the consumer-with-bulging-wallet.

affordable-football-afc-poster

Far from being the anonymous consumer I am at the modern Anfield, then, I am given a personal welcome when I arrive at AFC.  This is because AFC has a gateman – a real human being.  Today it’s Andy.  Now although the gateman is a relic of the past at the high-tech grounds of the premier league, here at AFC he is an integral part of the fabric – a key part of the welcome that makes everybody feel a part of the AFC community.  So even if AFC Liverpool could afford a high-tech turnstile system, they would have no need for it. Ultimately, the gateman is indispensable because he embodies the people ethic of the club.  He is axiomatic to what it is.  

So whenever I enter, like today, there is always a friendly exchange which usually concludes with the gateman telling me to ‘enjoy the match’.  I even remember turning up to a game earlier in the season – early in my AFC fan career – to be greeted by name:  “Hi Chris”.  I’d only been coming here for a few weeks and they had even remembered my name!  This really is a People Zone!  It is a living community.  And I am beginning to feel part of the ebb and flow of this living community as I sell my programmes.  So get this:  I am not merely ‘enjoying my visit’ to AFC Liverpool.  It feels like home.

Now when we think of ‘home’ we think of a place based on reciprocal relationships that are mutually supportive.  The time and effort that AFC Liverpool officials give to the club are its lifeblood.  But its fans are giving too.  So although the hoodie I am buying and the programmes I am selling are valued as clothing and readership material (which becomes obvious in a nice exchange that I have with one of our fans who compliments my recent contributions to the AFC match programme) they are not just for wearing or reading.  Nor are they merely merchandise or souvenirs.  They are also the means through which fans are able to contribute to their football community.  In fact, this desire to make a contribution in excess of the entrance fee is what drives a lot of people to buy programmes and golden goal tickets.  They are supporting their club.  Moreover, we also support each other’s clubs when we travel to away games.  Let’s face it, the quality of non-league match programmes is variable.  Yet even when we know the match programme of our away-day host is at the lower end of the quality scale, many of us would buy it anyway because we want to put a bit of money into the pockets of the club we are visiting.  

This is, of course, hugely ironic.  Having paid far too much for my ticket to enter Anfield, I bring my own food so that my wallet can stay firmly shut.  It is because they treat me like a consumer that I refuse to play along.  Conversely, the non-consumers of non-league football are frequently on the look-out for opportunities to open their wallets so that their clubs receive that little bit extra on top of their gate money.  So a good match programme is valued, but that is not the be-all-and-end-all.  And this should tell you everything you need to know about fans at this level:  The standard of relevance for fans of clubs such as AFC Liverpool is the contribution they can make to the football community (‘If I buy a programme then I am giving something to the club’) rather than individualistic consumer values (‘What am I getting out of this if I buy it?’).  

As kick-off approaches, we continue to sell programmes which have nearly sold out.  This is not entirely surprising because our programme is good and, today, has an article in it about ‘The Great Non-League Bake Off’ by my mate, the non-league football blogger, Mike Hodson.  But I sense that the fans are good too and that many I have sold it too would have bought it anyway – such is the supportive ethic of the non-league fan.  Anyway, with most of the programmes sold, the next big question is whether our match announcer, Alan, will return from his holiday in time to plug-in his microphone and entertain his fans.  After some anxiety about what we would do if he did not make it, he is all smiles as he walks through the gate.  Cue relief all around because we will not now need to find out how the mic works!

alan-afc

People like Alan epitomise non-league football which is full of characters that it embraces and celebrates.  Alan could not be more different to the announcers that you find at big clubs.  When Charlie and I go to watch his other team, QPR, the announcements are anodyne and patronising (“Your QPR team today is …”).  They are the ritual fare of a club that eliminates the idiosyncrasies of personality from its ‘representatives’ who must become standardised clones of the QPR brand.  

Alan, on the other hand, is a character that serenades and entertains the crowd with his eccentric, funny and sometimes risque interventions.  As I listen to his verbal interventions each week, pushing the boundaries of match announcing beyond the stale norm, he is living proof that there is nothing contrived about AFC Liverpool.  And he makes me laugh when I most need it:  “Well done West Didsbury and Chorlton.  Good luck in the next round. Take your referee with you and I’m sure you’ll go all the way to Wembley!”.  Could you imagine a premier league club match announcer broadcasting that over the tannoy following a controversial FA Cup defeat?   Not likely. But that is their loss!   As for us, Alan is back and the teams are coming onto the pitch.  Alan reads the teams out over the tannoy and it’s game on!  Meanwhile I’m in the stand behind the goal, near the top corner with Andy and Dave.  I really do feel at home with AFC Liverpool.  And this really is like the old days!  

AFC Liverpool and Me

I bought a season ticket for AFC Liverpool this season after feeling scepticism towards them since their founding in 2008.  This blog post is a 4-part autobiographical piece that was published in 4 consecutive AFC match programmes  earlier this season.  It explains how my football journey took me to AFC Liverpool after some years of scepticism when I was  reluctant to watch them.  I am now a convert and committed to the cause!

1. Born into Liverpool FC.  And Everton!

2008:  My gut instinct was to say ‘No’.  There was no need for Afc Liverpool so I told this to my friend, Alun Parry, on seeing his plans to create the club.   So why am I now a season ticket holder that is preparing to travel to Irlam on a Tuesday night to support Afc?  Let me start from the beginning.

1978: My first match was actually an Everton match.  On February 18th 1978 my ‘Pop’ (my  maternal grandfather) took me to see his beloved Everton.  The game was memorable for three things.  First, my Dad threatened to disallow me from going unless I could tell the time properly.  This was the ultimate threat to a football obsessed 8 year old who duly learned to tell the time in about 5 minutes flat. The second was the unique smell of the match – that special mixture of beer, pies and cigarette smoke.  The third was the sight of Mervyn Day scrambling to take a goal kick as quickly as he could as the game closed in on West Ham who were losing (and eventually lost) 2-1.  

1980:  One of my first Liverpool matches was versus Bury in the FA Cup.  I was in the paddock and saw precisely nothing through the large frames of the men that surrounded me.  I also remember my Pop laughing because Liverpool were struggling to overcome the lowly Bury. It was 0-0 until supersub came on late in the game and did what he did best – scored 2 goals to rescue the situation.  My family were predominantly red and, it follows, so was I;  I was predominantly red.  But not exclusively.  I had a bit of Everton in me too.  I actually wanted my dad to take me to more LFC games and become more of a red – a proper ’Red’ – but I only managed a handful of games until I was old enough to go on my own which was when I was 14.  That was in the 1984-5 season.

1983:  Despite my protests my parents would not let me accompany my school mates onto the Kop at weekends when I was 13 because I was not old or big enough.  They had never been on the Kop themselves (my Dad was not particularly interested in football) but they had heard all about it.  The Kop was too dangerous so I was banned.   But, I was allowed to go into the Gladwys Street end with my Everton supporting mates.  So I spent the entirety of the 1983-4 season attending Everton games in the Gladwys Street.  It was a fascinating season for the Blues.  Lots of low points (some really poor results followed by half-hearted protests) but also some ups; most notably two cup final appearances.  And when one is witness to an ebbing and flowing drama like that it is difficult not to get drawn in.  And I was.  I became very fond of Everton.  I even pretended to my mate, Barrie, that I had swapped my support from Liverpool to Everton in order to secure a ticket to Wembley to see the League (Milk) Cup final.  What an irony!  I was not allowed to stand on the Kop.  But now here I was (an LFC fan) stood right in the middle of the massed throng of Everton fans behind the goal at Wembley.  I remember the terrace steps being really steep so every time the crowd moved my short and slight 14 year old frame nearly went under.  That was dangerous!  But I got away with it.  As did Alan Hansen with his handball that the referee did not see.  Funnily enough it was one of the few things that I did see as I strained to view the pitch over the shoulders of the burly Evertonians surrounding me.

1984: Paradise at last! Having survived my trip to Wembley I was now allowed onto the Kop by my parents.  I would meet my mates outside the ground at 1pm.  We would queue up and pay our £1.50 to get into the Kop as early as we could.  We were in the ground an hour and a half before each match.  We stood in the back left hand corner of the Kop, looking at the pitch. I went to nearly every home match that season, and the season after and the season after and the season after – until I went away to Newcastle Polytechnic in September 1988.  There was so much to remember from those days (the league titles, FA Cup runs, Kenny, Rushie etc. etc.) and not enough space to recall it all here.  But I remember queuing up for the Kop when a Policeman on horseback was hit by a chip.   Nobody owned up so he sent everybody with chips to the back of the queue!   I was still going to Everton home games, by the way.  

2. Just a Football Fan

1988:  By now I was a football fanatical 18 year old.  I had spent my teens watching Liverpool one week and Everton the other.  So unlike a lot of Scousers, I was no tribalist.  I just loved football and wanted to watch as much of it as I could.  I loved Liverpool but I also quite liked Everton – so long as they weren’t beating Liverpool!  In fact, I didn’t mind a lot of teams.  One of the reasons I chose to go to Newcastle was because I was craving new football experiences and wanted to extend my ground visitations beyond Anfield, Goodison and Wembley.  I also thought that their fans were a bit like ours and that I could offer some support to their team – home and away.  So I went to Newcastle as a football fan.  And I started to visit more grounds.  

It was at Newcastle that I began to notice some of the problems with football.  St. James’ Park was a recruiting ground for the National Front and there was a problem of racism.   Having recently read John Barnes’ book “Out of my Skin” I now know this problem was also prevalent at Liverpool around the same time but, like many people, I hadn’t really picked up on it in my early and mid teens.  But now I was older and a Politics student and I did notice it.  I also noticed that the Newcastle crowd (contrary to the media myth, averaging between 17-21,000 in the time I was there) was hostile to its own team which was something I was not used to and did not like.  The Gallowgate was no substitute for the Kop.  It was not for me.

barnes-out-of-his-skin

As a student I invariably knew another student that was a supporter of each away team, and so me and my mates spent the vast majority of matches in the away end at St. James’ Park.  This broadened my football education, not least because of our bi-weekly need to run the gauntlet of Newcastle fans trying to land a punch on that week’s away fans.  I was generally unhurt but getting accidentally caught up with Millwall fans running amok through Newcastle city centre ranks as one of the things I would rather forget.  I also remember a strange encounter with a Man United fan (yes, I even went into their end) who came off worst in an encounter with some Newcastle fans but whom we were able to rescue because our vast experience as fleeing away fans meant we had found and knew the quickest routes to safety.  When this poor Mancunian realised that one of his rescuers was a scouser he was bemused.  “But you are a human being” I said.  And above all, I was just a football fan.

1991:  I am now back in Liverpool as a postgraduate student with a Kop season ticket; a lifetime dream fulfilled.  Unfortunately it coincided with Graeme Souness’ first full season in charge.  Although the team were disappointing that season, we still managed to get to Wembley for the FA Cup final.  I made it to the semi-final against Portsmouth but (for reasons I cannot now remember – but probably related to my student finances) I did not make it to the final.  My overriding memory of that season, though, was that it was the end of my love affair with LIverpool.  

I had been politicised since I was about 14, largely as a result of the punk music I listened to from that age.  But now I was equipped with a politics degree and lapsed memberships of a handful of the myriad of British socialist parties;  Although I was still trying to find my political home, I was definitely a ‘lefty’.  And my relationship with the Reds was beginning to fracture.   The key thing that irked me was the sight of my fellow Kopites – working class scousers that must have ploughed most of their disposable income into following Liverpool – singing the name of John Barnes.  “How can they sing his name”, I thought, “when he just seems to care about the money in the pocket and not us or our club”?  Barnes, at this time, seemed to involve us in an annual summer drama about whether he would stay or go to AC MIlan.  According to the media we needed to pay him £3,000 per week to win his loyalty.  I was appalled at the growing income inequality between fans and players and the exploitation of Liverpool fans.  Sky was on its way. And I had had enough.  

3: A Transfer to Non-League Football

1993:  An upturn (or at least I thought) in my career fortunes meant a move to Cardiff.  This provided me with a clean break with the type of football that I was growing to dislike more and more.  Fortunately, I had a mate, Craig, who felt the same and who was a bit more worldly wise than me in football terms.  He knew the non-leagues.  He also knew the non-leagues of Wales.  So the best part of the next 5 years were spent trawling through the Welsh non-league and its various teams and grounds.  To make things more interesting I picked some teams to support; Taffs Well and Ton Pentre.  Both were a stone throw away from Cardiff which meant that evening as well as Saturday games were on the agenda.  

I had never watched football in such amazing surroundings.  Ton Pentre was located right in the middle of one of the famous mining valleys that towered above us as we watched the football. At Merthyr Tydfil I was even able to enjoy the view, as well as the football, when nature called me to the toilets which were a neck high brick wall located at the back of the stand that one could look over during the act, thus never missing a second of the action.  

Geography aside, the culture was intriguing too. It seemed that fashion in the valleys was about 10 years behind the metropolis.  The Ton Pentre centre half looked like Limahl – him of Kajagoogoo fame.  As we watched him pole axe whichever centre forward dared to try and pass, Craig and I imagined his typical Saturday night; surrounded by adoring valley women as ‘Too Shy’ rocked out of the speakers in the Miner’s Welfare Club.  Ton Pentre (and, for that matter, all of the Welsh non-league teams) were great and so was Limahl. I adored them.  I was a football fan reborn.

1998:  A move to Manchester meant a slight diversion from my non-league footballing activities.  Most of my friends there were City fans.  These were the days of Alan Ball, Franny Lee and “Free the Manchester 30,000”.  A good socialist always offers solidarity.  We all hated United who were winning everything in sight.  This was no time for the purist politics of Tony Benn which led me into the non-league.  Circumstances demanded a Neil Kinnock like pragmatic response to the rise and rise of the Evil Empire.  And the footballing equivalent of Neil Kinnock I became;  So it was off to Maine Road to support the blues as the soap opera of successive relegations to the third tier unfolded.  Where do I start?  The away trip to Birmingham when City went 1-0 up in the 90th minute.  Just as the fans began to sing “Jingle Bells … Oh what fun it is to win away” Birmingham hit back with 2 goals in injury time.  A few months later I had to walk my distraught and tear sodden friend around the car park of our local pub when the inevitable happened on the last day of the season.  But at least it wasn’t all about losing.   I was there at Wembley in 1999 when City were 2-0 down to Gillingham with 7 seconds left in the play off final, only to come back to 2-2.  Mayhem ensued and a few penalties later City were on their way back to the second tier.  Man United won the treble in the same season but, who cared, there was a blue moon rising and a long term perspective was in order.

Solidarity with Man City was not a distraction from the non-league.  On the contrary.  I only went to watch City for the few seasons when they really needed support in the lower leagues.  When they reached the premier league in 2002, I decided that I was going to allow them to enjoy their newfound riches in peace.  I was no longer interested.  They had given me a wonderful fan experience but, more importantly, something more enticing.  

As a newcomer to Manchester in 1998, I had been in need of a team to support in the non-league and City supplied me with my very own non-league team to follow – Maine Road FC.  Maine Road were not only located close to where I lived for quite a bit of my 10 years in Manchester.  It was set up as a City supporters team and, moreover, a non-league team for City supporters to follow.  How cool!   Sadly, the attendance at the games I watched were regularly in the 60s and 70s.  That is 60 or 70 people.  But non-league football offers liberal dreamers an example of what life can and should be like – full of autonomy, freedom and sociability.  There is the freedom to watch the game from whichever vantage point you wish, uninhibited by seating numbers and arsey stewards.  You can even talk to the players.  In fact, if you are young enough (18 months old is an ideal age) they even let you warm up with them.  My son Charlie was born in 2006.  Within 6 months of his birth he began accompanying me in the long covered standing area on Saturdays and some evening games too.  I now had a fellow traveller.  The nappy changing facilities were not quite John Lewis but they were good enough for Charlie and I; we got used to conducting our gymnastic exercise in nappy changing at the back of the stand – or in the clubhouse if he could wait til half time.  And the players would pat him on his head when they came our way to take a throw in.  I think they were impressed at his commitment to the cause but, unbeknown to them, he wasn’t that loyal.  We frequented as many non-league grounds in the north west that we could and often made a special point of meeting our mates, Mike and Clive, at the wonderful Chorley.  We would watch the game on the grass bank where I could park Charlie’s pram in a forward-tilting position where he could enjoy a panoramic view of the match in the ultimate comfort.  

2007:  After a decade in Manchester, I found myself in the alien territory of West Oxfordshire.  Witney to be precise.  I considered supporting the now defunct Witney Town but Charlie’s Mum had a cousin (Mark Bell) playing for Oxford City at the time so we prepared ourselves for a season watching the Hoops – along with about 250 others.  Nearly every home game, and several away games later, we satisfied ourselves that our support had been the difference that had helped the team to secure promotion from the Southern League Division One South and West.   And Charlie had a new hero – the mercurial Darren Pond.  I was gutted to learn a few years later – having moved on from Oxfordshire at the end of the season – that some Americans had bought the club and had a 10 year plan to get into the Premier League.  Or something like that.  It was ridiculous and it shows how fragile these wonderful institutions can be.  Oxford City had given us lots of happy memories such as Charlie helping Mark to warm up before going on and, invariably, scoring a crucial goal. Now they were aspiring to create money rather than memories.  But at least Mark is now the main man for Banbury United, which has given us an excuse that we did not really need to further extend our portfolio of grounds visited.  Nice ground.

4:  AFC Liverpool at Last

2008:  At the end of 2008 I moved back to Liverpool 20 years after I had left in 1988 (with the exception of a brief 9 month ‘loan’ spell at Liverpool University spell during the 1991-2 season).  Coincident with my return to the city was the emergence of AFC Liverpool – the brain child of my mate Alun Parry and some of his associates.  I was not impressed and I told Alun so.  As a non-league football fan of 15 years standing, I resented the idea that premier league baby clubs like AFC Liverpool (a number of which were being proposed at the time) might start to flourish and infiltrate the pyramid.  I felt that that this would only damage existing non-league clubs such as Marine, Formby, Bootle and Prescot Cables.  If Liverpool fans, and those of other ‘Big’ clubs, had a problem with the premier league, then why not support one of the established non-league clubs in their area that all needed more support?  Al and I discussed the issue at some length over email but clearly had differences of opinion.   I remained unconvinced.  And concerned.  

Nevertheless, I was back in Liverpool and looking for a non-league club to support.  Since it was not going to be what I considered to be the bastard baby of Liverpool FC, I embarked on a search for non-league authenticity that took in Marine, Prescot Cables, South Liverpool, Runcorn Town, Bootle, Formby and others.  I liked them all but did not feel at home at any of them.  Meanwhile Charlie, who remained stationed in Oxfordshire, began to develop an interest in Liverpool FC and the premier league!  How could I deny him what I had been able to enjoy on a weekly basis myself?  And so as well as taking in non-league football at a variety of clubs, we also began to visit Wigan Athletic for the incredible season ticket price of £275 for both Charlie and me.  That is £14 per premier league game for both of us.  Dave Whelan might be a Thatcherite Tory but £14 is £14 – and that is reasonable.  Moreover, given the virtual impossibility of getting into Anfield (and the shabby way the club treated us when the tickets we did manage to land failed to gain us access into the ground for a midweek game that involved Charie making the long trip from Oxford for his first taste of Anfield) a Wigan season ticket was the best way to introduce Charlie to the Reds as well as the rest of the Premier League stars that he was now infatuated with.  

It did not take long for Charlie’s midas touch to strike.  Having showered his affection on Oxford City, who were duly promoted in his first season, Wigan were the next beneficiaries;  We were off to Wembley for the 2013 FA Cup Final and one of the biggest cup upsets in history courtesy of a last minute Ben Watson goal.  As if that was not enough, he then decided that he wanted to follow QPR in the 2013-14 season because they wore the same kit as Oxford City and, in any event, were closer to home.  So I would pick him up from Oxford and off to Loftus Road we went for our regular fix of football – me for just £22 quid, him for nothing.  QPR may not have been making much money out of us but they must have known what they were doing;  Charlie had the MIdas touch and QPR were going up.  A last minute Bobby Zamora goal in the 2014 play-off final at Wembley ensured that the script was delivered to the word.  

By now I was living between home in Liverpool and a narrowboat in Banbury to maximise time with Charlie.  Although I spent most of this time taking him to his beloved QPR (as well as taking in a few games at Banbury United), I was managing to make occasional non-league games in the North West.  But I was still struggling to find a team.  This was troubling me.  My first experience of AFC Liverpool had been away at Wigan RP in October of the 2009-10 season which left me with the feeling that AFC brought a premier league mentality to the non-league. That put me off.  An away trip to Daisy Hill the following season left me feeling much more inclined to AFC, especially when the substitutes began to kick a ball with Charlie.  Still, I remained sceptical.  However, a hiatus of a few years from AFC was broken last season which left me pondering my non-league future.  I had returned to AFC but, this time, came away with a different attitude.  I was still not sure about the AFC ‘success’ banners fluttering in the wind behind the goal but AFC was now an established non-league club.  But being an established non-league club was no longer enough to grab me.  

In a world where we are seeing more and more AFC Fylde’s run by egotistical directors with 10 year plans to get into the Premier League, the non-league can sometime feel like a pale imitation of the premier league rather than the non-league as we know and love it.  TV money, accompanied by the end of re-election (in favour of straightforward relegation and promotion between the football league and pyramid) is changing the non-league game – especially at steps 1 and 2.  However, there is an alternative and I had been exposed to it.  I had been supervising a PhD researched and written on the subject of FC United by a (former) Manchester United fan.  It is fan run clubs like FC United that are the bulwark against the encroaching and insidious influence of money over fans; their purpose is to provide a football experience and to see how well they can do standing on their own two feet.  Promotion and relegation is less important than the football experience.  Money men are anathema so they are kept out.  They will not be bought by dreams of ‘success’ that might suit the money men but ultimately deny club fans of their sense of ownership and belonging.  All of a sudden AFC Liverpool began to make better sense.  They are not only the future.  Without them there might not be a future.  So I took the plunge and bought a season ticket for me and a replica shirt for Charlie. Today, it’s Atherton Collieries away so I’m now off to get the train to cheer on the Reds.  Will Charlie’s midas touch strike AFC Liverpool?  We only have 9 months to wait for the answer!

Down and Out in Brussels and London

I voted to remain in the EU and was, of course, disappointed to wake up this morning to the news that the UK was leaving it.  It is tempting to be despondent about Brexit but I’m trying to be optimistic.  So here are a few observations.

1:  This is temporary.  Analysis of the polling has showed that Brexit supporters tend to be older and that Remain supporters were younger.   This means that the desire to disengage from Europe has been driven by a demographic that will be dying out over the next couple of decades.  

2:  Elements of the Brexit campaign was xenophobic and racist.  In fact a large element of it was.  Reflecting this, I have noted the condemnatory voices on social media today decrying the Brexit vote as ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’.   This is over-simplification.  I spoke to my brother about these issues yesterday.  He is a Daily Mail reader and a Conservative voter.  He wanted to support Brexit because of concerns about immigration but chose Remain for economic reasons.  When we discussed it further it transpired that his immigration concern related to the conditions that migrants were fleeing; he wanted something to be done to tackle the causes of migration.  I replied that this required a dismantling of the war machine, demilitarisation, and a more constructive engagement with the world that meant no more arms sales and political support to repressive regimes.  He did not disagree with me.  (There are some good Tories you know).  We know that racism and xenophobia has been a key driving force behind the Brexit vote but I wonder how many Brexit voters feel like my brother does on immigration?

3:  On that note, let’s think a bit more about the politics of racism and xenophobia.  A few years ago Owen Jones produced a popular account of the demonisation of the working class.  There are plenty of other similar accounts in the sociological literature.  Yet when I read some comments from the middle class intelligentsia on social media (castigating Brexit voters as ignorant and stupid) I wonder whether we have forgotten about what we have read and whether we are, in fact, contributing to the demonisation of the working class that, in other contexts, we say we want to defend from such negative labelling.   Two issues are relevant here.  First, as my colleague Tom Slater has helpfully pointed out, the ignorance of the citizenry is politically and culturally produced.  In this instance it has been produced by a political class that has caused its own downfall;  Cameron, like Thatcher before him, made opportunistic use of the xenophobic language of “swarms” to distract from the fact that austerity and its consequences (a crumbling NHS etc) are the home-grown choices of him and the political class.  So if we are looking for scapegoats, maybe we should call the ignorance producers to account, and not those that have been duped by them.   This is certainly what Jeremy Corbyn seemed to be referring to when, in a veiled reference to the Marxian conception of false consciousness, he suggested that working class people did not understand what they were doing.  This brings me to the second issue which is that the production of ‘false consciousness’ may well have played a part in mobilising the working class vote for Brexit, but it is also an over-simplified explanation of what has happened.  My mother in law, like my brother, has raised concerns about immigration with me but borne of a humanitarian concern for its victims.  So you could say that their concern is not with immigration, as such, but rather with displacement; the displacement of populations by war, poverty and so on.  (It was on this point that my Tory voting brother agreed with my comment on the problem of the war machine – surely that is a step forward).  So things are not always as straightforward as they seem and, if we look closer, there are reasons for hope amongst the wreckage.  Indeed this is one of the things that I have noticed myself in undertaking ethnographic work in working class communities when I have noted how racist language is sometimes used but also how it belies observations of everyday practices in which the very same people are often first on the scene to offer help to immigrants and asylum seekers when it is needed.  People are complex.  I am a Quaker and we always say ‘there is something of God in everyone’.  It is at times like this, more than any other that we need to look for it and when we do we find it.

4:  Coming to the man himself, David Cameron:  Having talked up fear of the other, Cameron’s chickens have now come home to roost and he is gone.  I note that the political class – from all sides – are now fawning over him.  He is being referred to as a great leader and an honourable man.  As a Quaker, I am sure he has good points even if it has been hard to detect them over the last 6 years. However, there is nothing honourable about whipping up racism and xenophobia to distract people from the real causes of misery in their lives in the way that he has done.  There is also nothing honourable about lying about the poor, which he and his government have done every single day they have been in office.  So good riddance.  At least Boris Johnson has a more open mind about immigration and is one of the few politicians that I have heard raise concerns about the social cleansing of poor people from our cities as a result of Tory policy.   

5:  National independence solves nothing.  The idea that reclaiming the ‘sovereignty’ of Parliament will solve anything is a nonsense.  It just swaps one political class for another.  And as this referendum has shown, the British political class are so far removed from the disenfranchised working class that nothing will change.  Moreover, if the Labour Party thinks that removing Corbyn will change anything they are wrong.  It will make it worse.  Corbyn will most likely be replaced by an Oxbridge careerist that is as far removed from working class people as anyone before them.  This is a negative point, I know, but it will eventually lead me somewhere more positive so bear with me for a minute …

6: Having said that, we cannot sit back and wait for a Corbyn led Labour Party to ride to our rescue after the Tories have ripped up yet more of our human and working rights in the aftermath of Brexit.  Neither should we wait for them to get their act together and lead us out of our false consciousness, as if we are too stupid to achieve change ourselves.  We are not.  We need to build on this taste for sovereignty and empowerment in order to push for the devolution of a lot more decision making downwards.   We need a participatory democracy that works at a number of scales.  We need need stronger regional democracy and empowerment of the regions.  The disempowerment of local authorities started by Thatcher and continued ever since needs to be reversed so that real decisions can be made at local level – backed by resources.  At an even smaller scale, we need community councils, participatory budgeting and the like.  We also need the state to prioritise support for worker, consumer and housing co-operatives as well as community organising, community development and community regeneration.  Anything, in fact, that enhances civil society on these different scales – especially its smallest scales.  A new kind of participatory politics.  I should say, at this point, that none of these suggestions are pie in the sky idealism because it happens elsewhere around the globe – especially Latin America.  It is a personalist agenda which is based on the idea that devolving decision making power downwards creates a context in which people can come together to take responsibility for their own lives and work things out in democratic ways. It is a personalist politics of the small scale.  (After all, that what we wanted when we voted to get rid of that over bloated and remote bureaucracy, right?).  

7:  There are fears that Brexit will make us inward looking and insular; less cosmopolitan.  Yet devolving decision making downwards will also lead us outwards.  This is because devolving decision making creates a participatory context in which people can engage with each other rather than leaving politics to the political class where upon we have little to do with each other because it is all done by ‘politics’.  The point is this:  Racist and other stereotypes thrive in a context of ignorance.  It is surely no coincidence that some of the strongest votes and voices against the EU and immigration have come from towns that have precious little immigration – but large disenfranchised white working class populations that have swallowed the lie about immigration.   The flip side of this is that racist and other stereotypes are most effectively broken down by creating a context in which people come into contact with each other.  There is an abundance of evidence within the social sciences which suggests this to be the case, including in my own research.  Indeed, as anarchists frequently point out, disaster situations show our true colours as people; we help each other.  In other words, devolving decision making downwards can also lead us outwards rather than inwards.  We turn outwards to each other and become more generous.  

So my optimistic take on Brexit is this.  If Brexit is really about people wanting sovereignty and to be empowered then let’s take the chance that it offers us to move down and out of Brussels and London and into communion with each other.  If we really want more control, take it and engage with each other.  And when we engage with each other, good things can happen.  Hope springs eternal?