Rather than be outraged by the Belfast Marathon’s switch to a Sunday, some local churches have embraced the change of day for the showpiece event.
Some churches have expressed concern about disruption to services while other Christians have disapproved of the decision to hold the race on the Sabbath day, with the Free Presbyterian Church particularly vocal in their criticism.
However, the News Letter has learned of a number of churches who will be lending facilities and their support to the runners on Sunday.
Bethany Church in south Belfast is one of those churches “embracing” the switch to a Sunday marathon.
Its church centre at Finaghy Road South will be set up to offer tea and coffee and toilet facilities to spectators as well as water and jelly beans for participants. They have also entered three relay teams in the race.
Support worker at the non-denominational church on the Lisburn Road, Neal Spence, said: “We’ve embraced it. It’s a fantastic opportunity – we’ve got thousands of runners and spectators coming past the front door of our church.
“We’ll have a chance to chat to some of the people who have come out to watch from Finaghy about some of the things that we have on at the church.”
He continued: “Being a Christian is about imitating Jesus. Jesus was out on the streets, he met people, he engaged with them, he helped them, he gave them a glass of water. We want to be practical in our faith.
“Whenever Jesus walked the earth he had the religious elites giving off at him for helping and healing people on the Sabbath. He rebuked them for that. Unfortunately there is still a lot of that religion about rather than embracing this life to the full.
“God has given us abilities and talents and the joy to be able to go out and run, for good causes. There’s a lot of good coming out of this marathon.”
He said: “I know there’s been complaints, people wanting Christians to boycott it because it’s on a Sunday.
“For me, my Christian faith isn’t confined to a Sunday, it’s something I live out each day of the week. We’ll have our Sunday service later in the day to accommodate the marathon.
“Church to me is more than just sitting in a building singing songs and listening to someone preaching.”
Rev Colin Duncan, of Woodvale Methodist Church, said his church would wait and see how the Sunday marathon switch affected services before deciding whether or not to raise an issue with organisers. He said: “The writing was on the wall. We could see the move to a Sunday marathon coming a long time ago. It is what it is, we’ve just got to live with it and make the most of it.
“We’ll just see who turns up [tomorrow]. We’ll make a call afterwards. Because it’s the first time it’s happened we don’t know what the impact will be. I think ‘wait and see’ is the same approach as a lot of the churches around here are taking.”
He did not wish to comment on the religious implications of moving the event to a Sunday.
Owen Crane, of Christian Fellowship Church in east Belfast, believes there are bigger issues that demand the attention of Christians than the Belfast Marathon moving to a Sunday.
The senior pastor at the non-denominational church on the Belmont Road said: “People in Sri Lanka are getting blown up. That puts it in perspective. I think we can work round the small matter of a marathon being moved to a Sunday.”
He added: “It’s a wonderful event for the city. Normally we’d have gone out as a church and done drinks and cheered people on but because of the time it falls it will be right smack in the middle of our services this time.”
Father Michael McGinnity, parish priest at St Malachy’s Parish in Alfred Street, said: “Because we’re a city centre church we have people travelling from all around the greater Belfast area for Sunday worship. We would also get a lot of visitors to Belfast attending our services.
“We’ve a very loyal congregation and they’ve probably worked out the way they can get into the city centre at different times based on the route of the marathon.
“There will be some disruption, but I don’t think it will affect us too badly.”
In terms of the decision to move the marathon to a Sunday, Fr McGinnity did not wish to comment.
Des McKeown, property steward of First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street: “Our church is non-subscribing Presbyterian – we take a very liberal view. On the grounds of it being moved to a Sunday we wouldn’t be opposed in the same way that other churches would be, though there would be a wide range of views at the church.
“The main concern for us is the disruption it causes getting people into the church.
“We’re a central church but our entire congregation comes from the outskirts of the city, not from the centre.
“What we’ve done is printed out maps of the route and handed them to everyone in the congregation on Sunday and asked them to do their best to work their way round it. Obviously we’ll understand if they can’t make it.”
Recreation on Sunday ‘saddening’
A Free Presbyterian minister who is vehemently opposed to the Sunday marathon switch has said that just because people, including Christians, support the event on the Sabbath doesn’t make it right.
Rev Paul Hanna, minister of Mt Merrion Free Presbyterian Church, is one of a group of born-again Christians who took part in a protest against tomorrow’s race at Stormont yesterday (where the race begins).
He said: “I would have no doubt that many will support it, but that doesn’t make it right. It’s God’s word, God’s law, the mind of God, that’s the only thing that I’m concerned about.
“It’s not about whether my message is popular – it’s whether it’s right or wrong.
“Society is the poorer for these things that are creeping in to try and reverse God’s Law.
“I do think that Sabbath Day sport has a lot to answer for. Sunday is thought of as a day of recreation, a day to do whatever you like. The Lord puts it very clearly that the Sabbath day is to be kept holy. It’s a far cry from what we see today and it grieves and saddens Bible-believing Christians to see it.
Rev Hanna said: “The disruption is not the main thing - it’s one day out of 52 – the main thing is it’s an affront to God and His Word.
“I would say there will be people running in the marathon who would otherwise be going to church.
“It reminds me of when we protested at Ravenhill (where Ulster were playing on a Sunday). We were received in a very polite way by most people. We preached the gospel, we handed out tracks, we were very positive. The ones who gave us the biggest opposition were actually the people who had been in church that morning.
“It wasn’t the neutrals. It was those who are loosely connected with churches in some shape or form.
“We’re not out to rub people up the wrong way. We’re out to try and stand for Christ.”
Double up for runners
Almost 5,000 people are planning to run the Belfast Marathon tomorrow – almost double last year’s 2,800.
Until now the record was 3,800 runners in 2012.
The overall size – including the team relay, 2.5 mile fun run and 9-mile walk – takes the total participants up to around 18,000 people with large crowds expected right along the 26.2 mile route.
Organisers believe the rise in participants is primarily due to the move to a Sunday race.
Another key factor, they say, is the new faster course which eliminates the climb on the Antrim Road and will have less isolated areas like the Duncrue Industrial Estate section, where there were no supporting crowds.
Switch had been planned for ‘number of years’
With regard to the Sunday race, Belfast Marathon organisers said: “The Belfast City Marathon Management Team have been working on changes to both the marathon route and moving the event to a Sunday for a number of years due to feedback from all stakeholders, including athletes, city centre traders and the PSNI.
“[We] have undertaken a role of engagement with all relevant stakeholders who could be affected by the new route and have received great support from an array of Churches and denominations across the city. Every effort has been made to minimise disruption on the day.”
They added: “The Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon is inclusive to all and helps raise more than £1.6 million annually for local charities.”