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Eric Liddell Olympic gold centenary celebrated at St Giles’ Cathedral

Jun 26, 2024
Peter Ranscombe
News | Prayers

Peter Ranscombe

THE life of Eric Liddell, the runner nicknamed “The Flying Scotsman” and immortalised in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, was celebrated during a service at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on Saturday 22 June 2024.

The service was part of “The Eric Liddell 100” commemorations to mark the 100th anniversary of Liddell winning gold in the 400 metres at the1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

In the run-up to the Olympics, Liddell had discovered that the heats for the 100 metres, his chosen event, were scheduled to take place on a Sunday, and he believed God didn’t want him to run on the Lord’s Day.

Instead, he began training for the 200 metres and the 400 metres, taking bronze in the former and gold in the latter, breaking the Olympic record in the process.

The sermon at the service was delivered by Rev Lindsey Sanderson, moderator of the National Synod of Scotland.

In an engaging and accessible sermon, Lindsey celebrated Liddell’s roots as a Scottish Congregationalist.

A family on a mission

Liddell’s father, James, served as a deacon at Morningside Congregational Church in Edinburgh, and trained for the ministry at the Evangelical Union Theological Hall between 1894 and 1898.

He was ordained as a minister in 1898, just two years after the Evangelical Union and the Congregational Union joined together, and served with the London Missionary Society in first Mongolia and then Northern China, where Liddell was born in 1902.

Although he was born in China and educated at boarding school in England, Liddell retained strong family links to Edinburgh, and spent time with his family at Morningside when they visited the UK.

During his time studying science at the University of Edinburgh, Liddell also played rugby for Scotland, winning seven caps and scoring four tries.

Following his Olympic triumph, Liddell trained at the Scottish Congregational College during 1924 and 1925 before returning to China as a missionary.

He was ordained by the Congregational Union of Scotland in 1932 and continued his missionary work in China, where he was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp in 1943, and died in 1945, five months before the camp was liberated.

Hearing the call to serve

Lindsey preached on Micah 6: 6-8 and Matthew 5: 1-12, skilfully weaving together God’s call to service through both the prophet and the beatitudes with Liddell’s own sense of calling.

She shared stories of how the teenagers at Morningside Congregational Church – where Liddell led Bible study sessions – formed a fan club, and how she herself had related to Liddell’s dedication to his faith after watching Chariots of Fire as a child.

Lindsey was joined by Rev Dr George Whyte, the interim moderator and locum minister at St Giles’ Cathedral, who led worship and prayers, and by associate minister Rev Sam Nwokoro, who read parts of a sung litany based on Liddell’s My Creed, with text by author Alexander McCall Smith and music by Alexander McNamee.

Patricia Liddell Russell, Liddell’s eldest daughter, read the verses from Micah, while Princess Anne – the patron of The Eric Liddell 100 –read the gospel passage; St Giles’ choir and organist were joined by an ensemble from The Household Troops Band of the Salvation Army.

Members of Liddell’s family attended the service, along with transition minister Rev Sarah Moore, and pastoral assistant Rev Mary Taylor, who both serve at Morningside United Church, which was created in 1980 through the union of Morningside Congregational Church and North Morningside Parish Church of Scotland.

North Morningside Parish Church’s former building is now home to The Eric Liddell Community, which: supports people living with dementia, including through its flagship day care service; runs a wellbeing programme for unpaid carers; and operates a community hub, including a café and office space for social enterprises and charities.

Busy summer of celebrations

Morningside United Church is still heavily involved in supporting The Eric Liddell Community as part of the congregation’s ministry on “Holy Corner” in Edinburgh.

Saturday’s service kicks off a busy summer of activities at Morningside United Church to remember Liddell.

Two plays linked to Liddell’s story are due to be performed at the church on Saturday 6 July and Thursday 11 July.

BBC Radio 4 will record a special service of hymns and choral music at Morningside United Church between 18:15 and 19:30 on Tuesday 6 August– all singers welcome – which will be broadcast at 08:15 on Sunday 11 August to mark the close of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The Eric Liddell Peace Garden, which has been created behind Morningside United Church’s building, will mark its formal opening at 2-4pm on Saturday 10 August with a garden party.

“Spirit Justice”, an exhibition of 11 paintings by Rev Elizabeth Gray King, a retired United Reformed Church minister, will also be on display at Morningside United Church on 1-25 August, following its time in Aberdeen.

For more information about this summer’s Eric Liddell events, visit www.morningsideunitedchurch.org or www.ericliddell.org