Last month an unemployed hairdresser in Wales won nearly $1.75 million on the football pools. Skill had nothing to do with her accurate forecasting of match results: she knew nothing about the game Americans call soccer.

About $500 million is wagered yearly on the pools in Britain. On legal gambling of all kinds, Britons spend annually at least $6 billion—say $106 for each citizen. At a rough guess the comparable figure for Americans is $275, but wages are just about that much higher proportionately to account for the difference.

Someone has called gambling “the growth industry of the 1970s.” New Jersey legislation permitted casino gambling in Atlantic City, with the result that “property taxes quickly soared in the decaying resort city, and … developers planned to spend more than $1 billion for casino-hotel complexes there during the next ten years” (Encyclopedia Britanica).

In 1948 a Lambeth Conference resolution in England drew attention to “the grave moral and social evils” attendant on large-scale gambling; warned that it frequently led to “the deterioration of character and ruin of homes”; urged that no church organization should profit by it; and deprecated “the raising of money by the State, or by any organization through sweepstakes or similar methods, however good may be the object.”

The government was not listening to the bishops, though twenty-six of them sit in the House of Lords, for in 1956 the Conservative administration introduced Premium Bonds. Customers could buy these at any post office. The principal remained intact and was returnable at any time on application. The interest, after a three-month interval during which the government profited, went into a lottery. Maximum prize: about $2,000. At that time a Labour parliamentarian expressed scathing denunciation of the whole wretched business. “Britain’s strength, freedom, and solvency apparently depend on the proceeds of a squalid raffle.” That denouncer in due course became prime minister, and suffered a sad sea change, for he promptly multiplied the biggest prize by five. Squalor is in the eye of the beholder.

Thus did Britain move a step nearer to the national lotteries so beloved of some Continental friends. However Premium Bonds are regarded (and they have not lacked defenders), a word from John Knox has a certain pertinence: “Give the devil entry with his finger, and straightway he will shoot forth his whole arm.”

So it happened. Shortly afterwards, the Betting and Gaming Act gave gambling, according to a Church of Scotland report, “its biggest boost of the century,” with betting shops and bingo halls two of the more spectacular results.

Article continues below

Gambling confronts the Christian with a critical problem. It is not, alas, seen as such by some churches, a substantial portion of whose income depends on their not seeing it. A mass of specious trivialities is trotted out here. They say that the man who gambles is little worse than he who gives money away; that there are moderate gamblers just as there are moderate drinkers—and immoderate book-buyers. Argument on this level with its tacit stress on losses can ultimately prove only that abuse of gambling is wrong, and that the ecclesiastical gamblers have an imperfect grasp of the Christian gospel. Would it be overmuch simplification to suggest that gambling is wrong more for its gains than for its losses?

In his Inventing the Future (1963; a reading of which, with its 1972 sequel The Mature Society, I recommend to all), Dennis Gabor suggests three dangers that confront our civilization: “The first is destruction by nuclear war, the second is being crippled by over-population, and the third is the Age of Leisure.” The first two, he holds, could make life very unpleasant, but people would cope. “Only the Age of Leisure will find man psychologically unprepared.”

A Scottish judge, thinking along the same lines, has described as characteristic of our age the misuse of leisure and the worship of false gods. Gambling is indictable on both counts. It may be, like alcohol, “the quickest way out of Manchester,” but Maurice Maeterlinck would disagree. He calls gambling “the stay-at-home, squalid, imaginary, mechanical, anaemic, and unlovely adventure of those who have never been able to encounter or create the real, necessary, and salutary adventure of life.”

Not only does it discourage more “natural” forms of activity, it tends to become not just a recreation, but the very center of life. Its demands on money and time can be insatiable—and can be heedless of the effects on others. It is certainly gain at the expense of others. It looks not to work, but to chance, for reward, and the man who makes chance his idol is in a moral decline.

Of course this industry gives employment to a vast army of people: betting shops alone in Britain number many thousands. This led to a somewhat bizarre interlude in 1972, when a top lay official on the staff at Church of England headquarters in Westminster attempted his own form of outreach. He helped found the Union of Bookmakers” Employees (TUBE), for which the fraternity showed touching gratitude. Challenged on whether this was the sort of thing the church had hired him to do, he reportedly replied, “It is our duty to help all who seek our assistance—even if they are atheists.”

Article continues below

I recall having trouble with that statement at the time. It seemed to be saying, “No matter what your thing is, let the church help you do it.” And that in turn might prompt the question, Why encourage people to do together what they ought not to be doing at all?

Two years earlier, however, the bishop of a northern England diocese had chaired a meeting in London. Its aim: to keep alive small gambling clubs whose licenses the government might have withdrawn.

Yet a remarkably unequivocal declaration had come some years before that, from William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury for three wartime years. “Gambling,” he said, “challenges that view of life which the Christian Church exists to uphold and extend. Its glorification of mere chance is a denial of the divine order of nature. To risk money haphazard is to disregard the insistence of the Church in every age of living faith, that possessions are a trust, and that men must account to God for their use. The persistent appeal to covetousness is fundamentally opposed to the unselfishness which was taught by Christ.… The attempt to make profit out of the inevitable loss of others is the antithesis of that love of one’s neighbor on which our Lord insisted.”

Now there’s as sound an utterance as ever came out of Canterbury. I would like to think of it as the authentic voice of the Church of England rightly informed.

J. D. Douglas is an author and journalist living in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.