Off on the wrong foot(ball) for Easter

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
7 Apr 2009

Church leaders have been "angrily" criticising the Premier League in England for holding football matches on Easter Sunday, a prime Bank Holiday in the UK. Are they right?

In other cases I'd be the first to join complaints about the greed and self-interest of football's top flight. But to what extent is it reasonable to regard the footballing authorities in Britain as obliged to recognise or observe religious festivals?

The problem goes to the heart of post-Christendom. Under the 'old order', shops closed on Sunday, Christian festivals were public holidays and holy days like Good Friday and Easter Sunday demanded respect and observance not just from the faithful but from everyone. Or else.

In a plural society where the majority are not Christian believers, this is not viable - and the churches, far from witnessing to the Good News, are simply seen by a growing number of people as petty and arrogant for wanting to impose their beliefs on others. So it is not productive either.

New Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols has said that football on Easter Day "prevents" people from going to church to celebrate Christ's resurrection. It does no such thing. I am an ardent football fan, but on Good Friday I will be taking part in the three-hour vigil, and wouldn't be watching my local side Exeter City in action against Brentford if it was then rather than Saturday. Nor would I choose my first footballing love, Dumbarton, over Easter.

If the concern is that "the faithful" will in fact be unfaithful, that is an issue for the churches to address themselves. They cannot expect the rest of the world to close down so that there are no counter-attractions.

The reply of the Premier League to the Archbishop's call for them not to hold matches on Easter Sunday was to point out that they have moved the kick-off time so that games do not "interfere with those going to church". That seems a fair response.

The reaction of someone posting on The Times newspaper's website was: “Is the archbishop offering to close all churches on Saturdays so that they don't interfere with the regular football calendar?”

If Christians want to connect with those who will be filling the stadiums rather than the churches on Sunday, they could do it with some gesture of friendliness and generosity: some Easter eggs, an invitation to a service and social at another point in the day. Isn't that much better than throwing a wobbly, mounting the high horses, and demanding the right to tell people what to do?

The Christendom era during which the church dominated the social and cultural order is coming to an end in Britain. Christians can complain and yell, but it will not impress people. Quite the reverse. The Gospel is commended by good example not by coercion.

When Christ was executed (by a collusion of religion and state, let us not forget), the gospel accounts talk of the veil that separated the temple from the people being torn in two.

Likewise, the deliverance from the restrictions of life lived in the thrall of death realised on Easter Day emphasised that the freedom God gives is not bound by religion, but breaks out of our tombs and threatens our sometimes ghostly existence with resurrection - not regulation.

An open and imaginative response to the demise of Christendom is needed from the churches. They no longer control the terms of engagement with society. This is a cultural shock.

But it is also an opportunity to develop a fresh approach to faith for the twenty-first century: one much closer to the core Gospel message of transformative love than 'institutional religion' ever can be.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He also maintains a football blog at: http://onlyjustoffside.blogspot.com/

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