Arguments for Easter: The football crowd comes to Calvary: Our series of articles for Holy Week is continued by the Bishop of Edmonton, the Right Rev Brian Masters, who seeks to make space for the sacred in a world of satellite television

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The Independent Online
AT MIDDAY today churchgoers across the world will commence their commemoration of the death of Christ. At Tottenham in North London, Spurs will kick-off against Norwich City.

In chapels, churches and cathedrals committed congregations will trace the last few hours in the life of their Lord, while at White Hart Lane the footballing faithful will chart their club's fortunes as the Premier League season begins to draw to a close.

The match here caused much controversy in the local community. For the Spurs' ground is faced on two sides by churches which will be hard pressed to recall the Crucifixion in a reflective and reverent way. To be fair, Tottenham Hotspur are not the only team taking to the turf today. At Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace will take on Wimbledon, while in the north Sheffield United will play Manchester City. These Good Friday fixtures will bring noise and nuisance to the neighbourhood on the most solemn day in the Christian calendar.

If all this sounds like one more bishop bemoaning the fact that Christianity can no longer command a crowd, I hope you will bear with me. My footballing credentials cannot be questioned. I have supported Aston Villa for 50 years, since the day when the name first caught my imagination in a radio announcement on the Home Service. I know the power and pull of a football fixture from personal experience and more than once I have rushed home from a service to catch the tail-end of a game.

Indeed one may regard this development as a welcome opportunity to recapture the awful reality of that first Good Friday which is so often rarefied and idealised in the context of church celebrations. The sounds of baying crowds, the dirt and sweat, were all firm features of that crucifixion on Calvary. Jesus sought no protection or escape from the ugly attitudes and angry insults that accompanied him to the Cross.

But as the Evening Standard recently argued, the match is 'a metaphor for modern Britain and the choices we face about the sort of society we wish to become.' For what is at stake is not simply the undermining of one of the most important days in the Christian year but the capacity of society to find any space for the sacred.

Today we are overwhelmed with words and inundated with images as never before. The acceleration in communications technology has been incredible and day by day we face a battery of words and pictures. It is no coincidence that the financial pressures of lucrative satellite broadcasting contracts will have enticed some football clubs on to the pitch this afternoon.

So we now have to deal with all kinds of mixed messages. The very volume of information and entertainment opportunities blurs the distinction between the essential And the ephemeral. And as is so often the way of the world, the one who shouts loudest, or which appears the most attractive option, carries the day. Until we find a way to be still, to sift the good from the bad, our society will remain submerged in its confusions.

In recent weeks it has been generally acknowledged that we have reached something of a crisis point. The tragic deaths of James Bulger in Liverpool and Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry in Warrington have become icons of an indifferent world, ugly evidence of a moral malaise to which politicians, priests and indeed poets have been addressing themselves. Recently, one national newspaper columnist accused the people of the Church of behaving 'like scurrying beetles under an upturned stone in the sunlight, finding that their message is suddenly relevant.'

To the thousands of football fans engrossed in their club's fortunes at White Hart Lane this afternoon, there is, I suspect, little recognition that the Church's message is suddenly relevant - save the possibility that a few quick prayers at half-time may attracts divine intervention. No, football is their religion, footballers their priests, White Hart Lane their church, and the FA Cup their heaven. Why? Because the Church has often made it impossible to express faith without a surfeit of words or a surplus of syllables. The Church speaks a different language.

The temptation to add to the volume of words and wisdom is considerable. But Christians might find their contribution to the debate best advanced by keeping their sentences short. Some of the most enduring of moral teachings - the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes - are distinguished by their brevity and precision. None more so than the Seven Last Words from the Cross.

The last seven words Jesus uttered from the Cross have been deeply embedded in the Christian consciousness, since they first started to circulate. These words have been central to the celebration of Good Friday, more so since the 17th century when the Three Hours' Devotion was established in Lima in Peru and they became an essential ingredient of popular piety.

This week I am celebrating Holy Week at a parish in East Finchley and urging those who have come to meditate on their meaning. 'Father, forgive them', 'Today you will be with me in Paradise', 'Woman, behold your son', 'My God, why have you forsaken me', 'I thirst', 'It is finished', 'Into your hands I commend my spirit'. They are all words that the world badly needs to hear - words of forgiveness, of promise, of empathy, of assurance, of hope, of trust.

They are words that point us to the Word, which became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And, indeed, if we are to behold his glory, the glory of God, in this generation, and recapture that clarity of vision for service and self- sacrifice that Good Friday so supremely stands for, it will require a new spirit of co-operation and collaboration amongst us: an enterprise that will enable young and old to discern and distinguish the essential from the ephemeral, the holy from the harmful - in theological shorthand, right from wrong. The time has come to kneel quietly at the foot of the Cross and listen.