Anfield: a place of worship

I was settling down to watch Match of the Day last Saturday night (as I normally do) when John Motson caught my attention. In introducing the Liverpool versus Blackburn Rovers match, he said that this week Anfield would become “a place of worship”. He was referring to the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy when 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives. While orthodox Christians might express concern at how football stadia have become the new cathedrals and worship centres of our secular society, it seems highly appropriate that the Liverpool supporters commemorate their sad anniversary by meeting together for a corporate act of remembrance, they did today.

In the post-match analysis, Ray Stubbs asked Alan Hansen, who had been the Liverpool captain at the time of the Hillsborough tragedy, to reflect on the atmosphere at that dreadful day and weeks that followed. Hansen had been deeply affected by the tragedy in 1989, and his questioner sought to be sensitive. “Football seems so unimportant, Alan.” commented Ray. “It’s not important at all,” said Alan. In spite of all the hype, all the money, all the devotion of those of us who follow “the beautiful game”, there are times when football is not important at all. When we are faced with the most bitter experiences of life, we need to know what is, and what isn’t, important.

One thing that is important is being with others who share our sense of loss. To bear the burden of grief alone simply multiplies its weight, to the extent that we risk being totally crushed. Pastoral care is about assuring people that they are not isolated or abandoned in their time of trouble or bereavement. That’s why the practice of many churches to offer a cup of tea and some refreshments following a funeral service can be so beneficial. It provides the opportunity to be together, to know that you are not bearing the burden alone, and to be affirmed by the sympathy and love of others. That’s why Anfield needs to be a place of remembrance for those who still carry the burden of bereavement twenty years on. In the words of the Liverpool anthem, we all need to know that “You’ll never walk alone”.

For Christians, that song takes on added meaning when we remember the words of the psalmist, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” The only reason we can “walk on” is because Jesus Christ, the Risen Saviour, is with us.