By Robyn Douglass
Australians are far more comfortable with the profane than the sacred. But for such a worldly society, we have always taken Good Friday very seriously.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, happens on Good Friday. The highways are empty, except for the last of people fleeing the cities for the long Easter weekend. Where shops are open, employees are paid triple the normal rate. Only Good Friday and Christmas Day merit that.
Good Friday is the one day when churches are busier than pubs.
This year that will change. The Australian Football League (AFL), the nation’s tribal religion, is staging a Good Friday match for the first time ever.
Football codes divide Australia rather like the oil-butter line in Europe. Traditionally, the top half of Australia plays rugby, the bottom half “Australian Rules,” which means gridiron with a lot more running. (AFL) has been trying for a generation, with some success, to rope the unbelievers into the national code.
When a new chief executive took over the multimillion-dollar AFL in 2014, the push was on to stage a Good Friday football match.
In Melbourne, sacred birthplace of the Australian Rules football code, Anglicans spearheaded a long campaign against the move.
Emails and meetings were passionate but respectful. More than 2,000 Anglicans put their names to a petition protesting the move. The Rt. Rev. Philip Huggins, Bishop of Melbourne, and other church representatives met with the AFL’s leaders.
“Change was inevitable,” AFL leaders said.
The churches responded that playing football on Good Friday was not inevitable, but a choice.
“It is God’s Friday and not simply a public holiday,” Bishop Huggins wrote. “We focus on Jesus’ death and what this means for all humanity. Matters of violence, suffering, death, and eternity are there for our reflection. Reflecting on death and eternity, we are taken into considerations of true inevitability.
“Hence the tradition, which is part of our culture, is to keep this day quietly and unlike any ordinary day. That is why cultures develop ‘holy days.’”
The AFL went very quiet until the release of the football fixture late last year. Only one match is scheduled for Good Friday, in the evening. The AFL said a twilight timeslot was chosen “to ensure it did not conflict with major Good Friday afternoon services on the day.”
And as a sweetener, the league will collect donations for the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Bishop Huggins, a self-confessed passionate football supporter, spoke for many when he called it “another win for the relentless and commodifying logic of the market overwhelming all other considerations.”
But while there is collective disappointment, there are unlikely to be any major protests outside the stadium.
Last week, the bishop wrote in his local letter, “As Good Friday approaches, can I just note that we continue to receive requests from church people asking that we do something more to try and discourage the AFL match on Good Friday.
“Some want more deputations, media releases. Others want a protest outside the (Docklands) game, etc.
“To be frank, I have not personally known what to do with these extra requests, having done my best to help you appreciate or re-appreciate the significance of Good Friday as the turning point of human history.
“The sacrificial, generous love of God in Jesus has been a founding spiritual and philosophical basis of our society, and still is. Because of its profound meaning for every life, the Cross of Jesus has inspired some of civilisation’s greatest art, music and most generous lives.”
He said more AFL play on this holy day is “very sad” and quoted Jesus’ observation that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”