Can football grounds be sacred places?

(Photo: Unsplash/Edgar Chaparro)

As the controversy over Norwich Cathedral installing a helter skelter and Rochester Cathedral hosting a crazy golf course rumbles on, I've been wondering whether only religious buildings can be sacred.

Earlier this summer I christened a baby in a font that has been used for baptisms for around 900 years. I reminded the congregation of this history at the Hertfordshire church where I conducted the service.

The church in Sandridge, just north of St Albans, has been at the heart of its community for all those centuries, a sacred place for regular worship, and for baptisms, weddings, funerals for generations.

But this month also saw the beginning of the Championship football season, and on a recent Saturday I watched my team, Brentford, lose 1-0 at home to Birmingham in a frustrating match. We had all the possession and numerous chances but were defeated by the visitors' only shot on goal.

This was more than just any match. The fixture was the first in the west London club's final season at Griffin Park, its home since 1904. Next season 'the Bees' will be playing at their new multi-million pound stadium down the road at Kew Bridge.

It's a well-known quiz answer that Brentford's ground is the only one with a pub on each corner, but for Bees fans Griffin Park is much more special than its watering holes.

Emotions will be running high as the season counts down. Peter Gilham, the stadium announcer for the past 50 years and deservedly known as 'Mr Brentford' has been encouraging fans to share their memories of the ground.

Not just about the highs and lows of promotions and relegations, cup wins and losses, but about the people who have been with them as they watched Brentford play over the years, loved ones who have died or moved away.

An aerial view of Griffin Park(Photo: Peter Crumpler)

Because football grounds, like churches and cathedrals, are places of family, of community. Places where three generations, or more, can come together for a shared experience that transcends any other difference they have.

The son whose father introduced him to the noisy enthusiastic terraces at Griffin Park decades ago now brings his own son or daughter to matches. Grandads bring their grand-daughters. Deep, life-long friendships have been forged in the stands. Fans who now live across the world will be returning to Griffin Park during this last season.

Much in this upcoming part of west London, close to where Sky has built its HQ, has changed. The Thames riverside church where I was christened has been converted into luxury flats. The struggling mission church I attended in my 20s is now a thriving Hindu temple. My primary school was demolished and is now housing.

But Griffin Park has stood proud through these changes, and been a special, perhaps sacred place to generations of football fans. A place of worship, a place of celebration, of family, of community, a cauldron of emotion, disappointment, joy and frustration. And yes, football fans are not angels all the time.

I look forward to watching Brentford play at the new stadium, with more legroom, better facilities and superior views of the pitch. Maybe I'll soon be watching Premier League football there. But a piece of my heart will remain at Griffin least until the bulldozers move in.

I rejoice in the passion and community I've seen and been part of at Griffin Park over many decades.

Yet, as a Church of England priest, I also wonder what the Christian church can learn from football grounds - including about reaching new people and sharing our faith down through generations...

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a Brentford FC season ticket holder.