'We can assume that Jesus is in there'
Brendan O'Neill found Christian leaders more confused than celebratory about their messiah's forthcoming birthday party
'Today's crisis of faith is not because of or about the millennium', says the Right Reverend Gavin Reid, Anglican Bishop of Maidstone. 'It is something that has been happening since the 1960s. There has been a growing disdain for traditional religious institutions among many people, and we know that church attendance has fallen during that time.'
Reverend Reid is chairman of the Church of England's millennium advisory group, and has played an important role in discussing what should go in the Millennium Dome's spirit zone. Despite the decline of traditional religion, he argues, there is still room for spirituality in the new millennium. 'There may be a questioning of the relevance of traditional institutions, but at the same time there is a continuing openness to spirituality, which is why we see so many new-age groups. People want to believe in something. Traditional religion may have problems, but religious man is alive and well.'
But what about the idea of a universal truth and Christ's message that only those who follow Him will be saved? Surely that is more important to a senior man of the cloth than just 'wanting to believe in something'? Reid thinks I am being a bit heavy. 'For many the millennium is a good excuse for a party', he says, 'and it is not exclusively Christians who will be invited to the party. Imagine you are a parent: you don't stop celebrating the birthday of one child just because it isn't the other children's birthdays, do you? You let the others join in'.
So that is the role of the Christian church today: not to convince and convert people, but to act as a kindly parent to many 'different' children. 'I'm not saying that', says Reid. 'The millennium is the two-thousandth birthday of Jesus Christ. It is in essence a Christian celebration and other faiths cannot exactly be incorporated into it. But they can help us celebrate.'
At the end of the millennium traditional Christianity has declined as part of a wider loss of faith in society's traditional values. Churches which claimed that they alone knew the 'absolute truth' were never going to fare very well in a post-traditional society where there is no real consensus about what is right or wrong. Reverend Reid talks about 'new spirituality' and people 'wanting to believe in something', but all that shows is that society is more individuated than ever. It is because of this crisis of faith that the spirit zone is such a mess.
Even the Catholic Church has watered down its claim to absolute moral authority. Once calling itself 'the one true, apostolic church', the Catholic Church has now teamed up with the Anglicans and the Methodists to form Churches Together for the Millennium (CTM). But they are careful to point out that this is not an authoritarian body. 'We don't want to impose a way of celebrating the millennium on all Christians', says the Right Reverend Crispian Hollis, Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth and deputy moderator of CTM. 'But we do want to prompt people to remember Christ at this time, as this is his millennium.'
According to CTM's promotional literature, 'It would be wrong to try to impose some central masterplan upon every region and locality. It is far better to allow imagination and energy to explode around the country, and to believe that the churches in every region and neighbourhood could and should find their own ways of bringing home the true meaning of the year 2000 to the communities to which they belong' ('How should the churches in England mark the millennium?').
The Church of England's increasing interest in new forms of spirituality and the Catholic Church's involvement in Churches Together for the Millennium illustrate a move away from Christianity's aim of 'saving humanity' and towards increasing individuation. The emphasis is on how individuals feel about the millennium, not on any collective celebration or positive millennial outlook. So what exactly will be going into the spirit zone? 'I can't tell you', says the C of E's Reverend Reid. 'It has been revealed to us but it's a secret. But do I have a scowl on my face? No, I don't. So we can assume that Jesus is in there.' Reid seems happy that Jesus is in the spirit zone, among, one can only assume, many other things.
As a recovering Catholic I am no fan of Christianity. But I recognise that when Christianity was confident about its message it had the power to lead people, usually by instilling the fear of God into them. Consider the stunning cathedrals across Europe, designed by the best architects of the day and decorated by the greatest artists. Each one of them is testament to an inspiring sense of power and higher purpose, to the old churches' ability to move people. Today, on the eve of Jesus' two-thousandth birthday, all that the Christian churches can manage is a canvas tent and a slightly weird garden. If He hadn't risen from the dead He would surely be turning in His grave.
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999