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Spirit-free zone

Frank Furedi looks into the hole at the heart of the millennium celebrations

It is far easier to build a Millennium Dome on an empty bit of wasteland than to do something about Britain's spiritual wasteland. Building a monument is the easy part. But a monument to what? Just pose the question and the absence of a vision that could inspire society becomes evident. That is why the management of the Millennium Dome is having so much difficulty working out a spiritual message for its project.

Since its inception many people have expressed concern about what the Dome will stand for. How would the Dome's promoters portray the image of Britain? Traditionalists were up in arms last December after the Dome organisers expressed reservations about creating a strong British image. The critics were apprehensive that marginalising British history and tradition could undermine the identity of the nation. In contrast, the Dome team took the view that union flags and historical pageants would send the wrong signals by stressing Britain's imperial past, instead of projecting the image of Cool Britannia rebranded for the next millennium.

Since the beginning of 1998 church leaders and theologians have also expressed anxieties about the role that Christianity would have in the Dome's celebration of the millennium. From the outset the advocates of the Dome have stressed that their project would provide an opportunity to celebrate spirituality. However, such vague talk of spirituality disturbed many church leaders, who feared that the trendy promoters of the Dome would come up with some fashionable new-age formula. The Right Reverend Gavin Reid, Bishop of Maidstone, who chairs the archbishop's millennium advisory group, is happy enough to have officials waffling on about spirituality, so long as 'that is not a substitute for content which is clearly Christian'.

At a January 1998 meeting of Anglican bishops, church leaders were relieved to hear Peter Mandelson, the minister in charge of the Dome, give assurances that the impact of Christianity on Western civilisation would be a central theme of the celebration. But unease remained. As far as the Anglican leaders were concerned, the celebration of the millennium, which after all is a Christian festival, had to have significant Christian content. At the same time, however, recognising that British society is no longer composed only of Christian people, the bishops warned the Dome organisers against offending other faiths or acting as if only Christianity mattered.

It is difficult to imagine how the promoters of the Dome are going to create a Christian festival that also embraces other faiths. Perhaps that is why they have avoided tackling the issue.

The promoters of the Dome have preferred to discuss the design, as opposed to the content, of the so-called spirit zone. The original proposal for the spirit zone placed great emphasis on meditation and reflection as opposed to formal religious worship. The zone was to be housed in an imposing glass and steel pyramid, containing a Christian monastic cloister, a Japanese Zen garden and a Muslim garden. These attractions were promoted on the grounds that they would give punters an opportunity to 'experience a moment of peace' to 'reflect on our deepest common beliefs'. What these 'common beliefs' might actually be was presumably left to the advertising agencies to work out.

By the summer of 1998 it became clear that the spirit zone was in deep trouble. A monument ostensibly devoted to the celebration of human spirituality served only to draw attention to the moral malaise afflicting society. In August it was revealed that nobody had come forward to sponsor this eclectic mishmash of designer/DIY spirituality. Church leaders were clearly embarrassed by the lack of commercial interest in the enterprise. Bishop of Whitby, the Right Reverend Gordon Bates, told Christian churches to 'get off their backsides' and find the £12 million to build the spirit zone.

In the end the first serious offer of cash for the spirit zone came from a Hindu charity, when the Hinduja brothers pledged £1 million in October 1998. The Hinduja brothers explained that their gesture was motivated by the ideal of promoting multicultural understanding. The Bishop of Maidstone preferred to put a different spin on the episode, saying how heartened he was that people of other faiths were prepared to recognise the millennium as 'the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ'.

The organiser of the Dome project, the New Millennium Experience Company, claims that it was difficult to get sponsorship for the spirit zone because 'there is not an obvious commercial link'. But big corporations often finance projects with no direct commercial links if they think that it will boost their public image. The problem is that being associated with a mishmash of Zen Buddhist gardens and Christian cloisters is not exactly the image that most companies want to acquire. Indeed it is the very incoherence of the spirit zone concept which explains its lack of appeal to the commercial world. And it is not only business that has remained indifferent to this project. The spirit zone has failed to capture the imagination of even the small minority of practising Christians.

The lack of financial support for the spirit zone has now forced the organisers to scale down the project, from a glass and steel pyramid to a canvas tent. This change of design has been justified on technical grounds - apparently the proposed pyramid was so heavy that it would fall into the Blackwall Tunnel - but it is more likely that the decision was influenced by the absence of moral and financial underpinning for the project.

The absence of any serious debate around the embarrassing saga of the spirit zone indicates a reluctance to tackle the real issue at stake. The profound moral malaise which afflicts Britain cannot be overcome through a Millennium Dome-type publicity stunt. The attempt to bypass the issue by appealing to a diffuse sense of spirituality merely exposes the lack of any vision that can inspire the public. Spirituality means nothing unless it is attached to a set of concrete beliefs and values. Human beings are not spiritual in some general sense. Such sentiments come to the surface only in relation to an outlook which moves people. That spirit can assume a religious or a humanistic form. But whatever the case, it is not enough simply to believe - it is necessary to believe in something.

Without beliefs that inspire, spirituality can only exist in a fragmented and highly individualised form. This is why numerous new-age religions and fashionable cults can flourish. But the answer they appear to provide is about 'how to find yourself' or how to survive, not how to find a higher purpose in life. From this perspective spirituality means nothing more than a reflection on the self, and certainly not on a god. It is spirituality in form, but self-obsession in content.

Many established church leaders have jumped on the bandwagon of the 'me, me, me' spirituality. Earlier this year, the Bishop of Salisbury informed the public that henceforth at Church of England funerals mourners will be encouraged to place teddy bears or favourite books on coffins and to talk about their feelings. This post-Diana gesture assumes that people talking about themselves - rather than paying their respects to the deceased - is what spirituality is about. It seems that even the act of mourning together now needs to be punctuated by a session of highly individualised therapy.

The moral malaise is the product of a variety of complex influences. However, as the experience of the spirit zone indicates, Britain's political, cultural and religious elites lack the conviction to tackle the problem. They prefer to evade the issue through meaningless rhetoric about spirituality or multiculturalism, and are scared of asking what society should really be about. One suspects that they are not merely being evasive. It is more than likely that they themselves are not too sure about what to believe in these days. If they were honest they would call their canvas tent a spirit-free zone.

Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999



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