franciscan - September 1999
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999
An historical moment?
by Martin Wroe
Martin Wroe surveys millennium attitudes and considers possible responses to the Churches’ candle project. He points out that there is another initiative that God has ‘slipped in’ which ‘could change the world for ever . . . which was what the Millennium was started for.’
The Millennium: an historical moment? Well, it is a bit of a one-off. But let’s not get carried away. Many of us will not be that bothered. Certainly not for long before or after. Some of us will sleep through it.
Historic moments are two-a-penny in our patch of history, a patch which rarely sees itself as part of an entire patch-work: Berlin Wall down, apartheid over, Tories out, Man United winning the treble, man on moon, baby grown in tube, woman celebrating eucharist, Princess killed in crash, animals cloned, hereditaries kicked out, the dead frozen . . . We are up to our contact lenses in history: we have got round-the-clock news, fifteen-minute updates, video-arcade wars, history coming at us from our screens twenty-four hours a day.
But you only get millennia every . . . well, work it out at home. And if it is anything then a millennium
is a Christian event, or at least, it has a Christian connection: it’s a moment in time which exists only because
of a Christian calendar. It’s a reminder that Christianity is history, if you see what I mean. But there’s always
the chance that the Millennium is not anything (other than computer hell).
This will be a ‘gift from the churches to the whole community’, the Pilgrim Post – shouldn’t that be E-Mail Epistle? – the publication of Churches Together in England reassures the understandably worried faithful that, ‘The design of the candle has been carried out with the safety factor in mind. . .’ Now there’s a symbol in a symbol: the Christian element in the epoch is to be captured by something bright but definitely harmless (can you have a safe fire?; is God snuffed out so easily?).
I suppose what the Churches are doing here is making a statement to ‘the world’ which is merrily going ahead with marking the sacred date with parties and discos and television and food and fireworks and domes and sleeping around. Actually, one of my friends is talking about going to his cottage in the country for his Millennium Moment. I think he wants to get away from the Millennium. Perhaps he thinks the Millennium is an urban thing, some kind of sample, anyway. He hasn’t decided it isn’t a Christian moment – he probably thinks it is if you are a Christian. But it is not for him because he is an atheist. He will light a candle – to eat his New Year’s Eve dinner by.
The Church wants to emphasize the Christian significance of the Millennium to make sure that if anyone gives it a meaning, it should be the company of origin. When I was younger, I would get very excited at news of someone culturally significant - say Bob Dylan - announcing he was following Jesus. I’m still chuffed when reading a novel to discover subliminal Christian themes. When you believe something to be true – and yet your fellow believers, lovely lot that they are, seem to represent a beleaguered, antiquated, diminishing community who appear incredible to the majority – it is a tonic when a cultural icon comes off the bench and joins your team. He’ll score, just watch, that’ll show the world, we’ll beat them yet!
Something like this is happening with the Millennium. The Church has found an ‘historic’, unmissable, culturally universal event which it can legitimately brand ‘Christian’. It’s ours! Copyright God! If you want to use it properly, you’d better use it like us. Any other uses – parties, etc. – are, unfortunately, a form of piracy.
Culture Secretary – and Christian – Chris Smith, endorses the Millennium Candle as a ‘symbolic gift from Christian communities throughout the country to mark the anniversary of the birth of Christ.’ But is the signal that the symbol is supposed to send the same signal that our third Millennium AD public will receive? Back to my Exit Poll. I asked another friend, a hard-nosed, allegedly unreligious quality-newspaper journalist, what he thought of getting a candle through the door and a prayer from the Church. ‘It would depend on the pre-publicity’, he said. If he knew what it was about, he might well light the candle - ‘not for reasons of religious belief, but because I think that what’s happening to the Millennium is coarse and commercial, it would be a sort of protest candle.’ But he won’t be saying the prayer or resolution and he won’t be sitting down with his partner and reflecting on his life. ‘It won’t make a great deal of difference to me.’
The symbolic approach to the Millennium is a good one – it doesn’t rule out the others, like the hedonistic ones – but at the same time the candle is a symbol many people won’t read. The same is true of the watered-down prayer posing as a ‘resolution’. It feels a bit too New Labour, something that looks more like spin than substance.
If the Church is struggling to varnish the Millennium with a coat of meaning, the politicians are struggling too. In a culture largely uninterested in the Christian story other millennial meanings are being offered. Where the Church throws God at the problem, the great and good throw money at it.
Like many of the celebrations planned, the Millennium Dome was conceived as something big, bigger, biggest. It suffers from the problem of attempting to represent a so-called date with destiny by resorting to size. In the absence of a potent symbol to mark the Year 2000, we resort to the colossal. As the preacher is reputed to have written in the notes of his sermon: ‘Argument weak here, shout.’ I know you’re bored with hearing this again but, apparently, after the first millennium, there was a ‘flowering’ of great cathedrals in Europe. The Dome is a kind of secular cathedral, big enough for a big idea to live in, even though no-one agrees whether a big idea exists anymore. And of course in a pre-modern, vertically-inclined era, cathedrals would point to the sky; while in our horizontal time, the surface of the Dome searches far and wide but nowhere has a particular point.
If the British Government can throw money at the absence of millennial meaning, the French, in contrast, can be ironic. They are marking the moment by getting the Eiffel Tower to lay an enormous, luminous egg on New Year’s Eve. It will crack open to reveal hundreds of television screens relaying images of millennial festivities from around the world. That’s a patent symbol – if an unintentional one – of many of the Millennium celebrations we read about. In the absence of a meaningful understanding of the epoch, we resort to filming everyone else’s meaningless interpretations. Substance through style. Voila!
By comparison, the Churches’ candle and resolution and squabbles over pre-eminence in the Faith Zone, can seem a little desperate, scrabbling round for an argument to prove my Millennium is more meaningful than yours – but looking instead, just a lot cheaper.
The candle is a low-key, unthreatening, slightly-embarrassed English approach for the Christian community to try and engage with people who they take not to be Christian – in a buttock-clenching, leg-crossing, teeth-grating sort of way. I don’t think I could give a candle and the Millennium Resolution to friends, I’d rather go to the Dome with them.
It is in relationships of trust and respect that someone finds themselves having doubts about their unbelief, wondering if they are as apathetic about their sense of ennui as they used to be, accidentally waking up to find they are on the side of Jesus, when before they were on the side of not really thinking about it too much at all.
It is a sign of the Church’s lack of internal connectedness that it is still struggling to come up with Christian significances for the Millennium when it has already invented by far the most potent.
The Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel unpayable debts of poor countries and liberate a billion people from economic slavery was slipped to some Christians by God when no-one else was listening. Now here’s a bonfire, not a candle, and the flames are being fanned. It’s a Christian inspired campaign that people of all faiths and none can join with. It could change the world for ever, which is what the Millennium was started for.
Funnily enough, my journalist friend spotted this: ‘It’s what old lefties like me call a campaign by the Christian front; admirable,’ he laughed, ‘I like it . . .’ §
Martin Wroe is a freelance journalist, long employed by The Observer on culture and religion. Until recently, he was Chairman of the Greenbelt Festival.
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