READY FOR THE MILLENNIUM?

 Rodney Schofield asks some pertinent questions about the churches' preparations for the great day

I DIMLY RECALL in my younger days staying up once to see the New Year in. The clock ticked in its customary, but unmemorable, way, and the occasion was marked chiefly by a short burst of fireworks exploding in a distant garden. I saw no particular reason to repeat such a non-event. Only in Lesotho, years later, did I discover a celebration worth waiting up for: on the stroke of midnight, villagers would come to the doors of their rondavels armed with saucepans and spoons, which they would then strike exuberantly together shouting Happy, Happy, Happy for a good ten or fifteen minutes, the sound echoing up and down the valley.

I remain undecided as to whether to see in the new millennium in a few months' time. People will be partying, they say, and there may be sufficient noise to disturb my sleep. The temptation is to enlist as a waiter or barman for the night, it being rumoured that exceptional demand will hugely inflate the rate of remuneration. If so, will I find my clients making a reverential pause at 11.58 pm to light their church-gifted candles, solemnly saying together the millennium resolution? Knowing how difficult it is at times to get even experienced churchgoers to make appropriate responses, I wonder who will orchestrate what Churches Together in England (CTE) optimistically predict will be "the biggest collective act Britain has ever seen"? Perhaps it will be necessary for folk to be glued to the television, and to take their cue from that? Presumably CTE has enlisted the media's support for its plans, since otherwise I predict a simple countdown to the midnight hour, the raising of glasses and a spontaneous cheer, but rather short shrift for the resolution. In view of its widely perceived inadequacy (no mention of God, as Peter Mullen points out, "It's as if the beanz distributor should have forgotten to add the word Heinz') maybe not too much will be lost?

In my own parish, interest in the millennium is as yet minimal. It is not seen as a particularly significant event. We have dutifully held meetings and discussed ideas, but there is certainly no groundswell of enthusiasm. A questionnaire went out to every household seeking helpful feedback, but the results were disappointingly unimaginative. One man, for example, urged that our priority for the year 2000 should be to clean the mud off the lane that runs past his house. No one wanted to build the new Jerusalem, though new gates for the village hall were mentioned (alas! the village hall committee turned this idea down). I read other parish magazines avidly for signs of life elsewhere, but only a millennium pantomime struck a novel note.

Of course, various local activities will eventually get off the ground. Here we are raising funds for new church buildings in Southern Africa (having also signed the Jubilee 2000 petition and written off to European embassies), helping our church school landscape its grounds to include 'reflective" areas, trying to make our parish church and its contents more accessible to visitors, and devising some stimulating literature for those who may be drawn to our millennial festival. But the reality is, we would probably be doing most of these things anyway within the ongoing mission of the church. None of them (and we have ruled out yet another stained glass window) could convincingly be called a grand New Start for the third millennium.

It is surely at national as much as at local level that things need to happen. In writing his apostolic letter in 1994 Tertio millennio adveniente it seems to me the Pope had a larger vision. He argued that if we are serious about a new age dawning, we must first take a long, hard look at the many features of our existence over the past millennium and acknowledge the failures and wrong turnings we have taken. It is not just a matter, as CTE largely seems to assume, of making new initiatives and seizing, as they put it, "the opportunities presented by the new millennium." To move from what is old and tired, from what may be false or unjust, to what is new and hopeful, creative and true, calls for radical reappraisal of our situation.

The Pope has called for a "purification of memory", in which - along with governments, secular organisations, political and economic institutions - the Church should recall "all those times in history when her children departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel." It is because our memories as individuals are so very short and limited, that the exercise must involve the Church as a body persisting in time and in space. The Church of England has a national memory that needs purification. A radical New Start will require penitence of our bishops and synods, and a national refocusing on Christ's objectives.

This dimension is missing from the millennium resolution. True, it speaks of "forgiveness for past wrongs", but the commentary limits this to individual failures. "This century has seen human suffering and environmental destruction on an unprecedented scale. Some People (it limply continues) may feel the need to say sorry, seek forgiveness, or put right certain wrongs...There is post-modernism in a nutshell: we're all invited to join in a form of words, but only some may 'feel the need' to mean what they're saying!"

Penitence, however, that is but a privatised option has little bearing upon the massive structural sins that still beset us. It is not a matter of some individual people or parishes choosing to make amends over past failures. It is the fact that in so far as we are Anglican Christians we have collectively let our Lord down, and need to be contrite about it. It was said of Nero that he fiddled while Rome burned. We may play some nice tunes in our own localities, but we cannot afford not to attend to the larger scene as well. Catholic Anglicans especially will want to take a serious overview of at least the past five hundred years.

'The approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience and the promotion of fitting ecumenical initiatives, so that we can celebrate the Great Jubilee, if not completely united, at least much closer to overcoming the divisions of the second millennium. It is self-evident to every Christian, and certainly to the Pope, that unity among his followers was dear to our Lord's heart. There is nothing optional about it, and if we want a renewed Church for the third millennium we must as a national church take proper thought about our disunity with other Christians, and implement steps to overcome it.

Firstly, in this era of public confession, the Church of England should apologise for Henry VIII! The rupture with Rome was largely his responsibility, and severed our church from the essential living magisterium which it so badly lacks today. We need to recommit ourselves to a style of living with differences of outlook and temperament, and to resist the temptation to break off talks when disagreements occur. Secondly, we should review the relationship of church and state, and note where we have failed to maintain a distinctive Christian voice. While establishment may still have something to commend it, we should be careful to note how far the moral authority of our church has been compromised by failure to think and speak independently. (A recent example: the archiepiscopal blessings bestowed upon the bombing of Iraq.) Thirdly, we should re-examine those instances where we speak publicly with a different voice from our separated brothers and sisters, as often seems to be the case over issues of human ethics (abortion, contraception, embryo research ...), asking how far we jeopardise the credibility of our common Christian witness. Fourthly, we should look more consistently at the sources of our wealth. Our investments in unworthy causes such as the defence industry and in the export of weapons, not least to oppressive and undemocratic regimes, can too easily leave us compromised in facing the tremendous challenges of justice and human development. Fifthly, we should look to recent events, and regret the precipitousness with which the unilateral decision to ordain women was taken, undoing the patient work of previous decades. We should examine too how far the profession of our faith today is recognisably in continuity with the faith of our fathers, and repent of the excessive latitude sometimes allowed to those who hold office in the church.

Your parish church and mine strive for a celebration worthy of a new millennium. But in a media-driven age our efforts are nothing if nationally the church is not perceived to be living out the Gospel. Can we turn a more urgent eye "in penitence and faith" to how the Church of England moves forward from its first half-millennium?

 

Rodney Schofield is Diocesan Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells.

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