Meanings of Christmas: Take a time-trip outside the Dome

To reflect more truly on the past millennium, turn your back on Mr Mandelson's extravaganza and study the panorama along the Thames
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The Independent Culture
BRACE YOURSELF for the Year of the Millennium - and for a twelvemonth of intensifying babble about the Dome! "Imagine What We Can Do Tomorrow" was the slogan launched in the Christmas Eve advert for the pounds 800m project, paid for by the National Lottery. It was a genuflection to the Dome's theme of Time, as were the Easter Island statues which figured prominently in its summary of world history since the last millennium.

It was an unfortunate choice; the Easter Island statues witness to some centuries of genocidal warfare and ecological destruction even before they were "discovered". More than that the rest of the "millennial landmarks", chosen by focus groups, are equally arbitrary or banal.

The Dome has attracted a certain bitchiness; especially sharp is the epithet, adapted from Susan Sontag, "Bad enough to be funny, but not bad enough to be fun". Ouch! But the churches have perhaps been unwise in joining in the grumbling. For it uncannily recalls an earlier Dome Project, in which the Jubilee of 1500 was celebrated with similarly extravagant display. That too was paid for by the gullible, seeking time off from purgatory for cash. Indulgences - an outcome tax rather than an income tax - did for Christendom what the Poll Tax did for Margaret Thatcher. For the 16th-century dome was the new St Peter's in Rome.

Not that Protestants can afford to be smug about that. The Archbishop of York moved on to dangerous ground with his complaint that the Dome is out of keeping with Christian humility, baby Jesus, the manger etc. Well, I love York Minster, but it bears few manger-like features, and not even Peter Mandelson would have aspired to the splendours of the archbishop's official residence.

The problem is this, both Churches and Domers suffer the same propensity to deny the reality of power in history. So let's take an alternative time-trip, starting from the hill in Greenwich above the Dome. Down the hill stands the Queen's House, built by Inigo Jones for James I, the creator of Protestant Britain and perhaps the most theological British monarch. The English Bible rightly bears his name. He memorably engaged in learned dialogue with the Jesuit Henry Garnet, who had been tortured half to death for his alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot. It's rugged stuff, theology, when power is involved.

Looming beside it is the double-domed perfection of Wren's Royal Naval Hospital. The need for it is plain from the nearby monument to General Wolfe, Victor of Quebec; he, Clive and others annexed a quarter of the globe in the mid-18th century, but only from the French, so no harm done. But it was all done under cover of a rather noisy Protestantism. Yes, Ian Paisley is an historical relic, but he is a genuine one - these things once mattered.

But the conflicts of power had moved away from religion into the arena of economics. Beyond the river is the Isle of Dogs. Once its docks were central to the global wealth of the British Empire. That may have vanished but it is still a symbol of the secular nature of power in contemporary Britain. For standing like an exclamation mark over the new Docklands is the great tower of Canary Wharf. Here is the greatest concentration of the media in Britain, from the mighty Telegraph to the smaller but perfectly formed Independent. Here also are merchant banks and advertising agencies through which pass financial flows which make millions of people richer, and other millions poorer. This, rather than the Dome, is the symbol of our future world. For here, without noise or movement, churns away all that melee of ambition and principle, ruthlessness and sympathy, greed and conviction that makes humanity what it is - and which the Dome so smugly masks.

It is all much less religious than in previous eras - but not necessarily less moral. In the days when the Churches had real power, they responded to current exigencies no less ruthlessly than some tenants of Canary Wharf do now. This needs to be remembered now that the Churches are spectators trying to be referees.

It is in response to that changed reality that the Churches have produced a Millennium Resolution (see below) which has been widely mocked - for it fails to mention either God or that Jesus Christ who is supposedly the object of Millennial attention. But it is realistic to do so. The churches have planned numerous celebrations for the faithful of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. But the Resolution appeals to a universal audience, and gets it about right. It has sharp convictions about shared values, and the right kind of humility in acknowledging that these are not the exclusive property of the Church.

The stark fact is this. The coming Millennium will see a continuing decline in the power of Church-as-Referee. But society will negotiate its own deals with power, and will likely do so no worse than did Christendom. And, if Christians will hold influence rather than enjoy privilege, that is witness enough to their faith. So take your time-trip in Greenwich Park and read the churches' desire for the Millennium against the turbulent panorama below:

Let there be

Respect for the earth

Peace for its people

Love in our lives

Delight in the good

Forgiveness for past wrongs

And from now on a new start.

John Kennedy is political affairs secretary of the Methodist Church

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