The right reverend

Close Encounter Joanna Briscoe Takes A Vicar To The Millenium Dome
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The Independent Culture
The Millennium Dome may be attracting more sponsors, but its Spirit

Zone is empty. How would a man of the cloth choose to fill it?

The Millennium Dome's problem in finding sponsorship for its religious section has caused many a cynic and captain of industry to polish up a quote. "I say a prayer every night that the next day I will find a sponsor for the Spirit Zone," offers the New Millennium Experience Company's chief executive, in dramatic mode.

But hush, children. Let us return to grass roots. What does a simple man of the cloth have to say on the matter? How does he feel when he is confronted by the theme-parked wasteland that is the Dome after the gentler rhythms of his leafy parish?

In search of a basic vicar to consult on millennial matters, I was offered a series of eager youngsters who wear jeans. This would not do. Nor would the earnest, East End juniors equipped with a sense of the community and cultivated glottal stops. No - as a pagan heretic with a love of Victorian novels, I wanted a proper type of vicar to accompany me to the Far Eastern reaches of London.

Finally, I found the Reverend Tom Devonshire Jones, aged 64, vicar of St Mark's, Regent's Park. "I may not be your man. I'm a bit sort of... lumpen, really," he said in tones seemingly honed in pre-war cloisters. "You can fun me up a bit if you like." In fact, he was so lovely, so movingly game for any surprise the 21st century might throw his way, that I'd have turned down Thomas Becket for the job if he had dropped into my office.

At first I thought I was about to spend the morning with a rabid old dodderer who would view Millennium Domes as monstrous carbuncles. The hallway of Tom Devonshire Jones's towering Primrose Hill house features a clutter of crow-like umbrellas and a floppy cotton sunhat next to a large bag of elastic bands. Patrician fogey vowels greeted me. The spry sexagenarian wore a dog collar, highly polished shoes and the kind of trousers last seen on explorers in Egypt circa 1901.

Confronted by the ghastly building site that is the Dome, from a wind- torn platform on the Docklands Light Railway, I was embarrassed for my nation and era. "I find it very exciting," said the Reverend, taking in the scene through his bifocals as the wind whipped his explorer trousers.

Rev Tom Devonshire Jones was "not really surprised" at the lack of funding for the Spirit Zone, given its theme: "It's very poignant. It requires the greatest wisdom and insight to encompass it. It has to do with the things you can't see and which are implanted in us very deeply and which are of utter importance, but are very often repressed or swept under the carpet - things like our long destination, our hope, our death, our longings."

As a director of the Art and Christianity Enquiry, a body concerned with "the arts as they intersect with religious belief and with theology", Devonshire Jones would recommend the use of interactive and more traditional art to convey spiritual or amorphous ideas: "It's the arts that enable societies to articulate some of these more awkward factors in our existence."

In fact, when confronted by what appears to be a UFO in a building site, the sort of vicar who'd make a splendid Eton chaplain claims: "If they ring for help for the Spirit Zone, I'll be along there. Give them my phone number."

Clutching his umbrella on a windy platform as trains sped in from Canary Wharf, Devonshire Jones was calm in the face of religious indifference in secular times: "I think spiritual matters need to be spoken about in a rather small-scale, homely way, and I'm not sure that they lend themselves to large- scale pronouncements. I think there isn't a slick new method. The scale is immaterial to the believing. God is one who is not dismayed by changes in scale."

As the wind intensified, my solicitous Reverend was most concerned that I was cold. My every enquiry was met by one of his own. If I had been a Jane Austen protagonist, I would have wanted to marry him by now.

"Churches need to sit up," he explained, gazing at the carbuncle. "Historically we've always needed to be reformed and revitalised and given a kick up the backside, or whatever it may be."

More used to giving art slide shows to parishioners than being photographed in Docklands, my Oxford-educated clergyman leapt on to the DLR, raced up escalators and said that he had thoroughly enjoyed his day out.

Frankly, he was more in touch than your average rapper. I felt like a roving evangelist in hope of succour, or a wannabe priestess monitoring his pastoral activities. I was almost moved to dress in calf-length navy needlecord and offer to do the flowers.

Well, almost.