The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Basil Hume, signed a statement stressing that the year marking the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus's birth will begin earlier.
"For hundreds of millions of Christians throughout the world ... the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ will begin on Christmas Eve 1999," the statement reads.
Until now, Churches Together in England (CTE), the umbrella body co-ordinating the churches' millennial celebrations, have concentrated on their so-called "Millennium Moment". But the CTE presidents, which include Dr Carey and Cardinal Hume, have now suggested that just before midnight on New Year's Eve, people should put down their glasses, light a candle and read a "resolution" which makes no reference to God or Jesus.
The resolution, which is in the form of a prayer, comes with a candle and a candleholder and will carry a label which reads: "This is a gift from the local churches to mark the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ." The proposal has been greeted with considerable scepticism from Christians and non-churchgoers alike, who say they will be focusing on Christmas and drinking respectively.
Yesterday's statement was an attempt to quash criticisms of the "Millennium Moment"and continues: "It is not a substitute for Christian worship, nor is it exclusively Christian. Rather, what it does is to underline the importance of spiritual and common values in an increasingly secular age and we are delighted that the Government and other political and faith leaders have responded so positively to it."
The other two presidents of CTE, the Moderator of the Free Churches' Council, the Rev Baroness Richardson, and Rowena Loverance, of the Religious Society of Friends, also signed the statement, the emphasis of which follows the line already taken by the Pope.
Last November Pope John Paul II issued a papal bull in which he also decreed that the year 2,000 will begin on Christmas Eve 1999. The beginning of the "Jubilee" year will be marked by the opening of the holy door in Rome, and run until the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January 2001, he said.