Faith & Reason: `No room at the Dome for Jesus.' Quite right too

Peter Mandelson has assured church leaders that Christianity will be central to his millennial celebrations. Huw Spanner wonders whether that is such a good idea.

There are calls from many quarters for a strong showing of Christianity in the Millennium Experience. "No room at the Dome for Jesus," complains the Daily Telegraph. "Whose millennium is it anyway?" ask others (somewhat disingenuously, since Christ's 2,000th birthday falls in 2001, even if you accept the official birthdate). Even the Bishop of Oxford has joined in.

But the prospect inspires a vague unease. Perhaps it is just a question of context: Christians who regret that religion is listed under leisure pursuits in government surveys of social trends may regret even more if it becomes a "dimension" of a lottery-funded, corporate-sponsored designer celebration of . . . Of what? No one yet knows. What hopes or dreams or New Millennium resolutions the nation is supposed to embrace in Mandelson's Dome remain a mystery. As much of his "vision" as he has so far revealed amounts to "I have seen the future and it's playing surfball."

In any event, how could Christianity be exhibited there? How could you advertise the Celestial City in Vanity Fair? The values that the Dome seems already to embody - style before substance, pleasure before commitment, pride in our own achievements and a good feeling about our selves - stand in contradiction of the values of the Sermon on the Mount. One suspects that Jesus's legacy as interpreted in the Experience would anyway be a matter of the cultural ephemera: from stained- glass windows to "rave" worship.

And what do we mean by Christianity? To the vast majority of people, it is a human construct, a system (or muddle) of beliefs and practices. In that sense, every manifestation of it is authentic, and any account of its impact on our history is dishonest if it does not acknowledge the bad as much as the good. If Christianity is given credit for the building of cathedrals, it must also take the blame for the burning of "witches" (though both were probably as much the product of superstition or local politics as of anything else). Is this historical curate's egg what the faithful want to celebrate?

But Christianity itself claims not to be a human construct but to be truth, single and unchanging though imperfectly understood. On its own terms, it cannot be a mixed blessing, because everything that is wrong (in any sense) is by definition foreign to it: anything or anyone that does not bear good fruit is not truly Christian. This is the account that most believers would want to give - but in the hyped-up atmosphere of the Dome it would sound like so much more corporate PR. And there is another factor to complicate any official celebration of the true essence of Christianity: it is God who judges what is good and what is true, and his judgements are not yet revealed. And no doubt they'll be very different from ours.

Why are people so anxious that the Experience should have a Christian element? One reason, perhaps, is that as we leave the 20th century and the second millennium behind, the feeling will be strong that we are closing a chapter (if not a book) and beginning a fresh one. The dawning of a new age may not have seemed very convincing in the Sixties or the Eighties, but the magic of the number 2000 will create a more powerful illusion. On 1 January that year, even the day before will seem like ancient history; it's the future that will fill our horizons. Christianity can easily be presented in that context as a relic of yesterday, whilst science and technology and the 101 ways we can now amuse ourselves to death can be proclaimed as tomorrow's world.

How, then, can Christians demonstrate that true religion is a thing of the present and the future, where we should go and not just where we have come from? Perhaps the most effective exhibition at the turn of the millennium would be for the churches to sell off everything not essential to the practice of the faith - all the pomp and the palaces and the accumulated treasure of centuries of not obeying the teachings of Jesus - and use the proceeds to write off Mozambique's foreign debt. And perhaps they could do it in 2001. It would give the rest of us a year to observe, once the glittering surface of the new millennium is a little scratched, that human nature never changes. And nor does the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely