Faith & reason / Cosmic time and the millennium dome

A plastic German dome or a fibre-glass American one - was that really the most important decision for our celebration of the coming millennium ?, asks Elaine Storkey.
We are apt to get time out of perspective. It can easily become a commodity, measured out with minute digital precision and for sale at the market price. A psalm in the Bible gives us a very different viewpoint. It tells us that in God's sight a thousand years are like a day that has just gone or like a watch in the night. So a generation passes like a lunch break. Five centuries becomes half a night shift. And we recognise again that beside cosmic time we are very small. We are, in the words of the Psalm of Moses, like grass that springs up new in the morning and withers by evening.

Yet the point of this recognition is not so that we see ourselves as without significance or our time as merely trivial. It is rather that, like the psalmist, we should learn to approach each day with a deeper perspective and gain a heart of wisdom. Without a sober approach to time we are likely to be foolish.

Perhaps it is this sense of time and its implications which was missing this week in Peter Mandelson's outline of the Millennium celebrations. For they seem self-evidently trapped in the values of our present era, and consequently could well be foolish. As these thousand years draw to a close Britain is producing a dome, a tent-like structure which is to be the site of a wonderful end-of-Millennium "experience". We are assured that the construction, which will still be expensive but apparently somehow not so temporary as it was going to be before the election - American fibre-glass rather than German plastic - now has the blessings and support of all the Cabinet.

It is not yet clear what the promised "experience" will turn out to be, but since the capacity of the dome will be well below 60 million, many people will just see it on television. Supporters could of course argue that the Mandelson vision has parallels with the biblical one; a thousand years becoming a day, embodied in the tent-like structure of the pilgrim. But somehow it lacks the scope and depth which God and Moses put together.

I find it odd anyway that we should think we can commercially produce any experience appropriate for the ending of a thousand years. For these have been an amazing thousand years, from before the Norman Conquest. They have even been historically recorded, giving us access in Britain to our own long past. There have been great epochs and movements: the Norman era, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Victorian and Modern, all bring their own character to the Millennium. Our language and literature spans vast eras: Chaucer, Tyndale, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Austen, Dickens, Churchill and thousands of others spill their words into our lives in chronicles, poetry, novels, memoirs and biography. Architecture has its own legacy: Gothic, Classical, Georgian and Victorian buildings shape our towns and cities.

Through the long centuries we see the unfolding of lives, relationships, struggles, wars, politics, law, poverty, wealth, art, music, science, technology. And underlying them all is our attitude to God, our human response to the great biblical narratives in the faith and philosophy of a thousand years. Can this really all be brought to a millennium experience?

Hardly, and that is why we know that Claire Short, now silent but eloquent, was right. We would be far better spending the money on alleviating world poverty and hunger as a more effective celebration. For the real millennial task, as set out by the Jubilee 2000 campaign, is the cancellation of the debt of the poor. These campaigners have heard the Old Testament theme of Jubilee, forgiving debt and offering hope, as one of God's purposes with us. And, since over the last two centuries we have often unfairly benefited from some of those very countries now in debt, it would be a fitting act of remembrance as well as of mercy. Alongside their needs the plans outlined this week seem just a little self-indulgent.

So we have these two perspectives. One puts a thousand years into an experience which has some relationship with a dome. Another involves the God who, to quote the psalmist, has been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Heeding God's call to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly must be the best way to mark the end of this millennium. And it would help us put time more soberly in the context of eternity.