Sunday, November 29, 1998

Many people, except those with computer programs that can't cope with the change of century, are looking forward to the millennium.

Many people, except those with computer programs that can't cope with the change of century, are looking forward to the millennium. I am sure that in time I will be caught up in the enthusiasm, though for the moment I remain much as I do at the start of each new year not quite certain why an artificial date on a calendar is so important.

Nowhere is the excitement likely to be greater than in Britain which seems to be ahead of most countries in its planning. All sorts of events are planned or envisaged. In fact, already in 1993 when the English National Lottery was established it was accompanied by a resolution that 20% of its profits would be used for projects connected to the millennium. I don't know what the new government feels about the event. But the Conservative government saw it initially as of only secular interest marking the change of a century. However, the Church of England pointed out with some vigor that the millennium is a specifically Christian reminder that over the years England's fortunes have been tied to the Christian faith and the Christian church. On behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt.Rev Gavin Reid, Bishop of Maidstone and chairman of the Church of England's Millennium Commission, met with Prime Minister Major and the Government Commissioner. The leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faiths were consulted. These leaders spoke with one voice in affirming the millennium as a uniquely Christian observance. One Sikh leader even suggested on BBC Radio that Britain would be better served if, rather than building a proposed Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames, a statue of Jesus Christ would be raised on the spot! So the churches are organizing all sorts of events from a nation-wide bell-ringing at mid-day January 1,2000 to nationally televised church services.

A position paper issued by ‘Churches together in England’ states, ‘The Churches recognize that the history of Christianity contains times when Christians have brought suffering to others, not least to people of other faiths. Attention will be given during the millennial period to appropriate ways in which repentance can be expressed.’

One of the most interesting initiatives - which seems to bring together religious and secular concerns - has been set in motion by Hari Shukla, a Hindu whose imaginative work to improve race and ethnic relations in the Newcastle area was described by him in Portland a few years ago. It is to hold a three-day Millennium International Conference there next June. The plans for the conference were recently unveiled by its co-ordinator Bill Midgley, chief executive of Newcastle Building Society. The theme is ‘Spiritual regeneration and the millennium.’ The aim is ‘to help halt the widespread decline in moral and spiritual values and to restore in every aspect of public and private life respect for others, their property and their beliefs.’ Leaders from different world religions are being invited, and morality in a multi-faith society is one of the topics for the first day when Britain's chief rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, will be the lead speaker. The second day will examine the links between the breakdown in family life and society and Cardinal Basil Hume is expected to give the keynote. The third day will will discuss the responsibilities of the business community to society as a whole. This Newcastle conference is being held two years ahead of the millennium to get people now thinking about what they can be doing. There will then be a feedback conference in the year 2000 to hear reports of what positive changes have occurred. Midgley says, ‘A lot of people out there are saying, 'I want to do something, but what can I do.' This conference shows them what they can do. It will change attitudes and stir people into action.’ The main Newcastle daily, The Journal, headlined the announcement of this conference, ‘Move to lift all our spirits.’ The paper wrote, ‘Be it a Ferris wheel by the Thames, a footbridge over the Tyne, or a 60ft angel guarding Gateshead, Britain is building for the millenium. But a group of North-East pioneers thinks that bricks and mortar are the wrong building materials. They think the millennium generation should be shaping something much more valuable - the human spirit.’

This commentary was first broadcast on KBOO Portland (Oregon).