George Austin considers the proposals – and counts the cost – of so much Millennium humbug

THE MILLENNIUM bug is, so they say, to be avoided. Actually I should like to avoid the Millennium altogether. The Archbishop of York is taking a vast pilgrimage to the Holy Land and I did toy with the idea of joining him, if only because Israel will be one of the few places on earth which will not be (or at least ought not to be) keeping it. That is, of course, to assume that it is a celebration of 2000 years since the birth of Christ, and that to expect people of the Jewish faith to keep such an anniversary is an example of Christian arrogance – an expectation which is not easy to uphold, given the bending over backwards not to offend which seems to be the hallmark of preparations for it by British church millennium groups. Surely the best way for Christians not to offend Muslims, Hindus, Jews and members of other non-Christian faith groups is not to expect them to take part in a celebration which is meaningless if it is not about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

After all, there is never much hesitation about offending Christians. The latest example is surely the Easter advertising programme, which is so bizarre that even official church spokespersons such as God’s Own Spin-Doctor, our very own Bill Beaver, are distancing themselves from it. It is true that even a cursory reading of the Gospels is enough to convince anyone but the most blind that the picture of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ is a far from the reality. But a rather less cursory examination of the evidence also tells of the choice the chief priests were given by Pilate – to ask for the release of Jesus or of Barabbas, ‘a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city.’ (Luke 23.19) But what of Jesus? ‘They shouted out, “Crucify, crucify him!”‘ It ought to be very odd that a Christian advertising campaign should substitute for the face of Christ one whose very name is associated with insurrection. Still, they made their choice, and nothing is odd in today’s Church of England.

So we have a Millennium Dome which reluctantly has a ‘Spirit Zone’ in which all religious groups can do their own thing; and a prayer – no, I mustn’t describe it as a prayer because we are told it isn’t meant to be – a vaguely nice comment which we are all supposed to recite as 1999 becomes 2000, at the first moment of the new Millennium.

Or is it the first moment? I don’t mean whether or not Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 BC which would mean that new millennium had been with us for at least six years. I mean the constant quibbling about whether it begins on January 1, 2000 or January 1, 2001. Someone the other day argued it on a cricketing comparison, in that a batsman’s first run is one and not zero. Had I known anything much about cricket I could have answered by saying, ‘But his innings began when he went to the crease with no runs to his credit.’ (And if he had been playing for one particular national team whom I hesitate to name, it might have ended there as well.) There is a more obvious way of deflating those who want the Millennium to begin in 2001, however. I am 68 in July, when I shall immediately begin my 69th year. Working back, my first year (and that of Jesus) began not when I (or he) was one year old, but when we were born. In July, I shall have completed 68 years of life, but it will strictly speaking be my 69th birth-day, since the first was the day I was born. So no more of that argument, please.

The Pope has wisely recommended that Christians celebrate the Millennium this year at Midnight Mass, which at least makes it a Christian festival and avoids any association with the drunken shenanigans which will inevitably mark New Year’s Eve. But what of the lighting of a candle as requested by the Churches’ Millennium Committee? On the face of it, it seems a good idea as Jesus is the Light of the World and it would be nationwide reminder of the fundamental Christian basis of the festivities. But there is growing resistance to it both from clergy and lay folk, and many are declaring they will have no part of it.

One good reason for rebelling is surely the cost – a cost which falls upon the churches. The other day a candle manufacturer’s flyer came through the door, offering a minimum supply of 500 candles at £150, so that parishes will inevitably buy more in order not to run out. And small parishes with less than 500 households will either have to combine in the distribution with neighbouring villages or pay out money unnecessarily which they can anyway ill-afford.

What is the total cost? Well, there are in Britain 23.75 million household to be supplied at £300 per thousand – a total cost, believe it or not, of £7.125,000! I do not like the free use of the word ‘obscene’ to describe anything we do not happen to like, but I cannot but call the expenditure of over £7 million pounds on such a gesture as an obscene waste of money which could be put to better use. There really is no other word for it.

But I must not be wholly negative, and I do have a very positive suggestion to make. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, was born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. Instead of such futility, why do not the churches – by which I mean not the committees but the ordinary folk in our churches – decide that they will instead raise at Christmas this year £7 million for charities for the homeless? For Crisis, Shelter and all the other organisations struggling to need the needs of those who have nowhere to lay their heads? And maybe the National Lottery will match this by offering another £10 for every £1 raised by the churches.

Now, long experience of church politics had taught me the bitter lesson that the church establishment always meets reasoned argument with vulgar abuse, so I offer no prize for the first press release comparing me to Judas Iscariot. But when Judas complained that the ointment with which Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus might have been sold and the money given to the poor, it was worth a measly 300 denarii, not £7,000,000. It is not wrong to worship God in a costly manner, but there is cost and there is cost.

If we must keep the Millennium, let us at least make one worthwhile contribution to the festivities.

George Austin is Archdeacon of York.