But before we get totally carried away with thoughts of the next century, what hopes and fears do you have for 1998?
For the Government, the honeymoon will be over. New Labour will have to accept responsibility for the economic realities, instead of blaming someone else. It will no longer be possible to lay the blame for the inadequate levels of welfare benefits at the door of previous administrations. Tony Blair will have to face the music from voters who didn’t expect to find students being charged tuition fees, mothers being pressurised to go out to work and place their children in state provided childcare (as in the Soviet Union of old) and the disabled bearing the pain of balancing the social security budget.
The PM will have to take some decisions, like recommending that Her Majesty appoints a new Bishop of Liverpool. It is all very well being negative and asking for more names. Playing to the gallery and criticising someone else’s choice earns easy applause, but when the PM has to be positive and choose a name – that will be a different story. We wait with bated breath to see whether Liverpool will get an evangelical in the tradition of J C Ryle – or whether (Jim Hacker style) we will be presented with a trendy Yes-man, from a liberal high Church background, but with impeccable New Labour credentials.
1998 will certainly not be an easy year for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The skirmishing in preparation for the Lambeth Conference has already begun. The Anglican Communion has, in recent years, stretched the boundaries of comprehensiveness far further than many would have believed possible twenty years ago. The parameters of acceptable doctrine and behaviour have been found to be remarkably elastic, so much so that the likes of Don Cupitt, David Jenkins, Jack Spong, Maurice Sinclair, Terry Kelshaw and George Carey have all been accommodated. No-one has been unchurched, but the common ground they share must be fairly minimal.
We are in communion with those who understand the New Testament to preclude any woman being placed in a position of headship in the Church, and with others who believe that those who hold that position should either swallow their principles or leave. Indeed it is becoming difficult to define what it is that is quintessentially Anglican. Will 1998 be the year when we see the Anglican Communion beginning to unravel?
There are doubtless many, with their own private agendas, who would not be unduly distressed if that were to happen. In an individualistic age, everybody does what is right in their own eyes, defines their faith in terms of what suits them and demands that their particular predilections shall be incorporated into (or possibly even subsume) authentic Christianity.
There are those who would like to see more novelties of doctrine and an open acceptance of all manner of practices which previous generations accepted that Scripture proscribed. There are those who find it difficult to take seriously the words of Jesus when he claimed to be the only mediator between God and men. Absolutes are not very fashionable these days, even if by their very nature they happen to be true.
Indeed, as the book of Judges observed of a society long ago, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” So perhaps our problem is a problem with authority. We simply don’t like it in any shape or form.
The challenge in 1998, as in any other year, is how we work together co-operatively to facilitate the coming of God’s kingdom. That will be difficult to do. Most of us would probably find it quite convenient if God’s kingdom didn’t come too soon and thoughts like that will serve to seriously dampen our ardour. The Church of England, the General Synod and even the PCC of Little Puddlecombe in the Marsh is bound to contain many charming folk who are determined to do what is right in their own eyes, and be less than enthusiastic to accept any Godly restraint. That is how life is in this fallen world and how it will continue to be until the Lord returns, which he surely will.
Surrounded as we are by enemy troops and fifth columnists, plausible smooth-talking mockers, determined wreckers and spoilers, what can we do? Not a lot really, but do we not believe that God can? Surely the most constructive thing that any of us can do in 1998 is to get serious about prayer. Is it our regular practice to pray for our Archbishops, our Bishops, our members of General Synod, our vicars even? It is easy to criticise, but criticism comes cheap and prayer costs time and effort. If things were to go seriously wrong in 1998, should we lay the blame at their door, or at ours?
Whilst in worldly terms we face overwhelming odds, we need to remember the track record of the God whom we serve. Victory is possible, because to quote the words of Eliphaz, “He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success.”
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.