Christian Millennium Projects

Orders of the Day — Police Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 1:51 am on 19 March 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Carrington.]

Photo of Mr Michael Alison Mr Michael Alison , Selby 2:08, 19 March 1997

I am glad to have this opportunity late in the life of the present Parliament—not to mention late in the day—to raise a topic that bears as much on the future as on the past: the coming millennium celebrations, and the Christian input to the various projects that have been proposed.

I am especially grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage for taking the trouble to listen to this short debate and to contribute to it. I must congratulate her on the clear and constructive analysis that she gave in her lecture at Crosby hall on 6 February about the spiritual scope and significance of the millennium event, including a useful guide to the date and time that the millennium is reached and formally starts.

Obviously, we all owe more to Dionysius ExiguusDennis the Small—than most of us realise. I think that my right hon. Friend knows that some people in this place, in another place and outside are nevertheless severely disappointed that the Millennium Commission has offered so little endorsement and practical support for the notion that the millennium at perhaps its most fundamental level is a Christian event and landmark.

My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), who once occupied the post of Secretary of State, said when he set up the Millennium Commission in 1994: For many people, the third millennium has a spiritual significance as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in the most welcome and forthright statement said, in a letter to The Times, I think on 2 December 1996: I have always been determined that people should be aware of whose millennium it is anyway. We shouldn't be ashamed of it being Christian. On the contrary, we want to identify it as a Christian event. That was well spoken, if I may say so.

However, the spiritual dimensions of the millennium still seem to have been missed in terms of hard cash. There is a yawning black hole where there should be a pearl of some price. That is highlighted when one considers the grants being paid to Christian-based projects. Of the £767 million in grants paid to date, only 0.9 per cent. has been paid to Christian projects in the community, and only 2 per cent. has been longlisted in the final round of the Millennium Commission. Surely that is an inadequate expression of those very priorities that Ministers have espoused and expressed.

If one looks in even more detail at the support committed by the commission for projects in rounds one and two, longlisted in round three and reserve-listed projects, one finds a grant total that reaches the huge sum of £1,767 million, of which specifically Christian projects have scored only £24 million—a derisory sum in all conscience, or 1 per cent. of the total. Indeed, the paid and committed portion of that £24 million comes only to £7 million, which is a mere snowflake on the volcano of grant.

Other heads of expenditure include 22 per cent. of the total for science projects, 23 per cent. for leisure projects, 9 per cent. for community projects, 10 per cent. for education projects and 35 per cent. for environment projects. Worthy though those heads of expenditure are, they serve merely to underline how much land remains to be possessed if the promise of a significant and specifically Christian landmark on the millennium landscape—the cathedral, so to speak, of our era—is to be fulfilled.

Against that background, I strongly urge the Millennium Commission, over which my right hon. Friend presides, to extend its procedures for project selection to a fourth round that will concentrate specifically on the spiritual dimension of the celebrations and on projects supporting faith, the family and young people.

That would chime with my right hon. Friend's striking exposition in her Crosby hall speech of the idea of renaissance: regeneration and renewal, physical, personal and social. In a moving passage, she articulated a vision that struck me as being as practical as it is relevant. She said: Individualisation and fragmentation within the communities of Western society is an increasing concern—elderly people isolated, and the world of work and of young people dominated by the computer screen rather than direct personal communication. The Millennium provides an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together to meet their neighbours, perhaps for the first time. Street parties and fireworks can provide a one-off chance to do this, but I hope that we can make this contact of enduring and added value. There are a couple of projects of a specifically Christian character for which I would seek my right hon. Friend's notice, support and interest. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) will mention at least a third in a short intervention that he intends to make presently.

The first project is a northern one. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh wants to establish a museum or visitor centre to celebrate the tremendous Christian heritage of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, which is the cradle of Christianity in this country, and produced giants of the calibre of St. Aidan, the Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert.

Such a centre could be ready for the millennium and perhaps even provide a home back in the north for the Lindisfarne Gospels. Alas, an approach to establish such a centre in Cramlington in Northumberland last year was turned down by the Millennium Commission. The new proposal on which I would focus on behalf of my hon. Friend will be centred on Durham, which is more in the middle of the region, and would incorporate a bid for the Lindisfarne Gospels to be released from the British Library. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider with sympathy and sensitivity that bid by one of her most distinguished younger ministerial colleagues.

The other project of a specifically Christian character is one of which my right hon. Friend is well apprised, thanks to her generous provision of time and her receptivity; it is the so-called Christian millennium village project, which the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) and I are sponsoring and have spoken to her about. She will know that that imaginative project— involving the environmental renovation of a derelict riverside site in London and, above all, the construction of a purpose-designed set of buildings for a practical outreach programme for families and young people in particular—has generated widespread cross-party and interdenominational support

That project is not just another London metropolitan project: it is for the whole country, as evidenced by the explicit support that it has received from the two Anglican archbishops, including the Archbishop of York, and the Bishops of Durham, Wakefield, Chelmsford and Monmouth. In addition, leaders of the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Baptist churches have all expressed their support for the project's general vision and purpose.

I am content to let the Bishop of Durham have the last word. In a letter to my right hon. Friend on 28 February last, he wrote: I am sure you are aware of the answers given by Lord Inglewood in the House of Lords on 17 February 1997 which seem to indicate a willingness to give more favourable consideration to Christian projects in a possible 4th round of the Millennium Commission. Up to now, only about 1 per cent. of the money allocated has gone to specifically Christian projects, but you have yourself endorsed the need to celebrate the millennium in a distinctively Christian way.The sponsors of "Millennium Village" are, I gather, meeting with you on 5 March and I would greatly hope that you could then give them an assurance that there is to be a fourth round in which special consideration would be given to Christian projects, and that their imaginative proposals for a "Millennium Village" could therefore be resubmitted. I am glad to allow the Bishop of Durham to have the last word in my speech, and I am sure that I have left enough time for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid 2:20, 19 March 1997

On 15 October 1964, the electors of Barkston Ash conferred upon the House an extraordinary benefit, by sending to it my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). From that time, whether at Barkston Ash or at Selby, he has adorned the House. I was a long way from the House in 1964, but when I came, I found him—as I am sure that every new Member has—a friend, a counsellor, and a help. As a former chairman of the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, I pay tribute to him not only for his great personal qualities, but for the extraordinary Christian witness that he has given the House throughout his time here. We are grateful for that.

I am being allowed a word or two to present to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a scheme of which she has already heard something. To celebrate the millennium, a group of us believed that we should challenge every school in the United Kingdom to stage in the school year 1999–2000 an original dramatic production illustrative of some element of the life of Christ. We expect that this will be widely taken up by schools, and we have already secured the whole-hearted support of the Church of England, through all of whose committees the plan has gone.

I have written to Cardinal Hume, who I understand is likely to be very receptive. We have support from the Headmasters Conference, the Secondary Heads Association, the chief inspector of Ofsted, Nick Tate of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and a host of other people. So far, nobody has thought that it was a poor idea.

The idea is that schools should enter a festival at local level, drawing in, if they wish, their local communities to help them to produce it. They would be assessed by their local communities, and those that seemed to have particular merit would be entered for a regional festival round. I have reason to suppose that the Independent Television Network will cover that round and help us, although it is premature to say that. Our hope is that a distinctive group of productions will feature in the festival celebrations in Greenwich.

All this is highly tentative at the moment. We have considerable expectations and hope, but we have nothing assured. We are seeking funding from the Millennium Commission. I suspect that the funding we need is not very great by comparison with that of many other projects.

The purpose is to involve schools throughout the nation in studying one of the gospels—many of them, perhaps, almost for the first time—to give them an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding that the millennium is the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, and to give tangible recognition throughout the nation of the fact that this is a celebration not only of the birth of Christ but of 2,000 years of Christian history, which has shaped the nation.

At the moment, the project goes under the working title of Superstar 2000, but whether we shall keep it, I am not certain. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has already shown a friendly face to the suggestion, will smile upon our endeavour, and perhaps give us some practical advice and help on how we may carry it forward.

Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley Secretary of State for National Heritage 2:24, 19 March 1997

It is an honour and a privilege to respond to this Adjournment debate introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison). He will know that I do so out of respect for his phenomenal service to this place in the past 33 years, as well as out of support for the themes that he has raised today. He has served as a Minister in many Departments. I know not only of the respect in which he is held in the House, but, having had the honour to visit his constituency, of the affection and admiration that his constituents have for him and, indeed, for his wife Sylvia Mary.

As we approach the millennium, we are busy ensuring that the steps we take and the huge resource at our disposal—£1.6 billion through the national lottery allocated to the Millennium Commission—is used wisely and well, and forms a lasting legacy that will build communities, promote regeneration and reinforce the spiritual dimension in our communities.

My right hon. Friend will know that I am not the dictator of the Millennium Commission. I am its humble chairman, and it is composed of nine independent commissioners, who take a range of views. Overall, we have sought to establish a pattern in which the themes have been regeneration, in its literal sense— environmental projects—and in the community sense. Those are the themes that bind people together and give them a sense of belonging and continuity at a time of great change.

My right hon. Friend rightly points out that I have on a number of occasions sought to reinforce the message that the millennium is a Christian anniversary. It marks 2,000 years since the birth of Christ. It is a key landmark in the history of the Church. He will be aware that the Pope has declared the year 2000 a holy year for the Roman Catholic Church. Thirty-five million pilgrims are expected in Rome. The Pope will lead a party of Christian leaders of all denominations up Mount Sinai for a dedicated act of worship.

Apart from Rome, we are further advanced than elsewhere in our plans and preparations. I was able in my speech at Crosby hall to set out the timetable so far, the dates already in the diary, the key messages, and our commitment to provide more information as we approach that crucial date. We have set up working groups with the different Churches and faith groups and with local authorities. We have established liaison with the royal household, and set up working parties to deal with overseas issues and with the media. We believe that this is a moment in time when people will want not only to celebrate but to reflect—a moment to take stock, a moment for renewal and regeneration, whether seen from a secular or spiritual perspective.

My right hon. Friend referred to some of the figures from the Millennium Commission. So far, the Commission has awarded £844 million to capital projects across the United Kingdom. That includes some £10.3 million to nine specifically Christian projects, which will provide benefits not only to Christian congregations but to the wider community.

The commission recently published its shortlist of third round projects, which will go forward for detailed appraisal. It contained an additional eight Church projects, seeking a total of £20.4 million pounds in grant. Of course, there have also been many initiatives which have been led by the Churches but which are not specifically Christian. An example I visited recently is the national discovery park in Liverpool, which, led by the Dean of Liverpool, received an offer of £27 million. I commend the dean for his activities.

Other faith groups have been recognised. All are agreed that the message of the millennium should be inclusive, not exclusive. I admire the way in which all the faith groups have wanted the spiritual dimension of the millennium to be recognised, albeit with a respect and understanding for faiths other than the Christian faith. For example, we have committed £4.9 million to two projects put forward by Hindu organisations which are designed to foster multicultural awareness and inter-faith understanding.

I could gladly give my right hon. Friend a full list of Christian projects for which the Millennium Commission grant has been approved or shortlisted. Several are particularly exciting. I am most interested in the Thornbury centre in Bradford. A grant of £1.2 million has been committed to providing a new community centre built on the site of a former church.

The centre will greatly enhance the appearance of a large housing estate in an area of considerable economic disadvantage, and will provide a new focus for the local community. It will include facilities for recreation, vocational training, flexible worship, conferences and exhibitions, as well as a community restaurant. Elaine Appleby, who works there, is typical of the social entrepreneurs whom we want to support, where possible, with millennium resources. I have visited similar initiatives—St. Martha's in Nottingham and St. Mark's in Godalming in my own constituency—that enable Churches to perform their work in the 21st century.

There are, however, many other ways in which the Millennium Commission has sought to support Churches. Four hundred churches are to be floodlit for the millennium with a £2.3 million grant. Bells will be supported—not only the bell tower at Basildon: £3 million has been committed to the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers' proposal for ringing in the new millennium. The money will pay for the founding of new bells and the restoration of old bells and belfries in 100 churches, so that, at noon on the first day of 2000, there can be a stirring peal of church bells throughout the land, which is a splendid way to greet the millennium year.

My right hon. Friend referred particularly to the millennium Christian village project in Battersea. He will know that I have great personal sympathy for that project. The commissioners nevertheless took the view that, although the project would have a regenerative impact in Battersea, and would certainly have provided valuable Christian support for young people, it was not possible to support it in this round.

I have to tell my right hon. Friend that, in the third round of applications, 1,011 projects submitted bids; of those, only 119 were selected for the long list. It will not be possible for the commission to support even those 119, once they have been through their detailed appraisal. My right hon. Friend can therefore see that the competition for funding was certainly intense.

I wrote to my right hon. Friend on 6 March, saying: I must pay tribute to the excellent work which was done to produce such a well worked-up proposal. I expect that the imagination and commitment which you were able to show, and continue to show, will mean that you achieve your objectives at the end of the day. I share the disappointment of those involved in the project, but I should like to address my right hon. Friend's point in respect of a possible fourth round.

Certainly I and many other commissioners hope that it will be possible to have a fourth round. It would not be wise to make a formal announcement until we are clearer about the resources coming through in the long term, but I will certainly reflect to my fellow commissioners his request that the theme of faith, family and young people should be supported.

In many other areas of the national lottery, such as sport and arts, we have indeed been moving towards investing in young people as much as in old buildings, and the new heritage legislation will enable us to involve young people and use lottery money for that purpose. Youth is one of the themes that the Millennium Commission has sought to endorse, as is science, along with the main regeneration theme.

Let me inform my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby of some of the many other ways in which lottery money has already been helping Christian projects. So far, the score is about 238 awards, totalling about £30 million. The Arts Council gave £1.2 million to the Royal School of Church Music. Many organs are being restored. The heritage lottery fund has made 150 grants, totalling £17.8 million and, this week, another 22 more awards, totalling £4 million, were made. Churches throughout the country are benefiting from that opportunity.

I especially welcome the largest grant—£2.5 million to Canterbury cathedral for an education centre, to tie in with the great focus on our Christian heritage that English Heritage is celebrating this year as we move towards the millennium.

On a smaller scale, churches throughout the country are receiving assistance with bells and with restoration. A new visitor centre is to be built at Westminster cathedral. All Saints, Putney, where I worshipped as a child, received £96,000 for the Burne-Jones/William Morris stained-glass windows. The church of St. John the Evangelist, close to the House at Waterloo, received £217,000. St. Peter and St. Paul's church at Watlington received money for its bells. So it goes on.

It is a wonderful opportunity to release congregations from the need to raise money for the restoration of their buildings, so that they may raise money for their mission—for their work in the community, which they often very much welcome.

Many of our cathedrals have received help, not only Canterbury but Chester, York Minster, St. Edmundsbury, Southwark, Bradford, Peterborough: all have received money or are shortlisted for help.

My hon. Friends know that I want to build communities as well as buildings. That is why it is so important that the Millennium Commission has set aside £200 million for millennium awards for people who invest in their communities.

I take to heart the message of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)—we do need to involve and inspire young people in the millennium, and excite them about it. I shall talk further about the sources of assistance that might be able to make a contribution, either through the Millennium Commission's festival programme or perhaps through the Arts Council, which, like the sports and heritage lottery boards, is likely to fund initiatives in its field of endeavour that chime with the aims and objectives of the millennium.

All those organisations regard the millennium not only as the moment for enjoyment, for a street party, for a celebration, for knowing our neighbours and friends, but as a moment of more lasting significance. We have set in train discussions with Church leaders who reinforce that message. Details are being settled of national millennium services, international events and a regional programme.

We believe, however, that Christian precepts should underpin all our work implicitly, if not explicitly. The millennium is a Christian anniversary. The impressive activities that churches are already planning give ample testimony to the fact that we endorse that message. The wide range of Church-based and Church-backed initiatives already being supported by the Millennium Commission and other funding bodies are an excellent start. I believe that, in the run-up to the millennium and during the millennium year, the Christian faith, heritage and culture of the United Kingdom are being, and will continue to be, cherished and celebrated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Three o 'clock.