HC Deb 03 November 1997 vol 300 cc16-8
35. Sir Sydney Chapman

What plans the Church Commissioners have to mark the millennium. [11770]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner)

The Church Commissioners are conscious that the millennium is both an inclusive national celebration and a significant Christian anniversary, and the Church is seeking to ensure that the religious and spiritual nature of the year can be appropriately reflected within the context of the new millennium experience.

The Church is planning to give special millennium candles to every household and to encourage people to take them with them wherever they go on millennium eve—just as individuals took candles to Wembley stadium in honour of Diana, Princess of Wales, following her tragic death. There could then be a major moment of national reflection in silence as people stand together and light their candles, one from another. This is intended as the churches' gift to their local communities and something that everyone can take part in if they wish.

Sir Sydney Chapman

While welcoming that statement, may I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the churches lobby so that they are at the very centre of the millennium experience—not least because the very name "millennium" is based upon the perceived birth of Christ? Will he use his unique position—linking, as he does, his fellow commissioners with Government Ministers—to help to ensure that we celebrate the millennium by ensuring that our glorious ecclesiastical architectural heritage is maintained into the next millennium? I am referring to cathedrals, churches and chapels of all faiths throughout the United Kingdom. An example of this work, incidentally, is the initiative successfully announced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), the previous Heritage Secretary.

Mr. Bell

I am glad to see the right hon. Lady in her place and I am happy to endorse the right hon. Gentleman's statement. I should add that every church bell in the land will be rung at noon on Saturday 1 January 2000 for five minutes, followed by 10 minutes of prayer which will be open to all. In relation to the architecture to which he referred, these buildings are a testament to the Church, and as commissioners we shall work with Ministers to ensure that that remains the case.

Mr. Skinner

Has my hon. Friend thought through the proposition that everyone could carry a candle? Is he aware that, if the so-called hundreds of thousands turn up at the dome with lighted candles, they might set fire to it?

Mr. Bell

My hon. Friend and I share a common heritage—we both come from mining families and our fathers went to work with candles. The dome is in the hands of the Minister without Portfolio, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—capable hands, but not those of the Church Commissioners.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Will the hon. Gentleman ask the commissioners to throw their weight about with regard to what the state and the Church will do at the time of the millennium? First, will he make sure that we do not spend unnecessary money on a temporary construction at Greenwich when we could invest in more beneficial activities for the longer term—perhaps for people at the bottom of the social scale?

Secondly, will he try to persuade the state to encourage the international community to write off international debt—a real jubilee for poorer countries, who would be liberated for the next millennium? Finally, is he aware that—as at Canterbury cathedral and, increasingly, Westminster abbey—the great churches of the land are either closed or too expensive to get in?

Mr. Bell

I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestions. The Church Commissioners are in touch with the Minister without Portfolio about the dome. We are seeking to have a chapel in the dome to celebrate the millennium with an appropriate exhibition. With the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, we are also seeking to ensure that while it is a Christian anniversary it is also shared on a multi-faith basis so that there is a proper spread throughout our land of celebrations on the millennium. The other points are for other Ministers and I will ensure that they reach them.