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Back to Newspaper articles archive: 1999


ISSUE 1658 Thursday 9 December 1999

Religious warfare

The Dome is meant to please everyone but, as the Faith Zone demonstrates, to do so entails 'an infernal battle'. The whole enterprise is a model as much of conflict as harmony

THE Dome itself, the giant, loose-fit envelope, was not the purpose or the end-point of this enterprise. The substance was in the zones themselves. 'Content had to be king here,' said Tania Watson, one of the Dome's content editors. The Dome had to live. In the tussle, as Watson puts it, 'between architecture and story, story had to win.' Peter Mandelson had always been insistent that there should be both what he called 'pow' and 'wow' in the Dome - 'pow' being intellectual strength and coherence, 'wow' a sense of amazement and delight.

The ambitious stance which the Dome adopted - wonderful for everybody in every way - was inherently difficult and certain to produce anxieties. The V&A didn't need 12 million visitors. Blackpool Pleasure Beach didn't need to satisfy the broadsheet press. If the Dome had not been accused of being too highbrow, it would have been accused of being too lowbrow. As it was, the set of questions was the same in zone after zone. Lowest common denominator, or highest common multiple? The establishment view, or something that embraced the marginal and the minority? Bland and easy, or rich and complex? Thinking of the future, or attending to sources and origins? Technological, or experiential? National, or global? For enthusiasts, the mildly interested, or the frankly not bothered? More precisely, how do you find something which can accommodate all those? Nowhere was this debate more intense than in the zone that dealt with spirituality.

The task of accommodating within a single organism the deliberately distinct and contradictory tenets of the world's religions became one of the central necessities of the Dome. It was not as if the Dome had tumbled to this problem overnight. In the early autumn of 1996 a millennium coordinating group had been set up by the government. The Lambeth Group was the first of its sub-groups to get off the ground.

It met roughly every three months, bringing together Government, the Royal Household, the major Christian denominations and representatives of some of the other faith communities in Britain: in particular, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Baha'is, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians were also represented, through an existing organisation called the Inter-Faith Network. There was another point. The setting up of such a group reassured an important and vocal constituency by showing that the Christian nature of the anniversary was being taken seriously and that the inclusivity question was being properly addressed. As these two objectives might easily have become contradictory, that was good management.

Not surprisingly, it did not run smoothly. Throughout 1997 the Lambeth Group strove to produce a pamphlet, Marking the Millennium in a Multi-Faith Context, which was intended as a guidebook to sensitivities. 'Consult widely before planning,' it said. Go carefully. 'Do not unwittingly compromise the integrity of belief of any participants. No one is being asked to assent to beliefs they do not hold.'

In July 1997 the Lambeth Group produced a document called Values at Greenwich, designed to give New Millennium Experience Company a steer on what the faith communities in Britain might hope for from the Dome. It repeats much of the vocabulary with which the Dome had been familiar for years: togetherness, openness, dialogue, learning, reflection, hope, future, available to all, principles, diversity. But it also began to express a series of fairly hard-edged expectations. 'A Tomorrow's World approach which is spellbound by the technological possibilities may hide the real issues.' The Dome was not to be thrilled at the prospect of globalisation without making its drawbacks explicit. The failings of Britain's imperial episode should not be glossed over. The Industrial Revolution should be described in terms of its 'costs as well as its benefits'. The Dome should not become a slave to its sponsors. 'It is important that space does not go to the highest bidder.'

Its essential message was straightforward: we are the religious, we are here and we need to be in the Dome. There was a crudely reductivist option available. All faiths are the same. All religions lead to God. Why differentiate? In the Eighties and Nineties a great deal had already been done along those lines between different churches and faiths in Britain. But by the late Nineties the current of thinking had swung against that. This was not, in other words, to be a syncretistic shrine. Multiplicity, but distinction between the elements, was important.

For Eva Jiricna, the architect behind the Spirit Zone (which eventually became the Faith Zone), spirituality did not need religion. 'To me,' Jiricna said, 'religion is dogma, the religious are possessive of their dogma, and it is sad that they don't have the courage to realise they are losing people by this possessiveness. Religion often cuts people's wings. And people, or at least their spirits, want to fly.' For the Lambeth Group, that 'New Age stuff would have dished the whole thing'.

The first Jiricna design for the zone was revealed to the press in February 1998 before the Lambeth Group had seen it. 'Howls of anger from the constituency' came pouring into the offices of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Jennie Page, a regular churchgoer herself, was well aware that she had to address the question of many faiths in one zone at length and in detail. And the zone's content editors, Tim Gardom and Alison Grey, had already begun to consult faith groups around the country. 'We were struck by the sincerity of everyone we talked to,' Grey says. 'The passion to explain what their faith meant to them. At some meetings we all ended up in tears.'

The handling of religious content in the zone; the balancing of parts; the relative priorities to be given to Christianity and the other faiths; the concern for accessibility: all these factors meant that the content and the overall design of the zone went through draft after draft. For Jiricna, it was 'an infernal battle. You have to keep your sense of humour as an architect. "We can't afford it. We don't like it." That's all usual. But here we asked ourselves every day, "Should we give up?" You will never get a sense of freedom from being an architect. It will always be a defeat.'

Sponsorship was nowhere in sight. Peter Mandelson brought together Sir Tim Sainsbury, the ex-Tory MP who was close to Lambeth Palace, and Stuart Bell, the Labour MP who was a Church Commissioner, to begin to drum up some sponsorship. Jiricna's original pyramid proposal had envisaged enormous amounts of glass. Glass manufacturers had been approached to sponsor the zone but that route had become redundant when the design changed to a lightweight tent.

Ever since the launch in February 1998, though, there was another large potential sponsor on the scene: Srichand P Hinduja, known as 'SP', a reclusive Indian billionaire, patriarch of 800 businesses, and one of four Hinduja brothers who describe themselves as adherents to the Vedic tradition, based on the Vedas, the Sanskrit scriptures written down in about 3000bc. He had known and worked with Michael Heseltine for many years. Mandelson, as Minister without Portfolio, had visited the Hinduja offices in Haymarket. The brothers had long been interested in what SP called 'the commonalities and shared values of each faith'. There was a clear commercial motive too. 'The emphasis on multicultural understanding will promote economic growth and social welfare for further generations.

As businessmen we firmly believe this will be the best gift for the new millennium.' And on top of that, sponsoring a central element of a government-owned exhibition would clearly do the Hindujas no harm. The press would suggest, when Mandelson became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that it was a question of 'cash for favours'. But according to Darin Jewell, the Hindujas' spokesman on millennium affairs, 'That was simply not the case.' SP Hinduja offered to underwrite the zone to the tune of 3 million.

Some deals were struck. As Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art, who oversaw the contents of the Faith Zone, says, 'There was one really fascinating moment on the Lambeth Group. We looked at all the great sayings of Jesus to find out how many axioms could be signed up to by all the faith groups. We found eight. They tended to be the social everyday things like "Blessed are the meek". The moment you get on to the Trinity and the afterlife, you're in trouble. So these are the axioms that are shown around the zone because they won't offend anyone.'

The Faith Zone that emerged from this process is in many ways the richest and most beautiful thing in the Dome. It is astonishingly complex in the integration of its elements, and substantially enriched by the complexity of the process which has given birth to it. Christians from all walks of life explain how people or events from Christian history inspired or shaped the inherited ideas of justice, freedom and education. Masterpieces of Christian art and writing are reproduced, from the Tyndale Bible to Holman Hunt's The Light of the World. The shaping of the British landscape by its religious inheritance forms an entire subsection. On the way out of the zone, three million visitors are expected to leave their own 'message for the millennium' - a unique account of the thoughts, hopes and fears of Britons at the end of the 20th century.

By late 1999 the dome had become a catalogue of marvels, a cabinet of rarities, a circus of miracles, a multiplicity zoo. For all the grief in its making, for all the roaring of beasts in the jungle around it, it is a kaleidoscope of the very best that we could do. More and more had been pushed into it. But what was its point? What was the significance of this strange enterprise? The Dome has struggled with that question throughout its life. It has talked and talked, issued press release after press release, sent out its roadshows, wooed and schmoozed, produced mission-statements, and yet still a certain perplexity hangs about it.

The only flags around which the country, and the Dome, could gather - identified, again and again, in market research conducted by political parties, large corporations and the Dome - were the universal aspirations of hope, a better future, a kinder world. This became the Dome's soft heart. These were the phrases used; older terms - compassion, justice, peace - had largely dropped out of currency. NMEC's vision was 'to begin the next millennium with a brighter, happier, healthier, more fulfilling future ahead of us.'

But for all its idealism, the making of the Dome reflects the strains in the society from which it has emerged. Outside a war, it is difficult to think of anything harder. The nearest model is indeed warfare: build a huge team, equip it, invade with it, establish the bridgehead, react to circumstances, excise failure, reinforce success, keep the enemies at bay and, within the free-fire zone which you have created, make life as inspirationally memorable as it could be. They were throwing a dance on Omaha Beach, arranging the candles while dodging the tracer.

The tension was an essential part of the process. Without the sparks that come from bringing together government and industry, commerce and the world of the arts, the Dome would not have been a child of the Britain that bore it, struggling to define a new settlement between public and private domains. If the Dome manages, in some way, to liberate us into a new vision of ourselves - of the potent individual, embedded in the community - then the whole venture will have been more than worthwhile.


©Copyright 1999, London Telegraph

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