The importance of this opportunity becomes clear once we appreciate what the Millennium means. Surprisingly, there has been little obvious attempt to look beneath the surface of this event as it applies to us in the waning years of the 20th century, or to try to understand the significance of the Millennium and the power of its symbolism. To achieve this we need, I believe, to delve a little deeper than normal into the sacred basis of our existence.

The importance of this opportunity becomes clear once we appreciate what the Millennium means. Surprisingly, there has been little obvious attempt to look beneath the surface of this event as it applies to us in the waning years of the 20th century, or to try to understand the significance of the Millennium and the power of its symbolism. To achieve this we need, I believe, to delve a little deeper than normal into the sacred basis of our existence.

Traditionally, each New Year is a time for agonising over New Year's resolutions; to step back, take stock and look for improvements in the coming months. Each New Year is, it seems to me, a microcosm of the vital process of renewal that dominates our existence. For although our everyday lives seem to be dominated by linear time, one day following the next and year following year in an unbroken line, the continual recurrence of New Year reminds us of the importance in our existence of natural cycles, of events which continually recur. From each breath we take renewing the oxygen in our blood, to the daily cycle, the waxing and the waning of the lunar month, the repetition of the season and the renewal of the world each spring, we live our lives with the idea of repeated new beginnings. The poetry of this constantly renewed expectation is captured beautifully in the hymn by Isaac Watts:

"A thousand ages in thy sight Are like an evening gone; Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun."

This concept of renewal is not the monopoly of Christianity, but is central to many of the great faiths. Socrates taught that the soul reincarnates every thousand years, when it has the opportunity to make a new choice about its destiny. In Judaism, the New Year is a time of personal repentance and renewal, as well as representing the anniversary of the creation of the world. In the Koran it is written: "Allah is He who effects creation, hence He repeats it." The ancient Chinese, and the Hindus of India, as well as the Christians, took the first 12 days of the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice as prefiguring the renewing of the coming 12 months of the new year.

It seems to me a serious omission that so far, despite all the work and discussion undertaken by the Anglican church, and despite pronouncements on the subject by the Pope, the rather limited public discussion so far in Britain about the Millennium has not focused on its spiritual importance and the potential it holds for personal and national renewal. Plans are well advanced to mark the event, and the celebrations will begin in less than four years time.

But the deeper, more fundamental, aspects of the Millennium are barely being considered. Why should this be when here, above all, lies so much of its true meaning and significance for us, not just as Christians, but for people of all faiths and creeds? It is, to say the least, depressing that there is so little one could describe as transcending the merely material in the projects which have so far been submitted to the Millennium Commission. The closest are the suggestions that church towers should be floodlit, and that a sequence of new crosses should be erected in Shaftesbury in the spirit of the Celtic crosses that once bore witness to the early days of Christianity. But no-one has come forward, for example, with plans to erect a great religious building such as the new Hindu temple in Neasden, completed last year. If the Millennium is to be no more than the chance for a giant, but essentially meaningless, party which will soon be no more than a passing memory, we surely need to think more deeply about what the Millennium means.

For me, the message of the Millennium is clear. It is a time of renewal. But there is all the difference in the world between renewing what is old and replacing old with new. I think our future depends on understanding what that difference is. The idea of linear time, which has dominated western civilisation for several centuries, saw the past as primitive, the 'childhood' of humanity, to be overcome and put behind us. The future was unbounded, an horizon of open-ended progress and unlimited freedoms. Nature would be conquered and placed at the disposal of mankind. As the second Millennium reaches its close, we have gradually come to see that this idea has done harm as well as good. In the pursuit of unlimited freedoms we have damaged our natural, urban and social environment, and have seen wars, totalitarianism, and ecological disaster on an unprecedented scale. The century which began with such faith in unbounded progress is in danger of ending on a note - to be heard in much popular music, theatre and literature - of apocalyptic pessimism and despair.

I believe the time has come to abandon the poles of optimism and despair, and rediscover a much older emotion: hope. Hope belongs to a world which recognises the idea of limits, going with the grain of nature and cherishing and learning from the best of what we have inherited from the past.

We need to use the Millennium to reawaken our capacity to rejoice in all creation, to celebrate the glorious richness of God's world and to re-establish our spiritual foundations which we can draw from the great religious traditions.

We need to see and sense the spark of the spirit in everything; to learn from the things which have gone wrong; to come to value and cherish our world, its history and mysteries, its treasures and wonders. This sense of spiritual renewal is something which has to originate in our hearts and not our heads. Once there it can spread throughout communities and throughout the nation as a whole. But it cannot do so until we recognise the need to renew the way in which we educate people, so that we do not educate out those intuitive powers of the heart which lie at the root of all spiritual experience. The 20th century has been an age of enormous destruction and dislocation, of dysfunction and disharmony. War, the growth and decay of our cities, the rise and fall of industries, changing patterns of social behaviour, have all torn great and painful holes in the fabric of our society and of the built and natural environment. The Millennium is a moment to put that behind us and to start again by building on the many strengths we already possess, but which are in danger of being abandoned through indifference, cynicism or through spurious arguments of 'efficiency'.

We must start by appreciating the unique heritage of our own country. A society which sets its face against its past and only values what is new and exciting will never be a society that is at peace with itself or which understands itself. The past represents our memory as a society of who we are, whence we came, and the priceless traditions and knowledge which have accumulated over the centuries. While new buildings are necessary, renewal is also about making the best use of what we already possess and about putting right the devastating mistakes we have made, particularly in this century, over the ordering of our lives and the destruction of our environment. The Millennium provides us with a unique opportunity for people to work together with a common purpose. It provides the opportunity to execute works of art and to build significant public buildings which will be a genuine reflection of the deeper values of our humanity. It should not, in my view, be an excuse to waste money on new monuments and projects which are not linked to these wider issues of real benefit.

For there is so much to put right. There is an urgent need to learn how we can discover new and imaginative uses for fine old buildings, rather than knock them down, and to understand and preserve the best of our inheritance, rather than destroy it by ignorance or neglect. We must learn how to value the commonplace instead of destroying it without a second thought. We must appreciate the strengths that come from flourishing, well-established communities and their traditions. Celebrating the Millennium should not just be about building anew, but also about renewing the old. We should, for example, be looking to find new and relevant uses for those remaining great mill buildings which are remarkable monuments to the Industrial Revolution and which still have so much to offer to the communities around them. At a time when there are well over 800,000 empty homes in Britain, most - but not all - in private hands, we should look harder at ways to re-use our existing housing before we rush into building on greenfield sites. We should be looking to use the Millennium to bring new life to the decaying and derelict centres of some of our great cities where the need to re-build the spirit of the local community is of supreme importance if a balanced and fulfilling city life is to be restored.

I hope that help and encouragement will be given to individuals and organisations dedicated to working for those who fall outside the mainstream of society. For help to the disadvantaged, whether in education, housing, or the provision of community facilities, will be an important means of repairing some of the ravages of our 20th century social history. If nothing else, this would be a tremendous encouragement to the work many people have been doing over the years to try to rebuild the lives of disadvantaged young people in our great cities. We need to attract people to live again in the hearts of both our cities and, increasingly, in many of our towns. The imaginative use of Millennium funds, through projects to restore some the building blocks of civilised life - such as more sympathetic housing schemes, or grants to local voluntary groups who can help regenerate communities, could make people's lives better in a way which will have real meaning for them.

Our cathedrals and churches are beacons of hope and spiritual renewal in the hearts of many dispirited cities and towns, such a large number of which have been ravaged by 20th century redevelopment. All too often they sit cheek-by-jowl with inner city deprivation and office wastelands. They could become true centres of renewal stretching far beyond the immediate close. There are already wonderful examples of what can be done in some of our abandoned churches with the creation of health and healing centres which link together with body and spirit in a complementary approach to healing. Nor should we forget our villages, where the need to preserve the fundamentals of village life is just as important. It is heartening to know that village halls are already the subject of a number of applications to the Millennium Commission. I hope very much that imaginative and sensitive design will be encouraged in these smaller projects. And I should like to see money going to help restore specially worthwhile buildings not just because they are 'old buildings', but because they are invariably imbued with those deeper values which I have already mentioned and which strike a particular chord in our hearts.

In more general terms, can we not use the Millennium to bring about the renewal of those building and craft skills which have played such a critical role in shaping the environment we have inherited, and shall pass on to our children? There is still a huge task before us to restore the ravages of that period in the 1960s and 1970s which represented a strange aberration in men's souls. Community planning is one proven way and a start has been made up and down the country. But we also need to be teaching in a more sensitive and imaginative way the architects, planners and designers of tomorrow, to say nothing of the property developers, road engineers and volume housebuilders, so that we can foster a less dogmatic approach to creating and designing buildings.

All this is an enormous challenge, and it is one of overwhelming importance, but there is nothing in this process exclusive to Christianity or to western society. While the year 2000 has no significance in itself for Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and the people of other major religions, the urge for spiritual and material renewal applies as much to the non-Christian as to the Christian. This powerful mood for renewal is one from which all faiths and countries can benefit. The forces it represents bind us all together. As far as Britain is concerned everyone, whatever their culture or beliefs and whether the spiritual basis to their lives matters to them or not, can have a stake in the process which the Millennium represents. I would hope, for example, that a start might be made to help those faiths, growing in Britain but struggling to create places of worship, to erect buildings of real quality. This is, surely, one of those instances where Millennium money may be able to build bridges across some of these divisions in Britain's society.

The Millennium is, therefore, both a celebration and a challenge. Few people expect, unlike a thousand years ago, that the year 2000 will usher in a new and just world ruled by wise politicians, and from which violence and turbulence will have been eradicated. But there is, I believe, a resurgence of spirituality across the world; small beacons of civilising values in the face of the all-evading materialism of recent times, which represent a yearning to improve the deeper quality of our lives and to restore those enduring cultural priorities which represent a moral fountain in a world dominated by consumerism. If the Millennium can be used to respond to those feelings and emotions, it will fulfil a need which will last well beyond the year 2000, and add immeasurably to the quality of all our lives.