WASHINGTON -- The nation's bankers have gotten into the sermon-writing business. It's not fire and brimstone they're offering, but a way to cool passions arising from fears of a Year 2000 catastrophe. They're preaching that the world won't come to an end, that in fact life will go on normally after the millennial date change.
The American Bankers Association is distributing a folksy sample sermon for clergy to help them debunk expectations of a Y2K meltdown that would cripple the banking system.
"We wanted to reach out to the religious community," John Hall, a spokesman for the trade group said Wednesday, referring to the four-page homily that it is distributing to bankers to share with their local ministers, priests and rabbis.
The heads of the country's ATM networks, meanwhile, urged consumers not to withdraw unusually large amounts of cash, while assuring them that their cards will work normally through the year-end date change.
The sermon aims to counter the belief fostered in some religious and survivalist literature that the Year 2000 will bring an apocalypse.
"Things will work," it says. "Hospitals will be open. Police and fire departments will be prepared. Power companies will be fully staffed. Banks will keep your money safe.
The sermon urges: "We want to go into the new millennium with hope, eagerness and faith in this new century of promise. We don't want to be crouched in our basements with candles, matches and guns.
"There are, after all, two ways to cross the Red Sea. With Moses, who with God's help, led the children of Israel into a bright, hopeful future. Or with Pharaoh, who in trying to preserve the old, hurled his chariots, his officers and his army into the sea."
Spokesmen for the American Anglican Council and the U.S. Catholic Conference declined comment Wednesday on the sermon. The distribution of it was first reported by the American Banker, a trade publication.
Paul Goodland, an Episcopal priest who lives in Fountain Hills, Ariz., said today he wouldn't use the sermon.
"They're treading where angels fear to tread," he said of the bankers' group. Goodland, who was the mayor of Ames, Iowa, in the 1980s, said problems with his own ATM card have made him question banks' readiness for the Year 2000.
At any rate, he said, "Faith and trust in God is really where it belongs, not in banks."
At a news conference, the ATM network executives advised consumers to treat the last weekend of the millennium as they would any long holiday weekend. The network companies, which are members of the Electronic Funds Transfer Association, link banks and other financial institutions with hundreds of thousands of ATMs nationwide as well as point-of-sale machines used to pay for purchases in grocery stores and other retail locations.
Dennis Lynch, president and chief executive officer of New Jersey-based NYCE Corp., said all the ATM networks' computer systems have been fully tested and found "ready and compatible."
Contingency plans also have been prepared, Lynch noted.
Federal regulators had given the banking industry a June 30 testing deadline to make sure its computer systems are ready to handle the Year 2000 technology problem, which arises because some computers originally programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a year could interpret 2000 as 1900. The financial services industry has spent some $8.5 billion to $9 billion to fix the problem.
The regulators reported early this month that 99 percent of the nation's federally insured banks, thrifts and credit unions have completed testing for the Year 2000 computer glitch.
The Federal Reserve recently approved a plan to make special loans to financial institutions that might need emergency money because of consumer fears about system breakdowns caused by computers that can't handle the date change.
And last year, the central bank ordered an additional $50 billion of new currency to put into circulation in the event people make a run on banks and ATMs late in the year. By year's end, $200 billion in currency will be stored in government vaults, up from the $150 billion normally held in reserve. That's in addition to the $460 billion in notes circulating in the United States and abroad.
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has said in congressional testimony that banks will be the safest place for people to keep their cash at the end of the year.