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Stations of the Cross — Without the Cross

Episcopalian liturgy for Stations of the Millennium Development Goals truncates the gospel, critics say.

In this season of Lent, many Christians in liturgical traditions have been meditating on the Stations of the Cross, a series of events — biblical and traditional — depicting the story of Jesus' death.

This year, however, the Episcopal Church is promoting new devotional material for Lent: the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals. The church's Episcopal Relief and Development agency created a liturgy based on the United Nations plan to eliminate extreme poverty and other global ills, and sent e-mail to church leaders encouraging its use "in lieu of the traditional Stations of the Cross service."

Mike Angell of the denomination's Office of Young Adult and Higher Education Ministries designed the stations for a September 2007 young adult conference. While the traditional Stations of the Cross meditation has 14 stations (though this has varied through church history), the Episcopalian Stations of the Millennium Development Goals liturgy has only eight stations, one for each goal.

Station four, on reducing child mortality, reads:

Every three seconds a child under the age of five dies. A disproportionate number of these children live in developing countries, without access to clean water or basic medical care.
For personal reflection and prayer: Lord, help us to love and care for little children—the least of these who are of your family. Protect and heal them with your divine power.

Each station includes "activities and worship experiences for the liturgy." For station four, the church's document suggests, "Provide black and white drawings or outlines of children's faces. Have pilgrims color the faces. While the group is coloring, ring a bell every fifteen seconds to recognize that another child died from a preventable water-borne illness."

At the end of each station, the group is to pray a modified version of the Eastern Orthodox prayer known as Trisagion in which "Have mercy on us" is changed to "Transform us / That we might transform the world."

"There has been a little controversy about the Stations of the MDGs," said Luke Fodor, network coordinator for the church's relief arm. "At Episcopal Relief and Development, we're here to just take care of problems. We're not interested in theological discussions or politics in the church. We're to take care of the least of these, and that's our mandate. We [at ERD] didn't create this; we produced it for churches to use as they see fit."

But critics say the liturgy and the church's promotion of it during Lent is idolatrous. The Anglican blog StandFirm posted excerpts from the liturgy under the introduction, "Gitcher fresh hell here."

Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and editor of The Anglican Digest, said the liturgy is based on a "terribly truncated version of the baptismal covenant" and reveals a theological mindset that is un-Trinitarian.

"It runs the risk of replacing Christ with the church and the activity of Christ with the activity of the church," Harmon said.

Edith Humphrey, William F. Orr professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, criticized the document's theology for similar reasons.

"Like the song, "God Has No Hands But Our Hands," it forgets the sovereignty of God," she said. "God does use us, but he's the initiator. It's so sad to see the gospel diluted to simply being kind to others. I don't think that a gospel like that really communicates the grandeur of God and what he's done for us in Christ."

Both Harmon and Humphrey said their concerns are with the liturgy itself and they don't have a problem with promoting the Millennium Development Goals, or even using the framework of the goals to pray about global problems.

For example, the World Evangelical Alliance and Micah Network (a network of evangelical relief and development organizations led by theologian Rene Padilla) co-sponsor the Micah Challenge, which has a weekly prayer and study series based on the Millennium Development Goals. It is not, however, tying its efforts to Lenten observances.

Jason Alfonse Fileta, field organizer for Micah Challenge, said Christian commitment to the Millennium Development Goals is helpful both for the world and for the church. "What I've seen and what I've heard is that when this campaign for the MDGs is rooted in an evangelical theology, the church is growing rapidly. And if people are pushed to focus on Jesus, that is going to push them toward action on the Millennium Development Goals."

The Episcopalian materials urge meditation on Matthew 25, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, as "the mandate of Episcopal Relief and Development." Humphrey emphasized that there is much justification for the principles of the Millennium Development Goals in Scripture, but said that's not the point of Jesus' parable. Jesus, she said, was talking about how he will honor non-Christians' mercy and service to his representatives.

"It simply shows to me a lack of care in using the Scriptures in context," Humphrey said.

Several critics at Anglican blogs, including Harmon's TitusOneNine, have accused the liturgy of conflating Jesus' death on the Cross and human suffering. That's not a problem for Mike Kinman, executive director of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, an independent organization that is promoting the Stations service.

"I look at the 30,000 children who die every day of preventable, treatable causes. If every one of those children is in the image of God, then there's a level at which those are 30,000 crucifixions," Kinman said. "That is not to cheapen what Christ did on the Cross — in some ways it makes it more meaningful."

In spite of these debates, Fodor said the response from churches who have used the resources is positive, and most of the criticism has focused on whether the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals should replace Holy Week observances.

"I wouldn't think this liturgy would be appropriate for Good Friday," he said.

Angell, who initially wrote the liturgy, agrees that it should not replace traditional Lenten worship. "Unless we see [the MDGs] as a way to participate in God's saving action, they don't accomplish anything," he said. "That's why the idea of them being a substitute for the Stations of the Cross would be beyond heretical and idolatrous."

"The real point of this liturgy was to allow people to prayerfully enter into the MDGs," said Angell, campus missioner at the University of California , San Diego. "Lent is a good time to explore the poverty in our world and the way in which our actions can either prolong that suffering or — through repentance and following the Jesus who calls us to be mindful of the poor — alleviate that suffering."

Related Elsewhere:

A December 2007 Christianity Today editorial looked at the Millennium Development Goals and their abuses.

The Church of England Newspaper had a report on the Stations of the MDGs.

Wikipedia has information on the Stations of the Cross, which have been changed in recent years to eliminate extrabiblical events.

Last year, Christianity Today's Holy Week slideshow incorporated elements of the Stations of the Cross.

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