A new activist twist on the Stations of the Cross.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
March 19 2008 7:01 AM

Changing Stations

What's wrong with tweaking the Good Friday tradition to make room for child mortality, the environment, and other global problems?

Also in Slate: Larry Hurtado investigated how early Christians wrestled with the idea of resurrection, and James Martin discovered why Easter never became as commercialized as that "Santa" holiday.

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The people at Episcopal Relief and Development who distributed the new liturgy insist that their alternative version was intended to complement, not replace, the traditional stations. They say the service would not be a good choice for Good Friday. And, they add, their cause is a good one: Meeting the Millennium Development Goals is an institutional priority of the Episcopal Church.

Certainly some of the criticism of the liturgy can be written off as more of the usual sniping by liturgical traditionalists at social activists, part of the ongoing division among Anglicans. And—also as usual—there was plenty of more-pious-than-thou posturing on display. One of the perils of defending old-style "smells and bells" worship is that you may find yourself on the same team with the kind of blog posters who take it upon themselves to accuse others of mortal sin.

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But even allowing for these stipulations and noting the worthiness of the Millennium Development Goals themselves, the liturgy strikes a disconcerting note.

Part of the problem is the suggested activities, some of which smack of grade-school art assignments. (Finger paints?) Then there's the language, which too often slides into the bland agreeability of the corporate mission statement. ("Clean water, sanitation, and development can work together to save lives and create productive, thriving societies and safeguard our planet.")

The value of liturgy lies in its ability to unite people around powerful ritual moments. But the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals appropriate the form of the old-school Stations of the Cross service without retaining the sense of sacred mystery that makes it so powerful. That's no sin—but it is a bit of a shame.

Andrew Santella's essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and GQ.