Geoffrey Kirk looks at the link between Christianity and the eight Millennium Development Goals

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in,’ wrote Screwtape to Wormwood, ‘is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know – Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.’

Armed with Screwtapes excellent advice, Wormwood, it appears, has recently had remarkable success with The Episcopal Church. Adopted at General Convention and heralded in Katharine Jefferts Schori’s inaugural sermon, TEC has officially taken as its credo ‘Christianity AND the MDGs’. If you are not on the very cusp of modernity, you will need an explanation.

What are MDGs?

‘The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),’ says the United Nations’ website, form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. They have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.’

The eight (with a target date which seems unrealistically close) can easily be listed, but less easily achieved. They are: goal 1: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; goal 2: achieve universal primary education; goal 3: promote gender equality and empower women; goal 4: reduce child mortality; goal 5: improve maternal health; goal 6: combat hiv/aids, malaria and other diseases; goal 7: ensure environmental sustainability; goal 8: develop a global partnership for development.

‘Halfway to a 2015 deadline,’ says the website, ‘there has been clear progress towards implementing the Millennium Development Goals. But their overall success is still far from assured, a progress report by the United Nations has found, and will depend in large part on whether developed countries make good on their aid commitments.’

Quite so. Therefore the question must be what contribution, apart from the pressure on government brought by its individual members, TEC can make to the achievement of those goals over the next five years. And the answer will be that very little can be achieved. The Episcopal Church is strapped for cash and unwilling to tighten its belt. It is small (and shrinking), and lacks the influence it once had. It is, on the face of it, slightly absurd for a body in the US with fewer than 900,000 regular committed members to hope to make a difference to the nation as a whole, let alone in solving the medical, educational and cultural problems of the two-thirds world. But that, I think, is not the point.

The point is that a noisy commitment to the MDGs signals a radical change in The Episcopal Church’s self-understanding. It expresses a change in its view of what Christianity is and the Church is for. The old model was one based on beliefs. ‘Mission’ involved the dissemination of a whole raft of doctrines which were thought to be of importance because adherence to them was necessary to salvation. People sought to convert people.

That is, for the most part (except among a small group of recidivist conservatives), no longer the case. Instead of the Church engaging in ‘missions’ which seek to convert, it now sees itself as ‘waging reconciliation. Key to this is Katherine Jefferts Schori’s notion of ‘shalom’. Ian T. Douglas, Professor of Mission and World Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, put the new emphasis clearly in a paper for the TEC House of bishops in March of this year:

‘It is important to emphasize that these Millennium Development Goals, are just that, goals. They are not some kind of unified super-national, global, integrated United Nations Program to cure the ills of the world. Rather they are a vision, a vision of what can be, a vision of a restored, reconciled world, a vision of shalom (if I may build on Johannes Hoekendijk’s and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s understanding of shalom). What is called for in the goals is not then a singular, unified program but a movement, a movement of all the people of the world for the sake of the world, a shalom movement for the sake of’the least of these? This vision, Douglas made clear, does not exist alongside the old dogmatic view of what is Christian: it replaces it.

It would, I suggest, be difficult to exaggerate how radical is this change of direction. For where there is no dogmatic content, there can (beyond each person’s perception of the call they have received to set forward shalom) be no specific moral or ethical demands. Conveniently, TEC – where, for example, divorced and remarried clergy are commonplace, and divorced and remarried bishops not unknown – has discovered a theology which allows it to catch up with its own practice, and extend that ‘openness’ to gay relationships, and who can tell what else. Those who go on about’ biblical standards of morality (not only sexual!) are being dismissed as petty and small-minded, by comparison with the broad ethical commitments of those who are concerned about the ‘big’ issues of the day.

There is to my mind something profoundly offensive in the way in which concern for the poor is being used in order to belittle traditional Christian faith – as though it were impossible to be both doctrinally and morally orthodox and committed to ending poverty and fighting hiv/aids. C.S. Lewis, as so often, got it absolutely right. We should always regard ‘Christianity and…’ with grave suspicion. The tail, in the end, will always wag the dog. But in the case of ‘Christianity and the MDGs’, something altogether more sinister is going on. A concern for the poor, for the Tittle ones of God’, which is a fruit of the Gospel, is being used cynically and deliberately to undermine the very religion which has done most in the world to advance that concern and meet those needs.