Could miracles save the Episcopalians?

—David L. Weddle

In “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” (New York Times Sunday Review, July 15), the cranky critic of American religion, Ross Douthat, warned that the Episcopalian Church is in serious danger of extinction. The numbers are on his side: the Pew Research Center lists the membership of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. at 1% of the population compared to Baptists at 11%. Further, Episcopalians have made headlines with their messy break-ups over ordination of gay priests, as well as legal struggles over ownership of cavernous urban houses of worship. Finally, antique creeds, polite choirs, and moralizing sermons do nothing to draw younger congregants who prefer the splashy graphics, praise bands, and feel-good theology of America’s mega-churches. Yes, things do look grim for Episcopalians.

Douthat’s diagnosis is that they have it coming—a demographic retribution for accommodating to contemporary values. The result, as every political flip-flopper learns, is the alienation of the very people you are attempting to win over. The problem is not unique to Episcopalians. Any religion with global ambition faces the challenge of remaining relevant without losing its distinctively religious identity.

So what might Episcopalians do to save themselves while honoring the spirit of St. Paul who boasted of his missionary strategy, “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some”? That would seem an apostolic imprimatur for cultural accommodation, and Douthat acknowledges that religious liberals have done great good in promoting civil rights and social justice. But progressive Christians, in his opinion, “don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.” Ouch. That charge pierces to the heart of religion. If religion has no more to bring to the table than what is already on offer in art, literature, music, politics, philosophy, and science, then why bother with it? Fair question.

Let me suggest to Episcopalians that one answer is to offer a living relation to a real God—not a peculiarly excited disposition or vague moral guidance, but a real deity, personal and active in the world. My question is, do you believe in miracles, actual “signs and wonders”? I know you gave up that belief in deference to scientific explanation and philosophical skepticism. But without miracles—that is, revelatory events initiated from beyond the closed system of material forces—what does finally distinguish you from “a purely secular liberalism”?

Across the world, Christians are embracing miracles with devout enthusiasm. These folks may recite historic creeds and sing traditional hymns, but when they arrive at the altar, they speak in tongues and pray for miraculous healing. They argue that true Christianity is known by the explosive outpouring of divine spirit that marked the first Pentecost. If demographic projections are to be trusted, it is their form of spirituality that is growing across the globe—along with forms of other religions that emphasize supernatural interventions in human welfare. These religions offer what St. Paul called “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Apart from miracles, what demonstrates the divine power that sustains Episcopalians?

David L. Weddle is Professor at Colorado College. He is the author of Miracles: Wonder and Meaning in World Religions (NYU Press, 2010).

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