Episcopal Church Decline

September 6, 2018

Bishop Curry’s “Love” Language Doesn’t Halt Episcopal Decline

Evangelistic language and exhortations to embrace the “Jesus Movement” by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry have not yet resulted in a decrease in Episcopal Church decline, according to statistics recently released by the Office of the General Convention.

Episcopalians continue a multi-year decline in both membership and attendance in 2017.

A loss of 13,709 attendees to a total of 556,744 resulted in a 2.4% decline in average Sunday attendance (ASA), despite occurring in a year when Christmas Eve occurred on a Sunday, which typically boosts attendance figures. The church’s 10 year decline in attendance currently stands at 24%. The mean ASA is 55 persons, down from 57 in 2016.

Membership experienced a more gradual drop, down 32,593 (1.9%) to 1,712,563 baptized members in U.S. domestic dioceses. Membership, attendance, and plate-and-pledge income are among three objective data points tracked year-over-year by the denomination.

Curry, elected as Presiding Bishop at the denomination’s 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, has garnered significant media attention for his embrace of language associated with evangelism and revival. In May of 2018 he delivered a homily at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom. The address led to numerous televised interviews in the following days in which Curry repeated his message that “love is the way”.

Uninterrupted Decline

Most Episcopal Church dioceses across the United States experienced declines in membership and attendance, with those in the northeastern Province I hit hardest (down 2% in membership and 4.2% in attendance) followed by the upper Midwest Province V (down 3.2% in membership and 3.6% in attendance). Rural and Rustbelt dioceses continue the steepest declines, which are more gradual in the South and Mid-Atlantic regions.

The tiny Diocese of Northern Michigan – known for selecting a Zen Buddhist bishop-elect in 2009 whose election was denied necessary consent by the wider church – continues to be among the hardest-hit, experiencing a 12.7% decline in ASA, now down to 411 persons. The rump Episcopal Diocese of Quincy was prompted to juncture into the neighboring Diocese of Chicago when it reached approximately 380 attendees. While a juncture of dioceses could save on administrative expenses and shared resources, it would also result in the loss of eight seats in the church’s House of Deputies, making for a strong disincentive. Each diocese in the church may send a delegation of four clergy and four lay delegates to the triennial General Convention, regardless of the size of the diocese.

“Renewing dioceses” attempting to rebuild after their leaders and majority of congregants voted to depart the Episcopal Church continue to be a mixed bag: the Episcopal Church in South Carolina reports a 3.6% gain in membership and a 1.2% decline in attendance, while the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin suffered a 5.3% drop in members and 6.9% drop in attendance to 810. The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth declined 0.5% in members and 5.1% in attendance, while Pittsburgh lost 4% of members but inched up 1.3% in attendance.

Some of the “Communion Partner” dioceses which have opted out of same-sex marriage rites held steady. Albany experienced a modest 1% drop in members and 0.4% drop in attendance, Dallas also had a 1% drop in members and a 0.3% drop in attendance. Central Florida saw a 2.3% decline in members but only a 0.5% drop in attendance. Florida was a rare diocese to see both membership (1.8%) and attendance (0.2%) growth, with Tennessee close behind at 0.2% growth in members and a 0% change in attendance. Springfield (Central and Southern Illinois) saw only a 0.3% drop in members, but a 5.7% drop in attendance, North Dakota experienced a 3.4% drop in members but only a 0.8% drop in attendance.

In contrast, some of the denomination’s steeper losses were in some progressive dioceses. New England dioceses of Vermont and New Hampshire faced 5% and 5.1% declines in attendance, respectively, with Rhode Island decreasing 5.7%. Other dioceses facing outsized attendance declines were El Camino Real (Central California coast) 5.7%, Northern California at 5.4%, Navajo Missions at 12.4%, Micronesia at 10%, West Missouri at 5.1%, Northwest Texas at 5.2%, South Dakota at 5.1%, Ohio at 5.2%, Central Pennsylvania at 5%, and Louisiana at 7.7%.

A few dioceses reporting attendance growth were Rochester, New York at 12.3%, breaking a long trend of decline with an increase of 368 attendees to 3,362, and Central Gulf Coast at 2.7%, with an increase of 152 attendees to 5,686. The tiny rural diocese of Western Kansas increased attendance 3.2%, increasing by 18 persons to 574 in total. Overseas dioceses including Taiwan and Colombia also reported increased attendance of 10.3% and 11.3%, respectively.

The list of 2017 statistics by province and diocese can be accessed here: https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/22942

The church’s official 2017 table of statistics includes information on baptisms, confirmations, receptions, weddings and burials and is typically released in December. Complete 2016 statistics can be accessed by clicking here (This report will be updated when 2017 statistics are made available).


17 Responses to Bishop Curry’s “Love” Language Doesn’t Halt Episcopal Decline

  1. David says:

    “The parallel trend of declining growth rates among both mainline and conservative denominations points to an overriding societal pattern that transcends theology and church growth strategy. That society-wide pattern is the supply of new people: the birth rate.

    Changes in the mainline church membership denominations, including the Episcopal Church track extremely closely to the
    birth rate for white Americans who make up the primary constituency of mainline denominations
    relationship)… In statistical terms, 88% of the year to year variation in mainline membership can be explained by the birth rate.” This study was from 2002. A more recent one finds: “The average age of an Episcopalian in 2011 was 57 years old. In 2017, it is closer to 64. What this means is that roughly three-fifths of the Church’s membership will be dead in the next twelve to sixteen years.”

    Then we have the decline in audiences for classical music, the mainstay of Episcopal churches, and people do select churches on their music. So, we should not read so much into recent issues with post hoc fallacies as the trends have been going on for some time.

    • Steve says:

      Your comment is internally self contradictory. You have indicated that three quarters of Episcopalians will be dead in a dozen years or so. Do you really think three quarters of whites will be dead in the same time period? Obviously, Episcopal Church membership/attendance does NOT closely track white demographics.
      As regards music: since the 60s, the Episcopal church has offered a wide range of music types, not just traditional/classical, including but not limited to contemporary. While this had some occasional success, that kind of music tends to attract more conservatives than liberals, and these services were decimated about the same time the gay bishop was ordained. Currently clergy doesn’t want contemporary, because they recognize it typically contains conservative (bible based) theology; clergy currently wants to eliminate it and replace it with things NOBODY likes, particularly Taize and “Music That Builds Communities”. Try searching for that kind of music on YouTube (“Anna Hernandez” is a prominent exponent) and you can see that the views are in the low dozens (extremely unpopular). I assume (and you’d probably agree) that quality traditional/classical liturgical music has lots of hits; something like Handel’s Messiah performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir probably has hits in the hundreds of thousands. There’s no need to guess what music is popular and not, just check the views on YouTube. By that standard, what the clergy is doing now is absolutely toxic. Bet you’d rather hear The Messiah too.

  2. Tony says:

    Anyone who tries to minimize a 24% decline over 10 years really has their head in the sand. To try to deflect to it’s happening elsewhere is not at all helpful. How can pecusa pull out of their slide should be the response of any responsible person.

  3. Tony says:

    As a point of comparison, the ACNA has grown from roughly 100,00 members in 2007 to over 134,000 in 2017. Also, the average age of parishioners and clergy is lower than in pecusa.

    • Tony says:

      One error: actually the ACNA was formed in 2009, not in 2007 as I stated. So, the growth in the ACNA has been over a shorter period than the ten years of pecusa decline.

  4. Donald says:

    Memo to TEC, PCUSA, ELCA, DoC, et. al regarding all of these data points.: You can put lipstick on a pig, but in the end it is still a pig. So far in the race to see which one of these Seven Sisters can get below 1,000,000 members, it looks like the PCUSA is ‘winning,’ which means the TEC’s pig is a bit more attractive.
    But the TEC and the other Sisters still remain what they are: declining denominations in the fever swamp of apostasy.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      You’re correct that the PCUSA has been experiencing the highest rate of decline (currently about 5%, I think) but the smallest of the seven sisters is the Disciples of Christ. They’ve Absolutely tanked in recent years.

    • Loren Golden says:

      The PC(USA) and its immediate predecessors, the UPCUSA and the PCUS, have had unmitigated net membership decline every year since 1965.  Conversely, the Episcopal Church membership has occasionally rebounded during the same time, but the overall trend has been decline.
       
      Both Presbyterianism and Anglicanism/Episcopalianism generally appeal to college-educated adults, with an insistence on higher educational standards for their clergy, resulting in more erudite sermons in general.  The difference is that Presbyterianism has historically relied more heavily on theology, whereas Anglicanism/Episcopalianism has relied more on a formal liturgy.  (This should not be construed to suggest that Presbyterians are ignorant of liturgy, nor Anglicans/Episcopalians of theology, but the difference has been primarily one of emphasis.)
       
      Thus, the Episcopal Church has been more effective at attracting Progressive Roman Catholics who have become disaffected by the Roman Catholic Church’s more traditional stance on matters such as sexual ethics and abortion, yet who want to retain the emphasis on liturgy found in Roman Catholicism.
       
      The PC(USA), by contrast, now emphasizes social righteousness, seeking to develop a “theology” (loosely understood) to support its goals of sociopolitical reform.  However, this approach really does not have much appeal to Progressive Christians not already in the PC(USA), because those individuals are usually found either in other Mainline Protestant denominations or in non-denominational churches; in the case of the former, the PC(USA) does not have anything to offer than that which they already have; and in the case of the latter, such individuals are more apt to stay and try to subvert their respective church homes to their sociopolitical goals.
       
      Neither the PC(USA) nor the Episcopal Church has anything to offer those outside the pale of the Church, because the only thing they have to offer is an anthropocentric worldview with a veneer of religiosity, in which Christ is held up as a role model of Progressive Christianity, and not as the Head of the Church with His own agenda independent of the goals of Progressive Christianity.  Hence, the decline.
       
      And the decline in membership and cultural relevance will continue for both denominations, unless there is a massive reformation, in which Jesus Christ and Him crucified to atone for the sins of humankind becomes “of first importance” (I Cor. 15.3-4) once again.  However, the forces of worldly subversion are entrenched in power in the denominations’ national and regional governments and in their institutions of clerical education, making a modern-day reformation extremely improbable.

  5. William says:

    Perhaps one of the saddest points in the 2,000 year history of Christianity — when the Good News Gospel of repentance, forgiveness, conversion, and a new transformed life in Jesus Christ became a mere footnote in the message of these denominations. Is there a greater sin than that of large sectors of our contemporary Christian clergy of not bringing this message to the lost masses?

  6. Liz says:

    David said, “Currently clergy doesn’t want contemporary, because they recognize it typically contains conservative (bible based) theology;” Wow! I didn’t realize this was the reason. Good point! I have often felt as if anything bible based is anathema for TEC.
    I recently found an ACNA church and I love it! It is spirit filled and “back to the Bible” and yes, they have a contemporary service!
    Compared the dead or dying TEC, it seems to be filled with life! Here are 4 reasons why:
    1. It is growing.
    2. It is attracting families with children and conducting baptisms of kids.
    3. It is attracting evangelicals who want a more liturgical church, and not only Catholics/ Episcopalians.
    4. The church is able to quickly raise money in capital campaigns.
    And you have to remember that they had to start from ZERO because they had to leave their buildings and assets, unlike churches who left PCUSA to join Eco.
    But the thing that really strikes me is that I have not had a single discussion about politics till now. We go to study the Bible and meet JESUS – not to trash politicians. Or anybody else!

    • Steve says:

      Just want to clarify a couple things:
      I (Steve, not David) left the post you are referencing.
      I wasn’t trying to say that clergy ever said they didn’t want contemporary because it was “bible based”; that’s just my take on end result; I’m reasonably sure all clergy of all types would say their music is bible based.

  7. Charles Barfield says:

    Society is partly to blame for the decline in church attendance. Separation of Church and State has come to mean Removal of Religion from public life. The government is de facto atheist; although officially just non-theist.

    Of course, the lunatic policy of the Episcopal Church has accelerated its decline. It taakes a pretty special mentality to support a Church that is so tolerant it will allow an atheist like Spong to be a bishop. By conservative traditional standards, he would not even be given a Communion wafer, let alone accepted as a bishop.

  8. mike geibel says:

    In three years, the Episcopal Church has lost over 100,000 members. All these people did not die, and the attrition rate obviously has surpassed clergy’s ability to attract a younger audience. The Episcopal Church prior to the 2016 election was 40% conservatives who either voted for Trump or against Clinton. It is an odd marketing plan to denounce Trump and Republicans, and then be surprised when the Elephants don’t show up at church the following Sunday.

    Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) is now down to 55 members per church and these numbers are probably inflated. Clergy are counted as part of the ASA, and if there are two services, can be counted twice. See, https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/20500, page 9. For a Church that claims to have 1.7 million baptized members, only 556,744 (less than 1/3rd) usually show up on Sunday.

    Shortly after the 2016 election, my LA diocese declared itself a “sanctuary diocese” with a mission from God to harbor illegal aliens, a felony under federal law. My local church held a special “Lament” service to bemoan the election of Trump and the defeat of Clinton. I didn’t even vote for Trump but that was my last day as an Episcopalian.

    Certainly there are many contributing causes to the exodus from the pews, including an aging membership, the rise of secularism, demographics, the modern practice of scheduling youth sports (soccer, etc.) on Sundays, and the the mind-numbing distractions of TV sports such as NFL football. One would think the TEC leadership would be mindful of the shrinking audience and take care not to alienate members whose politics do not match the progressive political activism and “social justice” politicking that has dominated the new Episcopal Church.

    A leadership, top-heavy with Bishops and Activist Committee Members who minister to no congregations, has become more political, more leftist, more divisive, and more activist, and in the last two years has espoused pathological hate towards Trump and Republicans and anything conservative. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in pledge money has been wasted on lawyers filing amicus briefs seeking to judicially mandate who and what kind of cake you can bake, whether a 17 year-old transgender female can shower with the boys in PE class, and whether any restrictions can be placed on immigration from countries identified as fostering terrorism and the murder of innocent American citizens. The Church mantra as become: “No borders, no jails, no guns, no pipelines, no immigration laws, no gender pronouns, no gender- based bathrooms, and no Israel.” The anti-Israel mindset was typified by Bishop Suffragen Gayle E. Harris of Massachusetts who was forced to apologize for bearing false witness when she claimed to have personally witnessed Israel Security Forces murder an innocent 15 year-old Palestinian by shooting him 10 times in the back, and putting a 3-year old child in handcuffs for letting his ball roll into the Walling Wall. https://www.jta.org/2018/08/21/top-headlines/episcopal-bishop-apologizes-sharing-false-stories-israeli-atrocities

    Shortly before the 79th Convention, Bishop Curry signed the “Reclaiming Jesus” proclamation which included statements that our immigration laws are racist, that Trump’s Tax Reform was immoral, and that “America First” was heresy. The many “hot topics of debate” at the 79th convention were all about trying to fix the world, punish Israel, and improve our pronoun choices.

    The more recent evangelism resolutions by Bishop Curry at least try to stem the hemorrhaging. Perhaps Bishop Curry reached his own epiphany and has launched the “power of love” as a new starting point—at least it is a way to voice his passions without polarizing half of the membership with politicized resolutions. Episcopalians now number less than 0.5% of the population of the United States, yet the clergy elite within the church continue to claim their right and Christian duty to blend politics with Christianity. Even now, Bishop Curry’s purist message of love is being politicized by Clergy morphing it into a new slogan: “Love—and Justice.”

    Claiming that many of the “social justice” Church Resolutions were not political does not mean they were not politically motivated. Painting a crocodile purple does not mean it’s not a crocodile.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Mike. Two points of clarification: 55 is the mean Sunday attendance, not the average Sunday attendance. The ASA is 86.

      We also have data on Episcopal Church burials in 2016 (2017 numbers will be out around December) which were 27,461 in domestic dioceses. While there are baptisms and receptions/confirmations that account for new members, this amount of deaths is remarkably close to the 34,179 total members lost that year. We are in agreement that a significant number of people are also walking away from the Episcopal Church, but the church’s aging population is probably the primary culprit here. This doesn’t excuse Episcopal Church officials from their failure to foster programs and a church culture that evangelizes and brings in new young people, but as the age of the average Episcopalian rises, we can expect many more deaths in the coming years.

  9. Rev. Paul says:

    Nothing is more dangerous than an unbelieving ministry. You can’t sell what you won’t buy. Sadly, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with liturgical churches; they would require the very best leadership of all in today’s church shopping climate.

    Across the board they have not had that

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