Episcopal Church Decline

September 3, 2019

“Love” and Labyrinths: Episcopal Attendance Plummets

Welcome banners proclaiming messages of indiscriminate affirmation paired with freshly installed labyrinths don’t appear to be slowing the ongoing Episcopal Church decline trend.

Statistics recently released by the Office of the General Convention show membership continued a gradual, uninterrupted drop of 36,214 persons to 1,676,349 (2.1%) in 2018, while average Sunday attendance declined 23,538 to 533,206 (4.2%). Across the denomination, nearly three-quarters of Episcopal parishes now have an average attendance of fewer than 100 persons. Median attendance across the church has dropped to 53. During the past five years, 59% of congregations have seen attendance declines of 10% or more.

The continued decline in members and attendees, even in major metropolitan areas, threatens the ability of the denomination to effectively continue ministry nationwide.

Outside of the state of Texas and Navajo Missions, no domestic diocese reports an increase in attendance, although declines vary widely. The northeastern regional Province 1 continues to shed attendance faster than any other region in the church, dropping 6.2%. Episcopal provinces are regional groups of dioceses, equivalent to Presbyterian synods or United Methodist regional jurisdictions.

The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire that first elected an openly partnered gay bishop in 2003 reported a 2018 attendance decline of 19.9%. The relatively traditionalist dioceses of Florida and Springfield (Illinois) reported declines of 0.7% and 0.8%, respectively. Excepting Navajo Missions, the smallest diocese by attendance continues to be Northern Michigan, which dropped 4.4% to 393 attendees and was the only diocese to record zero adult baptisms and zero confirmations in 2018. Shrinking dioceses have little incentive to juncture with neighbors: doing so would effectively forfeit an eight person deputation to General Convention, which is the same size deputation as larger dioceses like Texas (22,350 attendees) receive.

Geography continues to play a role in church decline, with several Rust Belt and Northeastern dioceses faring worse off than some southern dioceses, and dioceses with significant coverage of rural areas shrinking faster than those with larger urban populations. Formerly traditionalist dioceses now under progressive leadership seem to be faring especially badly. The Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, where Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg was married and is a parishioner, shed 9.5% of attendees in a single year.

Children’s baptisms in domestic dioceses declined from 20,069 in 2017 to 18,873 in 2018 (6%). Marriages dropped from 7,687 to 6,878 (11%). Burials declined from 27,355 to 26,377 (4%). Child baptisms only outnumbered burials in two of the nine provinces. One of those (Province IX) is entirely overseas dioceses; the other (Province II) includes three overseas dioceses (Europe, Haiti, Virgin Islands).

Occasional Bright Spots

Despite sustained decline, the Episcopal Church didn’t shrink everywhere in 2018. Notably, non-domestic dioceses (many of whom did not support same-sex marriage rites) saw attendance nudge upward by 0.2%. Similarly, the denomination’s flagship church, the Washington National Cathedral, reports an attendance rebound from 1,200 to nearly 1,500 in 2018, even as plate-and-pledge dropped more than one third, possibly indicating an increase in Sunday visitors. The cathedral’s politically liberal and strident Dean Gary Hall was succeeded by Dean Randy Hollerith, who is less outspoken, in 2016.

In comparison, the wider Episcopal Diocese of Washington saw attendance drop 3.4 percent the same year. Nearby parishes reported decline, including neighboring St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, down from 500 attendees to 300 in the past decade. St. Columba’s, once the largest Episcopal parish in Northwest Washington, D.C., saw attendance drop from nearly 800 in 2008 to about 500 in 2018. St. Paul’s Parish, once a flagship church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, has declined in attendance about 40 percent in the same time period. Changes in teaching appear to have played a role at St. Paul’s, where clergy in same-sex marriages joined the staff there.

Across the Potomac River, the historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, has struggled with departures after church officials announced plans to remove plaques commemorating historic church members President George Washington and General Robert E. Lee. In the past decade, Christ Church has dropped from approximately 700 Sunday attendees down to 400, while losing a quarter million dollars from its annual plate-and-pledge income. Membership has dropped from more than 2,500 down to approximately 1,500.

Further south in Virginia, the historic Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, now re-named Grace Episcopal Church, attendance has dropped from 225 in 2012 to 140 in 2018. Membership dropped from 425 to 275.

2018 statistics by province and diocese can be accessed here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/5._statistical_totals_for_the_episcopal_church_by_province_and_diocese_2017-2018.pdf

The church’s official 2018 table of statistics includes information on baptisms, confirmations, receptions, weddings and burials. It can be accessed by clicking here.

A report on the 2017 numbers can be viewed here.

42 Responses to “Love” and Labyrinths: Episcopal Attendance Plummets

  1. Nick says:

    Don’t forget the self-styled “Historic Christ Church” in Alexandria, Va. They removed Washington and Lee and suffered a collapse.

  2. David says:

    I am still hesitant about making a big deal about numbers – the world is actually filled with false religions that are quite popular. The decline of liberal Christianity is notable only because:

    1. They keep (they still keep) trying to tell conservatives to behave like them or the conservative churches will die. For some bizarre reason the death of their own churches doesn’t seem to affect their reasoning on this matter.

    2. They die not merely for preaching a false message but for preaching a message that, ultimately, means you don’t need liberal Christianity either. Eventually their congregants either finally believe them and stop attending, or convert to orthodoxy and leave for another church.

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Hello David, we’re in agreement. Retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark Jack Spong insisted for years that Christianity must change or die. The change he envisioned was a repudiation of Christian orthodoxy (indeed, Spong now identifies as a “non-theist”). Yet Spong’s diocese declined catastrophically during his tenure, and continues to drop.

      IRD reports these mainline Protestant declines not because they will cause progressive Christians to reassess and return to orthodoxy (absent the work of the Holy Spirit, an objective review of data alone won’t be sufficient, since there is disagreement about the multifaceted causes of the decline). Our intended audience is instead wavering orthodox Christians, whom we strive to show the consequences of cultural capitulation. If we abandon the Gospel, we are cut off from the Holy Spirit and our worshiping communities cease to be “salt and light” to the surrounding people. As Mark Tooley notes, conservative theology itself is no guarantee of church growth, but long-term, it is a prerequisite. There is no liberal Christian denomination in the United States that reports year-over-year growth. None.

      • Jeff Winter says:

        As a former long-term PCUSA pastor I affirm Jeff Walton’s words as well as Mark Tooley’s. I am now in a much smaller Presbyterian denomination that affirms the essentials of the Christian faith, believes that Jesus is the ONLY WAY to eternal life, that life begins at conception, that marriage is ONLY between a man and a woman and that homosexual expression and transgenderism are aberrations from God’s will. Our denomination is growing. I wonder why?

        • The same could be said of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, except that it has stopped growing, at least temporarily.  The EPC’s 2017 Annual Statistical Report stated that the membership at the end of 2016 was 151,863, and the membership at the end of 2017 had fallen to 147,918 (2.6% decline).  The EPC’s 2018 Annual Statistical Report corrected the 2017 membership downward to 145,503 (4.2% drop from 2016) and reported that the membership at the end of 2018 had slipped to 145,210 (0.2% decline from 2017).
          To be sure, a two-year decline is hardly a trend, and the 4.4% two-year percentage loss was half that of the PC(USA) over the same two years.  Nevertheless, we must avoid the trap of thinking that if we affirm the essentials of the Christian faith, faithfully preach the Gospel from the pulpit week after week, and teach all the right doctrines in accordance with the Word of God, that we cannot but grow.  A 53-year unbroken streak of annual membership losses is a sure sign of a seriously unhealthy church, and the explosive growth reported of the nascent Church in Acts 2.41,47, 5.14, 6.7, 9.31,35,42, 11.21,24, 16.5 is nothing short of miraculous, but we must be particularly cautious of boasting in our growth, especially considering our natural sinful bent toward the idolatry of works righteousness.  Thus, we must endeavor to be like Paul, who wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (I Cor. 3.6-7)

  3. Eddie says:

    Who could have possibly guessed that repudiating 2000 years of moral teaching would make people think the church didn’t really stand for anything.

  4. Ted Kim says:

    Dear sirs
    Do you think that perhaps the decline in membership in the Episcopal Church mirrors the similar phenomenon in Western Europe?

  5. “Statistics recently released by the Office of the General Convention show membership continued a gradual, uninterrupted drop of 36,214 persons to 1,676,349 (2.1%) in 2018, while average Sunday attendance declined 23,538 to 533,206 (4.2%).”
    Presbyterian Church (USA) denominational officials would love to see membership losses that low.

    • JR says:

      Those numbers seem to be right on trend with the most recent ones from the UMC (for the US).

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Indeed. the PC(USA) has experienced nearly unparalleled levels of decline in recent years (I say “nearly” because the Disciples of Christ are doing their best to catch up with the PC(USA) in the race downhill).

      Now for the question: what makes the PC(USA) so much worse than the Episcopal Church in decline? Honesty. PC(USA) congregations pay a per-capita assessment to the General Assembly of $8.95. If you have 5,000 members on your session’s rolls, that’s nearly $45,000 annually. As a result, there is a strong disincentive to keep inactive members on a church’s rolls. This is a chief reason why the PC(USA) has reported catastrophic decline: their congregations were incentivized to be honest. The Episcopal Church has no such incentive, so we regularly see congregations with membership that is 3,4,5,6,7, or even 8 times the size of average Sunday attendance. Everyone knows most of these people haven’t darkened the door of the church in years, but there is no motivation to remove them. If anyone thinks the Episcopal Church actually has 1.7 million members, they’re mistaken: in reality, it is much, much less.

      • Steve says:

        Actually Episcopal congregations do have at least one incentive not to overreport; the suggested salary and benefits for clergy is based upon the alleged size of the church. So, congregations have incentive to understate (at least when seeking to hire clergy) and clergy has an incentive to overstate. I suspect congregations might tend to adjust the numbers lower when going through a period without clergy.

        • Joel Morsch says:

          As a retired priest of TEC I can assure you that the alleged size of a parish does effect either the compensation or retirement pay for any clergy in TEC. Retirement must be paid by the parish for the clergy as an 18% assessment on the annual stipend of the clergy. In fact a wise priest upon entering their calling always purges the membership records. Please do not state things as facts that are not. The article is accurate many comments seem to be conjecture.

          • Steve says:

            Sorry, thanks for the correction and insight, I think I’m seeing now that clergy compensation guidelines are based on ASA, not membership; that’s correct, right?

          • Steve says:

            St Andrews Episcopal Church, Edwardsville, IL, Diocese of Springfield, apparently went from a membership of over 240 to under 120 in the past year, so you appear to be of those wise priests you mention.

          • Steve says:

            I’m aware of at least one large diocese (not yours) where clergy compensation guidelines are based on ASA; don’t actually know how common that is (and wasn’t inclined to research it – too many dioceses).

      • Be that as it may, the Episcopal Church has a leg up on the Presbyterian Church (USA) when it comes to attracting one segment of the population: disaffected liberal Catholics.  The high church liturgy of Episcopalianism is akin to that of Roman Catholicism, and although many liberal Catholics are disenchanted by the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to embrace postmodern ideologies, especially related to human sexuality, they still have a fondness for Roman Catholic liturgy, and the Episcopal Church, with its marriage of high church liturgy, like that found in Roman Catholicism, with the compromised theology that gives liberals everything they demand with respect to capitulating to the spirit of the age, many liberal Catholics find a home in the Episcopal Church—although not enough to offset the hemorrhaging membership losses and falling worship attendance, obviously.

  6. JR says:

    “The Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire that first elected an openly partnered gay bishop in 2003 reported a 2018 attendance decline of 19.9%.”

    So electing an openly partnered gay bishop caused, 15 years later, a precipitous one-year drop in attendance of almost 20%? And let’s note, Bishop Robinson retired 5 years ago.

    That’s some SERIOUS lag time in the old ’cause and effect’ process. Or, much more likely, your implied premise (that previously having a gay Bishop caused a huge drop in attendance) is wholly incorrect.

    I haven’t seen any of the source data you must have to derive the 19.9% drop; certainly I would think that the current Bishop has some idea of why such a significant drop had occurred on his watch. Maybe a good practice from both a journalistic and Christian perspective would be to ask him directly?

    • David says:

      Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: “after this, therefore because of this”) is an informal fallacy that states: “Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.”

      • MikeS says:

        I think that the decline is due to their lack of anything interesting or unique to say. If you can get the same essential leftist message from the NY Times in the comfort of your own home, why bother going out to church?

        • Steve says:

          Everybody needs to get out of the house. Lots of seniors go to McDonald’s, reputedly for the discounted coffee but also for conversation and because McDonald’s is welcoming. Sometimes a bunch will go from there to a church. Getting younger people to go with them would be harder presumably.

        • About a year and a half ago, David French at the National Review said much the same thing in an article entitled, “This Is How Religious Liberty Really Dies” (https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/02/religious-liberty-threatened-culture-government/).  The pertinent text is as follows:
          “And it simply doesn’t work.  The Christian community and Christian service that people love are ultimately inseparable from the entirety of the Christian faith that spawned them.  Carve out the doctrines that conflict with modern morals and you gut the faith.  When you gut the faith, you ultimately gut the church.
          “It makes sense then that mainline denominations aren’t thriving.  They’re dying.  Without the eternal truths of the Christian faith, the church becomes just another social club.  Why sacrifice your time and money for the same wisdom you can hear at your leisure on NPR?”

    • Jeffrey Walton says:

      Hello JR, I don’t assert that the consecration of an openly partnered gay bishop in 2003 caused a 20% attendance drop in 2018. I do see evidence that it has been a contributing factor, among many reasons, for a continued decline. In 2003 the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire reported 15,621 members and an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of 4,858. In 2018, it reported 11,615 members (-26%) and 3,343 attendees (-31%). My source data is already linked at the bottom of the blog post, but you can contrast 2003 data here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/CD_2003Statistics.pdf with 2018 data here: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/documents/2018_table_of_statistics.pdf

      I have reviewed the data, and the cause of the 20% drop in 2018 was twofold: overall congregational decline across most of the diocese, paired with no longer reporting mandatory chapel attendance from one of two Episcopal schools as part of Sunday attendance (Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul in Concord). I first wrote about the inclusion of those school chapel services in 2015: https://juicyecumenism.com/2015/12/10/whos-counting-episcopalians-and-attendance/

      I hope that this information is helpful as we seek to document and understand the multifaceted causes of the ongoing Episcopal Church membership and attendance decline.

      • JR says:

        I appreciate the update. I think it’s a pretty weak link to derive causality of the drop to a gay bishop elevation.

        Even the Southern Baptists have seen a (small) decline.

        I do think the larger cultural battle has a pretty big impact, as younger folks seem to by-and-large avoiding church in general. I think that is lessened in areas where the overall subculture is aligned with the locally dominant church (i.e. the south).

        • James D. Berkley says:

          It is my understanding and memory that the Diocese of New Hampshire has been in a tailspin for years. It may have lost an excessive number in 2018, but for at least a decade or two, it has been shedding large numbers of its members on an annual basis. Bishop Robinson presided over a great loss of members, and the losses sadly continue.

    • Igor says:

      Well, actually, I believe that the diocese of NH augered into the ground handily during Gene Robinson’s tenure as well — not simply in 2018. Walton seems to be merely noting the continuing, long-term, amazing plummet in NH.

    • I agree that is not a tight cause-and-effect. However, the Episcopalians here in NH who are trying to get alternative Anglican congregations started generally mention it, so It’s not nothing.

  7. David says:

    The linked article on labyrinths does not make a great deal of sense. Why were they made large enough to accommodate persons if they were just ornamental patterns. Smaller designs would be much more visible and decorative. Several sources mention labyrinths were a penitential practice transversed on one’s knees in the Middle Ages. Similar practices persist at the Sacred Stairs in Rome, Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico City, and elsewhere.

  8. mike geibel says:

    Yes, the claim of 1.676+ million total members must be inflated, as only 1/3 of this number, 533,206, regularly attend church. The ASA count is also inflated because it includes clergy, and if there is more than one service, clergy are counted twice.

    For prospective: The USA has a reported population of 330 million. 1.6 million Episcopalians would represent less than 0.5% of society. An estimated 48% of the population is Christian (but declining), so the TEC is less than 1% of all Christians in America. A Study from Yale states there are 22.8 million undocumented immigrants living in the USA—double the number stated by the Dept. of Homeland Security and 20 times the number of Episcopalians. Up to 3.5 million people in the USA are homeless at any given time so there are more homeless Americans than Episcopalians. How ironic that there are more than twice as many members in the NRA (a popular target of the TEC) than in the Episcopal Church. The TEC is truly the gnat on the horn of the Bull, yet continues to assume its moral superiority on social and political issues even as its influence is vanishing.

    Causes of decline—maybe? Old members are dying and not being replaced, birth rates are stagnant, partisan politicking is toxic, and a general malaise caused by the replacement of Christ’s appeal to the righteous life of the individual with the TEC’s “political correctness creed” to be imposed on all of us. This creed requires a one world order with no borders, no guns, no Israel, no genders, and a mantra that our sexist, racist, evil American society must be destroyed, one pronoun at a time. The Kingdom of Heaven can only be reached by a partisan activist agenda, but where the Church will get its pledge money when we are all equally poor and equally unhappy, remains a mystery.

  9. “An estimated 48% of the population is Christian (but declining).”
    As a percentage of the American population, yes.  But the number of Christians is rising.  See Joe Carter’s article, “FactChecker: Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?”, published 3-1/2 years ago on the Gospel Coalition’s website (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline/).

  10. mike geibel says:

    My bad— about 48% of the Population is Protestant:

    “In 2016, Christians represent 73.7% of the total population, 48.9% identifying as Protestants, 23.0% as Catholics, and 1.8% as Mormons, and are followed by people having no religion with 18.2% of the total population. “


  11. David says:

    A more recent survey has “nones”slightly outnumbering Catholics and Evangelicals.


  12. Tom C Fuller says:

    You never hear them talk about their victims. Where is the love shown toward the children they abandon to chase after their desires and gratify their lusts?

  13. John Donaldson says:

    As an interesting contrast, how are the Anglican churches doing in the USA?

  14. Leon M. Green says:

    Per John 8:1-11 we are not to judge them. Per all his preaching against fornication: sex outside of marriage, and that marriage is between a man and a woman, and Paul’s Romans 1:22-32 they have to know deepest down they are wrong. But again Paul reminds us in Romans 2:1-11 not to judge. We may, and must, preach: rebuke, reprove, exhort. And remember to pray for our enemies, Matthew 5:44; and that whatever they say about us, Jesus already took care of it: Romans 15:3.

  15. Jim Radford says:

    Even if the United Methodist Church doesn’t go the route taken by the Episcopalians–and God bless the Anglicans–and I continue to hope and pray that it doesn’t, I don’t look for the decline in our own church to stop, slow, or reverse, until we learn to get the story straight and tell the truth. I realize how ambiguous (and maybe even presumptuous) such a statement could be perceived, but, for the life of me, I don’t see how those who want to depart, who are calling for it, and who long for it, actually think and believe that if they had their way, if their doctrine was embraced, and everyone else got on board with them, then everything would be different, and then all would be well. As the IRD is doing–and I say God bless you, too–I am fighting against post-modern, liberal, secular religiosity as well, but I will say that I do not think that the mainstream of evangelical/fundamental Christianity (and I am not really referring to the well-meaning, thoughtful, informed, and intelligent evangelical and conservative-minded folks who comment here) is going to cut it, so-to-speak, no matter how dedicated they are to upholding Historic Orthodox Creedal Christianity. It would be great, and a nice starting point, if everyone were on board with HOCC. But I have run into far too many mean-spirited, judgmental, dogmatic, separatist-minded Christians on both sides, left and right, and in all camps including Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Traditionalists, to believe that apart from a direct outpouring of the Holy Spirit of Truth, the risen Lord Jesus Himself–i.e., a genuine revival–to believe that anything is going to change. I don’t believe that the returning Lord Jesus is going to preside over such a fractured, pluralistic, and “dis-unified” (my non-word) culture. I believe that He would first have to transcend all the current division, and sovereignly unify His body. How do you think He’s going to do that? By encouraging more schisms? More “true believers?” I think not.

  16. Larry Rued says:

    The membership losses would be much worse if the churches were allowed to leave these denominations with the property that was bought and paid for by the local church.

  17. Doug comer says:

    I left the ECUSA (confirmed at christ church Alex. Va) after the general convention voted to allow gay priests and a same sex marriage “blessing”. This after then Bishop Lee dishonored his own commitment not to support those moves. That was not about principle, it was about the desire to accommodate social pressures. Lee was completely dishonest in that action. This at a time when I was striving to instill scripture based values on sex and marriage in my 11 year old son. I felt completely and totally undermined as a parent by those actions of the church. And my local congregation meekly accepted them and then drove out our parish priest who disagreed with bishop Lee on those decisions.

    I will never return to this corrupted, dead institution. Without the vine, the grapes wither.

  18. Aaron Fraustro says:

    They’ve updated their stats. It’s 4.5% decline now for ASA.

  19. Sharon Lundgren says:

    When you embrace everything, then you stand for nothing. That is what is happening in these ECUSA parishes. Jesus said, “No one comes to God the Father, except by ME (the Son)!” Pray for the believers in JESUS to become the REMNANT….and REVIVE the church! “Will you not REVIVE US LORD; that your people may rejoice in YOU!” Psalm 86:5

  20. Arthur says:

    I am another person who left the Episcopal Church. I was an organist/choirmaster and I miss the music and liturgy. I could not stay, for I am very liberal and cannot read the Nicene Creed with a straight face.

    I do agree with the progress that has been made in the Episcopal Church, but I find, at least in my former parish, that to really get the most out of the church, you have to either have money or power – business owners, professors, and judges run the church. For the most part, they are good people, but they are also very hard on their staff members. It is a beautiful Gothic church, so it is very expensive to maintain – and they have to cater to people with deep pockets. Me? I’m just an engineer who goes to work every day – I am not prominent in my community. I have a wonderful wife and 2 teenagers.

    I now go to a Unitarian Universalist congregation – the minister there is the best liturgist I know, and she lives her life in a way that would be compatible with the highest of Christian ethics. She meditates. She prays. I am not sure what she believes in, but she does not believe in G-d. Most importantly, she is not a hypocrite.

    One last thought: My minister went to a Christian seminary, and many of her classmates lost faith while in seminary. They intended to go through with ordination as they felt it was too late now. “I’m going to be living a lie” said one person. She does not have to live a lie.

    PS: When I was in a motorcycle accident, my minister came to the hospital and sat with me in the ER until my wife could get there. My fellow congregants put together a meal train, and asked how they can help. Athiest, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Wiccan – whatever their religious orientation, these people were very “Christ-like” in my definition.

    As for my former Episcopal parish, my best friend’s mother died recently, and no one from the parish called. The rector does not seem to care except for dealing with the powerful people. I will not set foot in that so-called church anymore.

    • Arthur says:

      Where do I stand on G-d, you ask? My UU experience has affirmed a very powerful and loving G-d that is greater than our understanding. My wife, a devout Roman Catholic (I was the organist in her church when we met), prays in a way that I truly believe is heard. Both my wife and my minister are two religious women of vastly different beliefs who are sincere.

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