Shrinking Episcopal Church

No Relief for Shrinking Episcopal Church in 2019

Jeffrey Walton on October 7, 2020

Episcopalians continue to die “a death of a thousand cuts” as the vast majority of church dioceses report continued declines in both membership, attendance, baptisms and weddings for the year 2019.

Statistics recently released by the Office of the General Convention show membership in an uninterrupted drop of 38,404 persons to 1,637,945 (-2.29%) in 2019, while average Sunday attendance declined 13,547 persons to 518,411 (-2.25%).

Across the denomination, three-quarters of Episcopal parishes now have an average attendance of fewer than 100 persons. Median attendance across the church has dropped from 53 to 51 in the past reporting year. During the past five years, 61% of congregations have seen attendance declines of 10% or more, up from 59% the prior year.

The statistics cover the year 2019 and are unaffected by expected attendance drops due to COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.

Emptying Pews

Steep declines continue in the Northeastern United States, the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions, while losses are more gradual in the South and parts of the West.

Among the largest percentage declines in attendance are in the liberal dioceses of New Hampshire down 617 persons (15.6%), Western Massachusetts down 348 persons (9%), and Newark down 566 persons (7.9%). Formerly orthodox dioceses that more recently embraced revisionist theology also posted dramatic declines: Eau Claire down 101 persons (14.6%), neighboring Fond Du Lac down 102 (6.3%) and Northern Indiana down 164 (9.3%). Both Fond Du Lac and Eau Claire also posted by far the worst membership declines in the denomination, shedding 18.4% and 27%, respectively, in a single year. Each of these dioceses also posted sharp drops in the preceding year of 2018.

A handful of dioceses posted small attendance gains, including the U.S. Virgin Islands up 42 persons (3.4%), Pittsburgh up 50 (2.2%), South Carolina up 34 (1.2%), South Dakota up 21 (1.2%), West Missouri up 66 (2.4%), San Joaquin up 14 (1.9%), Spokane up 20 (1.3%) and Alaska up 58 (5%).

The smallest domestic U.S. dioceses continue to be Northern Michigan at 385 attendees (down 9 persons or 2.3%) and Navajo Missions at 167 attendees (down 14 persons or 7.7%).

In the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where Bishop Mariann Budde has assumed a higher public profile in the past year with pointed criticism of the U.S. President, membership dropped 1,657 (4.4%) while attendance dropped 441 (3.5%). Budde, who was recently asked to give a benediction at the Democratic National Convention, has been more candid in discussing ongoing decline than many of her peers in the House of Bishops.

All 2019 membership and attendance numbers by diocese can be found here.

Roots of Decline

Mainline Protestant Christians, including Episcopalians, are less likely to have teenagers who share their parents’ faith than Roman Catholics or Evangelicals, according to a recent study released last month by the Pew Research Center. That study found 55 percent of teens identify with the Mainline Protestant faith of their parents, while 80 and 81 percent of Evangelical and Roman Catholic teens, respectively, do. Of the three groups, Mainline Protestant parents had the highest percentage of teens to identify as unaffiliated (24 percent). Mainline Protestant parents are twice as likely (12 percent) to have a teenager who identifies as Evangelical than Evangelical parents have a teen who identifies as Mainline Protestant (6 percent).

Release of the statistics comes the same week as a church Hearing Panel found Episcopal Diocese of Albany Bishop William H. Love guilty of failing to abide by the Discipline and Worship of The Episcopal Church in violation of his ordination vows. Love, one of the last Episcopal Church diocesan bishops to retain a traditional view of marriage, had refused to permit clergy in his diocese to utilize same-sex rites enacted provisionally in 2015 and made mandatory by the church’s 2018 General Convention.

In a letter to his diocese, Love wrote that a separate hearing will be scheduled within the month to discuss the terms of discipline to be carried out.

2019 statistics by province and diocese can be accessed here: https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/28631

The church’s official 2019 table of statistics includes information on baptisms, confirmations, receptions, weddings and burials. Unlike membership, attendance and giving (three objective metrics that illustrate how the church is doing at present) weddings and baptisms provide an idea of how the church will fare in future years.

From 20182019, weddings across the denomination dropped from 7,305 to 6,484, down 11.2%. Children’s baptisms dropped from 21,084 to 19,716, down 6.5%. Adult baptisms dropped from 4,144 to 3,866, down 6.7%.

A report on 2018 numbers can be viewed here.

UPDATE [10/9/2020]: The Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs has a press release posted with comments from the church’s research specialist. It is worth noting that the Episcopal Church Executive Committee will consider an amended form of the parochial report for the year 2020 at their autumn gathering next week.

  1. Comment by Jim Wells on October 7, 2020 at 8:45 am

    So sad to see what TEC is doing to itself by substituting Pandering for Pastoral Outreach and Sin for Sacraments. and being on the wrong side of virtually every issue it addresses.

  2. Comment by Carolyn Peet on October 7, 2020 at 10:48 am

    That being the case, why do they need all those buildings they took from the Christians??

  3. Comment by Reynolds on October 7, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    Caroyln,

    They need to sell the buildings to fund their pensions. They have not reduced headcount so they got to make money off something.

  4. Comment by Loren J Golden on October 7, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    Comparing the Episcopal Church’s 2019 net membership decline of 38,404 members from 1,676,349 (2.29%) to that of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (50,635 from 1,352,678/3.74%), it would seem that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has someone to which to point, so as to say, “At least we’re not as bad off as those guys over there.”  Perhaps, since the first two digits of the annual membership numbers did not change, Curry could take a queue from PC(USA) Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, who said of his denomination’s membership loss, “For the first time in more than thirty years, the PC(USA) is not reporting membership losses.”

  5. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on October 8, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Loren, I think you are correct in perceiving how Presiding Bishop Curry views this: the PC(USA) is considered in the same peer group, while Roman Catholics or Evangelicals are not. As long as TEC isn’t the worst among its perceived peers (and as long as there is money to keep the lights on) then the gradual (if sustained) level of decline is simply shrugged off. TEC is in a tough spot, but not nearly as bad as the PC(USA) or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

  6. Comment by td on October 7, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    Reynolds – while there is a theory that selling church buildings is a big source of income, the truth is that church buildings have little value in the real estate market. While this is not true in a few select areas, the vast majority of church buildings get sold for a pittance. In the end, many are given away just to get rid of the maintenance costs. If you don’t believe that, drive through any town, big or small, and count the number of vacant churches.

    It is one of the reasons that non-denominational churches do not invest in buildings of any spiritual or architectutal value. And it is also why mainline churches now like to build churches that are like wharehouses- so they can easily be disposed of.

  7. Comment by Steve on October 7, 2020 at 6:37 pm

    td – Seems to me you are making an anecdotal claim, expressing an opinion, not based on facts. My opinion is also anecdotal.
    Netflix has a movie about the founder of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, called “The Founder”. In it, you learn that part of his inspiration was churches; he wanted McDonald’s coast to coast in every town, just like churches. You also learn that he made no money until he learned that his actual profit center was not the food, but the real estate.
    Even if a traditional church is a white elephant, at the very least the land it is on has value. Thus you will see an old McDonald’s get razed and a high rise take its place. If you don’t think McDonald’s makes a substantial profit on that land, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

  8. Comment by Reynolds on October 7, 2020 at 11:16 pm

    If the real estate was worth nothing they would not have spent tens of millions on court costs. There were two UMC churches in Mississippi that we’re let go because of the debt incurred from building the huge churches. They look at real estate value to determine if they want to fight or not. The PCUSA also only fights when the real estate value is worth the costs.

  9. Comment by Loren J Golden on October 8, 2020 at 1:25 am

    The notion that church buildings are sold for a pittance may be applicable to churches in economically depressed rural areas, but it certainly does not apply to rapidly growing suburban areas.
     
    For example, my PCA congregation in Denton, Texas (on the northern edge of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex), which for the past 13 years has been meeting for worship and Sunday school in an auditorium at the local university, is currently seeking a new facility, as the aforementioned auditorium has not been available to us since COVID-19 closed everything down in March, and also we want a facility that will be available to us during the week and not just on Sunday mornings.
     
    One abandoned church building in a prime location that the building committee has looked at is in need of serious need of renovation (one of the deacons on the committee referred to it as a “dump”), but the owners want to sell it for the value of its property, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000.  The existing building needs to be demolished and a new one erected in its place, and our small congregation of about 100 or so is unable to afford the costs of acquiring the property and renovating it to make it into a suitable house of worship.
     
    Practically speaking, it is unlikely that the property will remain as it is, given its location.  But it is just as unlikely that it will be purchased by a congregation (at least at the current asking price) and developed as a house of worship.

  10. Comment by M. Leo Marks MI on October 8, 2020 at 12:21 pm

    This is a self-inflicted wound. I was a faithful, joyous Anglican in the EC. Then they threw everything over to leftist causes and forgot the rest of us who just came to praise, worship and celebrate Jesus Christ in the Anglican manner.

    Thank God, I converted to Catholicism and am now part of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, where we are in right relation with Rome while retaining our Anglican identity. We have all the beautiful language and liturgy, in an orthodox setting. Check out the Ordinariate website (above) and come and see!

  11. Comment by Michael on October 8, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    Church membership, and participation in organized religion of all stripes, is crashing. The Millennials and the generation behind them (Gen. Z?) are not being raised in, remaining in, or joining churches. So you can express all the schadenfreude you’d like about the Episcopalians, but ‘send not to know for who the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.’ The prosperity gospel churches, the wacko bird Pentecostals and holiness churches, the imperial churches that are filled with Republicans instead of Christians…they are all going to go the same way.

    Our toxic politics and viscous culture wars have put a stake in the heart of our Christianity. Welcome to Western Europe, my friends. A pastor once told me this vision: One day a little boy and his father are walking by an abandoned church. The little boy points up at the cross on the steeple and asks, “Dad, what is that?” The father replies, “You know son, I don’t know.”

    Coming to an America near you. Congratulations, conservatives. You won.

  12. Comment by Steve on October 9, 2020 at 7:59 am

    Michael –
    Your vision of the future neglects to take into account Africa.
    Christianity is very popular and growing there, including Methodism and Anglicanism.
    And it is traditional and conservative, often disassociating from the liberal American branches.
    Demographics is destiny. I’ve seen projections that Africa’s population will exceed China’s in a latter half of this century.
    As Americans continue to refuse to be fruitful and multiply, we can expect our population declines to be counterbalanced by immigration from Africa. And you may expect large numbers of those immigrants to be traditional Biblical Anglicans and Methodists.
    Who will probably regard what happened to the historic denominations here as God’s judgment, much akin to Sodom and Gomorrah.

  13. Comment by SCOTT R SIZER on October 9, 2020 at 8:17 pm

    “One day a little boy and his father are walking by an abandoned church. The little boy points up at the cross on the steeple and asks, “Dad, what is that?” The father replies, “You know son, I don’t know.”

    That’s not how it’s going to happen. Here’s how:
    Boy and his father walk by a former church. Little boy asks: “Dad, what does that crescent moon on top of that green building mean? Didn’t there used to me a cross there once upon a time?”

  14. Comment by Steve on October 11, 2020 at 7:54 am

    Michael –
    I find much of your post confusing, but the one I would focus on is your assertion that conservatives “won”.
    You don’t say what you think conservatives won. I think this is an example of how sarcasm doesn’t work on the internet. Conservatives win some and liberals win others. In the Methodist church, some conservatives are splitting off to follow the Bible as written.
    I respect that more than those that would pretend the Bible says something it doesn’t. The Bible tells us Christians would be persecuted. Jesus ended up on a cross. “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
    Coming at this from a different angle: I don’t think it can be said that conservatives “won” the culture wars. To the extent they lost it, that goes a long way to explaining why many of their children do not hold their values. If their children came to their beliefs after a full and free consideration of the merits, so be it. But what I am seeing these days is the ability of the mainstream media and our educational system to indoctrinate the masses with absurdities. You may approve of what they have done up to this point, perhaps because they have helped you “win”. But maybe you should be concerned how extreme and irrational the propaganda is becoming. When our press is standing in front of a burning building and declaring a protest “mostly peaceful”, when “objectivity”, “perfectionism” and “debate” are being condemned as white supremacist by our educational establishment, when people are being cancelled for questioning the propaganda, perhaps one should begin to value those conservatives that resist.

  15. Comment by Jason on October 11, 2020 at 11:32 am

    My local Parish is nothing but a Political rally. Every homily, every “activity” is so political in nature and vitriol we have become Christmas only. I used to be a very active Lector, etc. Our Bishop is no better, every message from the Diocese explains that apparently all of our Ancestors were KKK members on the side. My Daughter happens to prefer her own Gender, and she hates the politics, her comment, “why is a Mass no longer a Mass”? she won’t attend anymore. If I could stomach the Holy See, I’d go RC, but can’t, so maybe Orthodox? its sad.

  16. Comment by Loren J Golden on October 12, 2020 at 1:55 am

    In the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, the power of Sauron was waxing strong, and had been doing so for some time, as the Dark Lord sought dominion over all life in Middle Earth.  In the midst of the struggle between the White Council and the Dark Lord, Saruman the White switched sides and attempted to persuade his fellow Wizard, Gandalf the Grey, to do likewise.
    “I have not brought you hither (i.e., to Isengard) to be instructed by you,” Saruman said to Gandalf, “but to give you a choice. … A new Power is rising.  Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all.  There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor.  This then is one choice before you, before us.  We may join with that Power.  It would be wise, Gandalf.  There is hope that way.  Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.  As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it.  We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.  There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”
    “Saruman,” Gandalf replied, “I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant.  I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 2)
     
    Over the past several centuries, a powerful Zeitgeist has arisen in the West, seeking to supplant Christendom, which had dominated Europe (and later also the Americas) for a millennium.  Originally Christendom was benevolent, intending to bring order to post-Roman Europe, but gradually growing increasingly corrupt.  Many attempts had been made to reform Christendom, but the Western Church, armed with the might of the kings who supported her and had appointed her hierarchical leaders, quashed every effort.  Finally in the 16th Century, the Western Church split and fragmented.  In the wake of the Reformation, the Enlightenment was birthed, as Europeans, wearied as they were from centuries of internecine ecclesiastical conflict, effectively said, “A pox on both your houses,” and began building a rationalistic worldview based on secular principles.  Increasingly, the Bible, being the foundation upon which Christ built His Church (Eph. 2.20), was viciously and incessantly attacked.  To be sure, many stalwarts arose to defend the reliability and authority of Holy Scripture, but in Europe at least, the time had come “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (II Tim. 4.3-4)  America, protected as she was by the Atlantic and the two Great Awakenings, was isolated from the great social upheaval that the Enlightenment wracked upon Europe.  Nevertheless, the Enlightenment philosophy had come to these shores by the end of the 19th Century.
     
    Then beginning in the 19th Century, first in Europe and later in America, leaders in the Church beheld this new Power that was rising, believing it to be the way of progress and the future, that its victory was at hand, and they, just like Saruman, decided that the Church of Jesus Christ should join with it.  They adopted Rationalism’s antagonistic attitudes toward supernaturally revealed truth rooted in human history and developed what is known as the Historical-Critical Method (HCM) as its primary approach to the Bible.  On its surface, the HCM “asks about the circumstances of composition, including such matters as date, place, authorship, unity, purpose, literary style, and the influence the different books may have had.  It also considers how their inspiration came to be recognized and how all the books were gathered together (canon formation).  When a person asks, ‘Who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews?” he is a higher critic!”  However, as the late J. Barton Payne wrote, “The phrase historical-critical method has become so identified with rationalistic skepticism that it would seem no longer salvageable for use by Bible believers.  In theory, higher criticism need not be negative.  Its avowed goal is objective description.  Criticism becomes warped—that is, it ‘goes wrong’ and fails to see a worthy object for what it really is—only when coupled with presuppositions that turn it into dishonest, unobjective criticism.” (“Higher Criticism and Biblical Inerrancy” in Norman Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), pp. 86,87)  Yet this is precisely what leaders in the European and Mainline Protestant American Churches have done.  And what is more, they have extended their “rationalistic skepticism” to Scriptural doctrines of supernatural revelation—for example, the Virgin Birth, the Penal Substitutionary Atonement, the Bodily Resurrection, and the Miracles performed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  In America, these tensions came to a head in the early decades of the 20th Century; and one by one, each of the Mainline Protestant Denominations adopted these skeptical attitudes toward the Church’s foundation in the Holy Scriptures.  Increasingly, the Gospel of justification and salvation by the grace of God alone through the instrumentality of faith alone in the person and work of Christ alone was disbelieved and supplanted by the so-called “Social Gospel” of extending the Kingdom of God through social reform as the Church’s primary ministry in the world.  As Neo-Orthodox Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr famously wrote in 1937 of Theological Liberalism, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (The Kingdom of God in America [1937], p. 193; quoted in Alasdair I. C. Heron, A Century of Protestant Theology [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980], p. 132)
     
    The Zeitgeist of the Enlightenment reached its natural and logical conclusion with Friedrich Nietzsche and his “God is dead” philosophy: “God is dead.  God remains dead.  And we have killed him.  How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?  What was holiest and most powerful of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives.  Who will wipe this blood off us?  What water is there for us to clean ourselves?  What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?  Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?  Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?  There has never been a greater deed; and whoever will be born after us—for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.” (from The Gay Science in Walter Kaufmann, ed., The Portable Nietzsche [New York: Viking Penguin, 1954, 1968, 1982], pp. 95-96)  And again, “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people: ‘I teach you the overman.  Man is something that shall be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?  All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?  What is the ape to man?  A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.  You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm.  Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape. … Behold, I teach you the overman.  The overman is the meaning of the earth.  Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!  I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!  Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not.  Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.  Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him.  To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 124-125  And Nietzsche’s greatest pupil took his philosophy to heart and turned Europe in the middle of the 20th Century into the greatest bloodbath in human history to date, in order to realize Nietzsche’s ideal of the Overman.
     
    The logical conclusion of Enlightenment philosophy, as brutally enacted by the Third Reich, so shocked the world as to cause a paradigm shift in the Zeitgeist, from Modernism to Postmodernism.  Whereas Modernism placed undue confidence in human reason and scorned the authority of supernatural revelation, Postmodernism scorns all authority, while retaining certain vestiges of Biblical teaching on the dignity of man—without any appreciation for this dignity being rooted in man’s having been made in the image of God—and while inculcating certain absurd dogmas—which have been encapsulated into law—regarding man’s nature as a sexual being.  And yet, Postmodern man is ironically as graceless and unforgiving as Nietzsche’s Overman, demanding acceptance of its philosophy and dogma as self-evident justice, with dissenters to be silenced.
     
    And the liberalized Mainline Protestant Church, which has long been accustomed to compromising supernatural truth to the Zeitgeist, has blithely accepted the transition from Modernism to Postmodernism without batting an eyelash.  William Ralph Inge, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1911 until his retirement in 1934, once famously quipped, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”  This is supremely true of the Mainline Protestant Church in America.  During the Modern Age, while the Enlightenment philosophy was having its effect of undermining confidence in supernatural revelation, and yet while there was public pressure to at least be seen as Christian, the Mainline Protestant Church was a comfortable church home for those who wanted to be seen as Christian and yet could not (or could no longer) bring themselves to believe in Christian doctrine.  Yet by the time Postmodernism supplanted Modernism, the Mainline Protestant Church had lost the capacity to give anyone outside the pale of the Church a compelling reason why anyone should become a Christian.  They continue to style themselves as a church home for all who have adopted the Zeitgeist—especially its sexual dogmas—and yet they are patently incapable of reversing the catastrophic membership losses they have suffered since the paradigm shift in the 1960s.
     
    The American Evangelical Church has hitherto fared far better than the Mainline Church, growing while the Mainline has been shrinking.  However, as such Evangelical leaders such as philosopher Francis Schaeffer, theologian David Wells, and historian Mark Noll pointed out a generation ago, many Evangelical churches have been making the same kind of compromises on Biblical authority that the Mainline churches made a century ago (Schaeffer), while at the same time theology in many Evangelical churches has become increasingly shallower (Wells), and Evangelicals “have largely abandoned the universities, the arts, and other realms of ‘high’ culture” (Noll).  As a result, we have seen membership drops over the past decade in Evangelical churches—even churches that have not compromised on the Gospel; we have seen Evangelical churches compromise on Scriptural teaching on human sexuality to the world’s ways of thinking; and we have even seen some high-profile “deconversions” of Evangelicals who have simply walked away from the faith altogether.
     
    All of this should be a reminder to us Evangelicals to be on our guard with respect to the powerful influence the world has on the Church, not only on ourselves, but also on our children and on our fellow parishioners.  And we must not neglect the Lord Jesus’ command to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8), and to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28.19-20)

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