Episcopal Church Marriages

Episcopal Church Marriages Plunge by Two-Thirds

Jeffrey Walton on October 23, 2020

Episcopalians, briefly in the limelight as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at the 2018 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, aren’t marrying much of anybody these days. This according to an annual release of church statistics that reveal marriages in the denomination have declined by 66% since 2003 and baptisms are down by more than half.

In short, the old adage of clergy responsibility to preside over “hatch, match and dispatch” is no longer occurring.

Gradual decline of attendance and membership in the 1.6 million-member denomination is “no news” news, but (paired with the release of Presbyterian Church (USA) statistics in the spring) is one of two sure-fire blog entries that annually draws readers.

After posting my October 7 report, it took the denomination’s Episcopal News Service another nine days to offer coverage. I’ll note that the candid and well-sourced ENS report was published at exactly 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Readers can draw their own conclusion.

Attendance and membership are two objective metrics that garner attention, but like an automobile speedometer, they only indicate how the denomination is moving at present. I’ve argued before that other metrics, especially marriages and baptisms, are more valuable in that they are leading indicators.

Marriage Isn’t What Brings Us Together Today

In 2003 the Episcopal Church conducted 19,017 marriages. That year is a demarcation point when a divorced and openly partnered gay man, Gene Robinson, was elected and consecrated as bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, exacerbating denominational strife that had been unfolding for decades. Large-scale departures began with the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop.

Last year (2019) marriages conducted in the Episcopal Church were 6,484 (down 66%). A two-thirds decline in marriages. An 11 percent decline was reported in 2019 alone.

Reasons for this decline are manifold – marriage rates are down among the U.S. population (although not anywhere near that much). Those who do marry increasingly opt for ceremonies at secular venues like vineyards, beaches or botanical gardens – venues which don’t require ordained Episcopal clergy.

That being acknowledged, it is ironic how redefinition of marriage within the Episcopal Church corresponds with fewer marriages, just as proclamations of “inclusion” led to including fewer and fewer people in the life the of church.

I noted in 2015 that Episcopal Church officials enacted policies that the majority of Anglicans worldwide refute as contrary to both scripture and tradition. Did the arrival of gender-neutral marriage rites slow the rate of marriage within the church? Possibly. Did a doctrinal change in the understanding of what marriage is – from an institution that forms families to something that is an expression of personal fulfillment and autonomy – reduce those rates? I think so.

Some on mainline seminary campuses now advocate for marriage contracts with an expiration date, rather than ‘until death do us part’. This is a concession to the culture of personal autonomy and a departure from what the church has historically understood.

In enacting the gender-neutral marriage rite in 2015, Episcopalians unilaterally redefined marriage and further distancing themselves from Christendom. There is no remaining reason why Episcopalians untethered from the church’s historic witness should stop making changes.

Something in the Water

The Episcopal Church tracks adult and child baptisms, which provide helpful numbers to understand both procreation and evangelism.

In 2019, the church reported 19,716 children and 3,866 adults baptized, down from 46,079 children and 7,773 adults in 2003. That is a decline of 57% and 50%, respectively.

Episcopalians have lower rates of childbearing than Americans overall, and the church is nearly 90% white – a demographic that (excepting Mormon-rich Utah) is far below the 2.1 children-per-woman rate of replacement. Pew Research Center data indicates that the teenage children of Mainline Protestants (including Episcopalians) are far less likely (55%) to share their parents’ faith than the children of Evangelicals (80%) or Roman Catholics (81%). A smaller percentage of a smaller number of children are continuing in the Episcopal Church.

Decline in adult baptisms is also troubling: reflecting a universalist theology that pervades the church. Outreach common in the Episcopal Church 20 years ago – such as Alpha – is no longer commonplace.

Why should congregants take the social risk of asking a friend or neighbor to join them at a church if there is no eternal destiny at stake? If Episcopalians offer something that is not unique, but merely an elective offering among a buffet line of equally-valid “truths”, then why should people feel the need to share? If “love is love” as rainbow-festooned church signs proclaim, what does it matter if a person knows Christ or not?

The catechized will note that Eros is not Agape, and that Jesus’ claim to be the unique Son of God commands a different level of devotion than that of a wise philosopher. But with fewer Episcopalians likely in the next 20 years, we can expect fewer will hear that message from the Episcopal Church.

Update: After completing this blog entry, but before its publication, I read a piece by David Goodhew of The Centre for Church Growth Research at Durham University that offers analysis and touches on some of the same points. Head over to The Living Church’s Covenant blog to read it.

  1. Comment by PFSchaffner on October 23, 2020 at 8:09 am

    Regardless of underlying theological causes (which I do not deny), it would appear that the numbers mostly hold together as a single demographic picture: membership and attendance are down roughly 40% since the early 2000s. Marriage and baptism are down even more, simply because the remaining members skew older and older–and the few young members are following larger societal trends toward fewer marriages and fewer children.

  2. Comment by David on October 24, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    One hears a large number of post hoc fallacies regarding religious decline when the root cause is often demographics as mentioned. The Episcopal Church is 90% white according to the Pew research people and the largest age group are those over 65. Immigrants are a minor percentage. Southern Baptists have also seen declining membership for the past 12 years. The rise of the “nones” is often overlooked. Were they to organize a denomination, it would be the largest in the country. The huge decline of Christianity in Europe, especially in the UK, the homeland of the Episcopal Church, has finally reached the US.

  3. Comment by Michael W. Perry, medical writer on October 25, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    These declining numbers are despite another factor. In many communities, the Episcopal church is the most beautiful. That reflects the situation a couple of generations back when Episcopalians were wealthy. Couples are not only choosing not to be married Episcopalian, they choosing to be married in a plainer church.

  4. Comment by Teresa on October 25, 2020 at 1:22 pm

    The rise of the “nones” is due to a general trashing of all things religious in the Western world.

  5. Comment by Grumpy Cat on October 25, 2020 at 1:49 pm

    If not for the Third World membership, the Roman Catholic Church would be looking at the same numbers. Thanks to Pope Carlos Marx I.

  6. Comment by Joan Sibbald on October 25, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    I read last year the E.U. High Court in finding against a Christian doctor who testified that he could not call a male a female or a female a male decreed that “Biblical teachings are incompatible with humanity!” The court, in essence, ordered the Christian doctor to adhere to the religion of “Self” whose god is: I, Me, My, Mine, or be fired.

    In another E.U. case two Christian students studying to be licensed midwife’s were ordered to perform abortions or be expelled from school.

    Eph 6: 13-18 says, “Use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy in the time of evil so that after the battle you will still be standing firm.”
    These pieces of armor are:
    1. Truth!
    2. God’s righteousness!
    3. Peace that comes from the Good News!
    4. Faith!
    5. Salvation!
    6. Holy Spirit which is the word of God!
    7. Prayer for all Christians everywhere!

  7. Comment by Andrew Batten on October 25, 2020 at 2:49 pm

    My wife and I left the Episcopal Church about 7 years ago. It was a wrenching decision, as our family ties are inextricably linked to the Episcopal clergy. Still, we had to go. For me, it was largely a case that I no longer thought that the bishops actually believed…well, anything. The Creed? Don’t be silly. Instead, I saw a denomination where there were ordained clergy who also considered themselves Muslim, Druid and, for at least one bishop, Atheist.

    Why should I sit in the pew and be insulted each week and pay for the privilege? Still, my heart is broken.

  8. Comment by The Rev. David R. Graham on October 25, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    These statistics represent a phenomenon of globe-wide extent: renegotiation of the institutional arrangements made upon the conclusion of WWII. The utility of those arrangements has run its course. The arrangements, therefore, are in collapse or advanced stages of decline while fresh institutional arrangements are being brought into existence. The Episcopal Church belongs to those post-WWII institutional arrangements.
    WWII was the fin de siècle for centuries of European religious and therefore cultural institutions. (Culture is downstream from religion just as politics and morality are downstream from culture.) In 1996 and 1997, the bishops of The Episcopal Church were issued a warning order regarding globe-wide, fresh religious yearnings and therefore cultural institutions in train of emergence.

  9. Comment by Mark M. on October 25, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    As someone who left the ECUSA 29 years ago, I still find it somewhat painful to watch the fellowship I grew up in sink further and further into theological relativism, throwing Apostolic dogma out the window.

    But as the current saying goes, “get woke, go broke.”

  10. Comment by Steve on October 25, 2020 at 11:05 pm

    “Mainliners may try to comfort themselves by claiming that every denomination is in decline, but it’s simply not true. While conservative churches aren’t growing as quickly as they once were, mainline churches are on a path toward extinction.”


  11. Comment by Pat Trammell on October 26, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    Why do I have Alanis Morrissette’s “Isn’t it Ironic” playing over and over in my head?

    “…it is ironic how redefinition of marriage within the Episcopal Church corresponds with fewer marriages, just as proclamations of “inclusion” led to including fewer and fewer people in the life the of church.”

    Well analyzed Jeff.

  12. Comment by senecagriggs on October 26, 2020 at 9:08 pm

    Apparently “inclusive” actually means less, not more. The more inclusive the organization, the smaller it becomes.

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