In 1988 the diocese of Central New York had some 26,000 members. In 2018, this had more than halved, to 11,000 members. Contrast this with the diocese of Arkansas. In 1988 it had 13,000 members, half the size of Central New York, making it one of the smaller dioceses in the Episcopal Church (TEC). By 2018, it had grown modestly, to some 14,000 members. In 1988 Central New York had double the number of members that Arkansas had. By 2018, Central New York trailed behind the “Bear State.”
The Episcopal Church has recently released its latest numbers, for 2018. The overall trajectory of recent decades continues, with ongoing decline in the number of worshipers, churches and members. Baptized membership has dropped by 36,000 since 2017, from 1,713,000 to 1,676,000; average Sunday attendance has dropped by 24,000 compared to 2017. The fall is neither markedly larger or smaller than other recent years. This means that the decade between 2008 and 2018 TEC’s Sunday attendance dropped by nearly a quarter, from 705,000 to 533,000.
But not every TEC diocese is behaving the same. Radical shifts are happening within Episcopalianism. TEC was previously strongest in the North and East. These areas have seen marked decline. Conversely, some southern dioceses have shown resilience. The result is a rebalancing of the denomination.
The shift can be seen at the level of TEC’s provinces. Province 7 was one of the smallest in 1988, but has become one of the largest by 2018. Province 4, encompassing the Southern states, was the largest in both 1988 and 2018. But whilst Province 4 has lost 53,000 members during those years (dropping from 475,000 to 422,000), other provinces have fared far worse. Those covering the North East have each lost over 100,000 members in three decades; Province 1 (275,000 to 161,000), Province 2 (excluding dioceses outside of the USA, 337,000 to 191,000) and Province 3 (391,000 to 274,000). Given that Provinces 1, 2 and 3 were already much smaller than Province 4 in 1988, such drops accentuates the shifting center of gravity within Episcopalianism.
Decline has varied in pace between provinces. Province 4 grew slightly between 1988 and 2008. Its decline has all happened in the last decade. But Province 2 has been in steady, strong decline for the last thirty years.
The result of such shifts is that over a quarter of TEC’s members are in Province 4 as of 2018, whereas they made up about a sixth of TEC members in 1988. Close to 40% of people in TEC’s Sunday congregations are in either Province 4 or Province 7 (the Southwest). Since attendance in those provinces is shrinking more slowly than most other provinces, they are set to become even more prominent in the future.
In part this reflects wider demographic trends; US population as a whole has grown most in the South and West in recent decades. Beyond this, important cultural questions are raised by TEC’s drift south. U.S. culture has significantly secularized in recent years, with that secularization most marked in the North and East. Will the corrosive acids of secularization will reach its southern dioceses at some point, albeit later than they have reached the North and East, or does southern Christianity possess antibodies that make it more resilient?
Regardless of demography and the pace of secularization, the rebalancing of TEC is a significant shift for the denomination. In 1988, TEC was dominated by provinces 1, 2 and 3 along the eastern seaboard. This is true no longer. Its future lies further south.
David Goodhew is a Visiting Fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, Vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham.