The Episcopal Church has published new statistics from the annual parochial reports, covering 2019. They build on what we have hitherto learnt and give us a significant steer as to what is likely to happen in the future. Occurring in the time of COVID-19, they make deeply challenging reading. But, alongside the tough message of the numbers, there are ways to go forward hopefully.
With the latest figures, we now have almost two decades-worth of data since serious decline set in around 2000. This means we can make substantive judgments on future trends. What I say builds on Dr. Jeremy Bonner’s important chapter on TEC in the work, Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2017), which goes up to 2010-11. There are four key metrics: members, average Sunday attendance, baptisms, and marriages.
The chart below shows how TEC has lost almost 40 percent of its members, 1980 to 2019, within the context of a rising U.S. population. Most of the drop happened after 2000 and is ongoing. In the years from 2010 to 2019, TEC’s baptized membership has dropped by a sobering 314,000.
Episcopal Church Baptized Membership 1980-2020
* A conversion factor of 0.918427 was applied to the raw data to render it compatible with that for 1990 and subsequently.
Average Sunday attendance
Figures for average Sunday attendance (ASA) provide a more objective metric and a more striking message. During the 1990s average Sunday attendance was relatively stable but from around 2000 deep decline set in. This is ongoing. TEC’s average Sunday attendance dropped by over 40 percent between 2000 and 2019. The decline of attendance was most rapid between 2005 and 2010. But recent years have seen a very substantial drop – a fall of 61,000, over 10 percent, in the last four years
Episcopal Church Average Sunday Attendance 2000-19
Baptism of children offers a different and crucial measure. TEC is a church with a strong stress on infant baptism, so its baptism figures give a sense of the future demographic trajectory of the church. The figures show massive, ongoing slump in baptisms since 2000, from 46,603 in 2000 to 17,713 in 2019. As the demographer Eric Kaufman puts it, most people enter faith the old-fashioned way, by birth. The falling number entering TEC in this way should be a profound worry.
Episcopal Church Child Baptisms, 1980-2019
However startling the drop in baptisms, the most dramatic data is that for marriages, from 38,913 in 1980 to 6,148 in 2019. The number of marriages has declined markedly across the last 40 years, but the rate of decline sharply increased since 2000 and shows no sign of slowing. In the years when TEC argued about whom it should marry, it has largely ceased to marry anyone.
The Last Twenty Years and the Next Twenty Years
It is nearly 20 years since TEC began its current trajectory of deep decline. Past trends do not guarantee future performance, but robust conclusions can now be made. The likelihood that COVID-19 is encouraging congregational decline makes the following projections more likely to be underestimates than overestimates.
The number of Episcopalians in church of a Sunday in 2040 could be as few as 200,000 – less than a quarter of the number in church in 2000. On current trends, by 2040 the number of children being baptized and marriages solemnized in TEC churches will be negligible.
Large numbers of parishes are now so small as to be highly fragile. It is hard to see them surviving the next two decades. The same is true of many dioceses. Seven have fewer than 1,000 adults in church of a Sunday now. They are effectively virtual dioceses already. Many others are likely to join them in the next 20 years.
And this data describes the picture prior to COVID-19. There is strong evidence that the pandemic is stress-testing denominations. Those already struggling, like TEC, are likely to be most damaged.
So Where Next?
First, Christian faith is good news and in many parts of the world the church is growing. I often point people towards data for the diocese of London. That diocese was in long term decline up until about 1990 and has grown substantially since then. It is proof that Anglicanism can survive and, to a degree, thrive in one of the most secular, diverse, uber-modern cities of the world. And Anglicanism outside of the west is mostly growing. Given the diversification of the U.S. population, that should be cause for cheer.
Second, if I can say this as an outsider to TEC’s Anglo-Catholic wing, you need to remember who you are. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church has a deep tradition of church planting and proliferation. This tradition stretches right back to Cuthbert and the Celtic saints of the seventh century, to Francis and the friars and the Cyril and Methodius as Orthodox “apostles” to the Slavs. More recently, the Oxford Movement led to a vigorous stream of church planting and evangelism and produced many congregations. That tradition has tended to be forgotten in recent decades, but it is there ready to be recovered.
Third, COVID-19 is a profound challenge to congregations, but it also opens up some possibilities – and I don’t mean the tired debate about whether we need to do church online or offline (we have to do both). The notion that we can be “saved by science” rings a little hollow right now. Our profound human need for community and our equally profound need for hope in the face of suffering and death are addressed by the good news of Jesus – and not addressed by modern secularity. It is no accident that secularization has blossomed in rich, stable Western countries. As those countries are shaken and face economic hardship, so is secularity being shaken.
Fourth, it is important to be frank about measures put in place in the last five years. The new stress on evangelism and church planting in TEC is welcome – but it has not touched the decline in any meaningful way. Far more vigorous work is needed. It particular, all church plants have to be judged by hard metrics – notably bums on seats (in due course) and numbers being baptised. Fuzzy metrics generally mean fuzzy impact.
Fifth, there are some simple, though far from easy, wins to be had. In particular, remember demography. The American population is diversifying fast ethnically. This is the best soil in which to plant churches. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has set ambitious targets for church planting. TEC should do the same. Perhaps it needs to plant some new dioceses, not just amalgamate those too small to survive?
The current period has been likened to wartime. And in the suffering and deep disruption, that analogy makes sense. What is rarely also noted is that the Second World War was a time of significant spiritual renewal for Anglicanism. It was the age of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers and T.S. Eliot. Churchgoing was probably more vigorous in the late 1940s and 50s than for much of the 20th century. The Third Reich and Cold War made talk of sin and death meaningful and made people yearn for redemption. COVID-19 is extremely tough, but out of this death could come new congregational life.
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