Like everyone else, I found the 2019 parochial report statistics very sobering reading. As David Goodhew summarized, TEC has lost about 40 percent of its membership since 1980, with 314,000 lost just from 2010 to 2019. Average Sunday Attendance has dropped over 40 percent since 2000, over ten percent in the last four years alone. Baptisms have dropped from 46,603 in 2000 to 17,713 in 2019, and marriages from 22,441 to 6,128 in the same timeframe. To my mind, it’s the latter statistics that are most alarming — if we are not forming families and raising children in church, the trendlines we see as the generations that fought in WWII and Korea go home to their reward will only accelerate even more rapidly.
All of this, of course, is before the pandemic. It seems safe to predict that the pandemic will accelerate the effects of these trends, with churches closing and dioceses consolidating sooner than they otherwise may have. The smaller church that we thought we would see in 10-15 years we may see within a much shorter time.
These numbers were much on my mind recently, while participating in a three-day webinar on liturgical formation and revision led by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We listened to presentations on the nature and purpose of liturgy, longstanding debates about our sanctoral calendar, and on the ongoing work of the Task Force for Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision. The SCLM had invited two representatives from every diocese to take part, and to share what they learned with their home dioceses. It was, as such, very well attended, and participating took up a fair part of the week.
These numbers were also on my mind when I read the news of the hearing panel’s guilty verdict in the case against Bishop William Love and his subsequent resignation from the Diocese of Albany. Without saying more at the moment, I deeply regret that this is where we have arrived, and wish that a better outcome could have been reached. Everyone knows that the canon forbidding communion without baptism has been openly breached in many dioceses for years. And everyone knows that weddings of same-sex couples were taking place in Episcopal churches years before they were permitted by liturgy and canon. I concur entirely with the Communion Partner bishops, who wrote that they “remain dismayed that latitude is extended to some in the enforcement of our canons, but not to others.” (On the issue of marriage canons, here’s what I mean: to be married in TEC, the couple has to sign the “declaration of intention,” which until 2015 said that marriage was a lifelong union of husband and wife as set forth in the BCP. Clergy and bishops that were conducting same-sex marriages in, for example, the dioceses of Los Angeles or Massachusetts as far back as 2008 or 2011 were in clear violation of canon; I recall no Title IV proceedings back then! If we are to extend canonical latitude in the name of peaceful discernment, clearly fairness demands it goes both ways — and right now, after the Bishop Love trial, every theological conservative in TEC knows that it has not.)
Why, you ask, were parochial statistics on my mind? To me, at least, the appropriate response to numbers like these is to re-focus our efforts on evangelism, church planting, catechesis, congregational development, and raising up the next generation of ordained leaders. The appropriate response is to do all we can to be inclusive in a way that actually includes congregations and dioceses with traditional theological convictions — often lively and flourishing places like St. Martin’s or St. John the Divine in Houston, Calvary-St. George in Manhattan, St. George’s in Nashville, Incarnation in Dallas, Emmanuel in Champaign, Ill., St. Francis-in-the-Fields in Louisville, Good Samaritan outside Philadelphia, or All Souls’ in Oklahoma City.
By contrast, I cannot imagine a more inappropriate response than to spend inordinate amounts of time tinkering with liturgy (what a clerical, insider’s pastime!) and finding new ways to discourage and push away theologically traditional evangelicals and catholics. Please hear me: I recognize that liturgical scholarship and careful worship planning are important. We can in theory walk and chew gum at the same time, spending time on liturgical work while also dedicating time to evangelism, discipleship, leadership, and congregational development. We could in theory revise liturgy in such a way that manages to unleash new energies and include more seekers, rather than driving people out who feel as though their beloved patterns and habits of prayer have been taken away.
But I have to admit that I do not see the past twenty years living up to this. Too much of the past twenty years have been marked by all-or-nothing church struggles and liturgy wars. Those are the same twenty years when membership, attendance, baptism, and weddings have plummeted. Yes, many people have done good work in crucial tasks like formation and evangelism, but virtually no one would say in retrospect (for instance) that 1998-2008 was the decade of evangelism that was hoped for! Yes, B012 was to my mind a great deal better than the zero-sum outcomes that could have come out of the 2018 convention, and I would argue that it is working quite well on the whole. That said, the Bishop Love trial and resignation show that we are very much in need of a lasting path forward for theological conservatives that doesn’t feel as though it’s up for renegotiation every two or three years.
About a decade ago, the late columnist Charles Krauthammer gave a speech titled “Decline is a Choice.” The actual content of his talk has nothing to do with our church’s struggles, but I rather like the title. To be sure, we face strong headwinds as a church that we did not choose. We are by no means the only declining mainline denomination. But there are choices we have made that have contributed to our decline. We have a choice to either keep on making them over and over, or to seek a better way forward. I can’t help but wonder: especially in the context of sharp decline, is our focus as a church where it needs to be? Will we act in ways that show how much we need each other, and reach outward with the life-transforming gospel? Or will we keep our focus turned inward, trying to get our liturgy juuust right and fighting the culture wars until all of our opponents are gone?
Over the past several years, I’ve been fortunate to get to know a number of fellow Episcopalians “across the aisle” from me, as it were, most of us with 20-40 years ahead of us in ministry. We know that we’re not agreed on the subject of human sexuality, but we also know that we are agreed in loving Jesus, in cherishing (sometimes rather geekily) our Anglican heritage of worship and prayer, and in being more than a little impatient with whatever distracts from proclaiming Jesus as Savior and Lord and getting about the business of trying to make disciples of all nations. We also know that we want each other as brothers and sisters in this church. We cheer each other on, pray for each other, commiserate with each other, encourage each other. I’ve discovered through them something important about what “mutual flourishing” means — at the very least, it means actually wanting each other to flourish! It means actively supporting instead of undercutting each other, even when we disagree on important matters.
That’s a choice we can make. We’ll need to, if we really want “communion across difference” and “mutual flourishing,” as the task force on which I serve was tasked with seeking. We’ll need to if we want to step back from steep decline, and step into a future where we major in the majors, minor in the minors, love one another as Christ loved us, and proclaim Christ as the living Lord and Savior of a hurting, warring world.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Jordan Hylden is canon theologian for the diocese of Dallas and priest associate of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.
Great piece, Jordan. My one question is whether B012 was *always* destined to a) be a stage toward no exceptions, and b) whether the +Love ruling has exposed that. B012, we learned, is about inevitable BCP revision. I always thought CP ought to have seen that and held ranks; it is much easier to eliminate a single Bishop, and now that has happened. The decline is real and severe. Your remarks about excited tinkering with liturgy is about the perfect avoidance of reality. The statistics are signal flares and they are being ignored. Cyber worship post-covid is another path that,… Read more »
“Cyber worship post-covid is another path that, to my mind, leads nowhere. Individuals clicking devices from afar.”
To accept cyber worship as a viable way forward for TEC is to already admit defeat. If our leaders insist on keeping the doors locked, we might as well build a grotto altar and worship outside. It certainly beats a bunch of people sitting in idling cars for an hour.
I don’t think embracing fascism, which has caught on in this country over the past four years, is the way to foster church growth, either morally or numerically.