Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a book in 1999 entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The Episcopal Church has, largely, followed Bishop Spong’s lead. It has changed and it is dying. If you altered one word of the title, making it Why Christianity Must Change and Die, Spong’s book was indeed prophetic.
Predictions are circulating that the Episcopal Church will be dead by 2050. This article examines how likely this is and how its deep decline might be slowed and even reversed.
What the Episcopal Church Will Look Like in 2050
There is increasing recognition that the Episcopal Church has suffered serious decline. But estimating future trends, especially more than a few years ahead, is a risky business. TEC’s decline is due to multiple factors such as demographic change, an aging pool of worshippers, secularization, and schism. These factors interact in complex and not entirely understood ways. So, any predictions should be treated with caution.
Yet there are long-standing runs of data which make estimates of TEC’s future trajectory possible, as long as they are recognized as estimates. Without very substantial change, it is reasonable to assume these well-established trends will continue. Moreover, the estimates below are based on the pre-COVID-19 data. The signs are that COVID-19 is speeding up TEC’s decline, so these estimates could well be understating the shrinkage to come.
The most dramatic metric is the number of marriages solemnized in TEC churches.
Marriages (future estimates in italics)
The number of TEC marriages has been in decline for many decades, but that decline increased in velocity around 2000. TEC marriages halved between 2000 and 2010 and halved again between 2010 and 2019. On its current trajectory, the number of TEC marriages will be negligible well before 2050.
What of baptisms of children? The figures below show that TEC’s baptisms of children have been dropping since around 1990. The rate of decline deepened markedly after 2000 and is ongoing. Reversing such decline will be extremely difficult and the cummulative effect is tremendous. By 2050, TEC could be baptising as few as 5% of the number of children it baptised in 2000. The huge drop in baptisms of children is powerfully expressive of the aging of the denomination. It poses an existential threat to TEC’s long-term future.
Baptisms of Children (future estimates in italics)
A crucial measure is Sunday attendance. Long term estimates of attendance are particularly difficult to do. The further ahead one looks, the more imponderables there are. But concrete things can be said.
Episcopal Church Average Sunday Attendance (future estimates in italics)
Sunday attendance began to drop markedly at the start of the century. The worst years of decline were 2005-2010, but serious decline is ongoing. TEC has shrunk, on average, by around 15,000 per annum since 2010. That is a drop of over 20% between 2010 and 2019.
The burden of proof falls on those who would be more optimistic to demonstrate why we should expect these trends to go into reverse. Arresting so well established a trajectory will be extremely difficult and take time. It owes not a little to entrenched factors, notably the aging demographics of TEC members, forces of secularization, prolonged conflict within the denomination, and a limited readiness to plant new congregations. It is more reasonable to assume TEC’s slide in attendance will continue than change.
And were TEC to continue to decline at roughly the same rate, there would be around 150,000 people in its Sunday congregations by 2050 — compared to 857,000 at Sunday worship in 2000. There is a distinct possibility that the Anglican Church in North America’s attendance will overtake the Episcopal Church by 2050, or sooner.
What These Numbers Mean
One definition of madness is the belief that if you do the same things, you might nonetheless get a different result. Anyone in TEC tempted to argue that “things aren’t too bad” is delusional.
Someone might argue that “numbers are not important.” Besides, 150,000 Sunday worshippers is not “dead,” just “smaller.” This is whistling into the wind. The figures outlined above would require the closure of swathes of TEC’s churches and not a few dioceses. I need to reiterate that the above forecasts do not factor in decline due to COVID-19. If, as is likely, TEC decline is hastened by COVID-19, the above figures underestimate future decline.
Some TEC dioceses in the South and Southwest, such as Dallas or Tennessee, are showing greater resilience in their existing congregations and are managing to plant new ones (although attendance even these dioceses shrank by about 10% in the last decade). They demonstrate how important the South and Southwest are to the future of TEC. It may be no accident that these are Communion Partner dioceses, suggesting the Communion Partners are key to TEC’s future.
But too much comfort should not be taken from the fact that parts of TEC will survive. Just as it is possible to find remnants of once vigorous non-conformist denominations, such as the Christadelphians, this can hardly be cause for consolation. Overall, such denominations are islands of belief, of no substantial impact on contemporary America. The same prospect is opening up for TEC by 2050. It may technically not be defunct by then, but, without fundamental change, it will be absent from the bulk of America.
It’s the Theology, Stupid
If Episcopalians wish their church to live, there has to be change. And change has to start with a change of theology. The Spong Project was a theological project and that theology has been a disaster for Episcopal congregations. By its lack of fruit shall you know it.
And a good place to begin theological renewal is how we view “the end,” what theologians call “eschatology.” Focus on eschatology is highly appropriate given that large parts of TEC are in the end times, in the non-metaphorical sense of that term.
Spong’s TEC has seen the world in this-worldly terms. The aim is to be relevant to the present, “the here and now.” But what was relevant in the 1990s is often relevant no longer. An alternative — and thoroughly Anglican — approach is to be vigorously other-worldly. Focus on the world to come and all the rest will be added unto you. That means a readiness to talk about heaven, hell, death, and judgment. It means a yearning for resurrection and making communities of resurrection, things that seem particularly appropriate for the post-pandemic world.
There is abundant evidence worldwide that churches which are a pale imitation of the surrounding culture do not thrive. Why join the Episcopal Church when you might as well join the Sierra Club? Around the globe many branches of Anglicanism are growing, but not those that espouse low-fat faith. Part of the reason is that a focus on the life to come relaxes us as we face the present. TEC may, or may not, have a big part to play in the next century. I hope it does. But even if it doesn’t, the kingdom of God is not synonymous with TEC. We need God, he does not need us. And actually, that is a relief. It relaxes us to work and wait for the world to come. It doesn’t all depend on us.
Focus on eschatology does not mean ignoring what is going on around us. Indeed, it fits with a passionate engagement with the present. The great Anglican layman William Wilberforce combined a deeply other-worldly faith with abolition of the slave trade
Focus on the end will help us recover a theology that values congregations far more highly. All too often TEC has viewed congregations as merely recruiting centers for activism. But the theological justification for downplaying congregations is shockingly thin. Those who pit “kingdom” against “church” do so despite what the New Testament says and often posit a version of “kingdom” which is a pale imitation of the woke. A glance at the New Testament and the Christian tradition shows a movement that hugely valued local communities of people who follow Jesus as Lord — churches. The work of planting and nurturing congregations is never merely parochial. Congregations are not an adjunct to activism, but central to being church.
Beyond changing theology, there has to be a change in church practice. Here are some simple steps which lead to greater congregational dynamism.
- Prioritize 0 to 25s. Most people come to faith by the age of 25. I don’t say that to write off the over-25s, but the first quarter century of life is massive in mission.
- Make a profound commitment to church planting. New congregations generally grow much faster than existing ones (and by “church planting” I mean something far more robust than the decaf Christianity of “emerging church”).
- Work with the huge demographic changes happening in the USA (since many, like the USA’s burgeoning ethnic diversification, are a big friend to church growth).
- Copy the parts of Anglicanism that are growing (which is most of global Anglicanism). Instead of telling the rest of the Communion what to think (often TEC’s default setting), TEC needs to be humble enough to learn from the rest of the Communion (most especially those parts not in the West).
The diocese of London in England and many parts of Anglicanism around the world show that decline is not inevitable. Decline is, in part, a choice. TEC does not have to choose to die, even though that is what many of its leaders have chosen for many years.
So said Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19, though he had previously commented that the Israelites had before them life or death. Something similar could be said to TEC. There is no need to argue about whether TEC is in profound decline. The last twenty years show it is.
So, will TEC be dead by 2050? The answer is technically “no,” but operatively “yes.”
Unless there is big change the above estimates (or worse) map what is on the way. If TEC sticks to its current approach, it will be a fraction of what it is now by 2050. By 2050 there will be some TEC churches and a few will be vigorous. There will be a handful of viable dioceses, but TEC will by then be a sideshow within American Christianity — the latter-day Christadelphians. Huge swathes of the USA will be devoid of any Episcopal presence. Only a small proportion of its congregations will be below pensionable age. TEC will be “alive” only in the sense that a person on a ventilator is alive. TEC will by then have moved from being a church in deep decline (what it is now) to being a church in palliative care.
It does not have to end that way. The Christian faith knows a great deal about dying and knows that there is life beyond death. There is a theology and there are practices that offer a way forward. The question is whether TEC has the will to adopt them.
The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. John’s College, Durham University; vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough; and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham.