By Jeremy Bonner and David Goodhew
This article is an update of our earlier post, “The Growth of the Anglican Church in North America.”
The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) grew markedly in the years after its foundation in 2009. But the latest available figures show it has experienced decline as well as growth, depending on where you look. These new figures give a more textured picture of the nature of ACNA. They offer lessons for ACNA, but also for all Anglicans in North America.
Division and Decline
At first glance, ACNA’s latest numbers, for 2019, look concerning.
ACNA Membership 133,279 127,624
ACNA Attendance 87,319 84,310[i]
But they should not be taken purely at face value. The principal reason for the drop is the departure of two Nigerian-based dioceses, resulting in a loss of 5,857 members of ACNA (or 3,568 people in terms of attendance). If measured by its other dioceses, ACNA grew slightly, 2018-19. The departing dioceses have chosen to remain in the Church of Nigeria, although they retain links with ACNA. Such a division represents in microcosm the ecclesial dangers that ACNA has faced from its birth in managing divisions over ecclesiology, missionary strategy, and culture in the context of a church that has emphasized its confederal character.
This explains the rueful comment of Archbishop Foley Beach in his address to the 2021 College of Bishops:
We are beginning to suffer from a serious lack of theological, Biblical, and historical understanding in the Church . . . The mentality which writes people off and breaks fellowship with those who disagree is creeping its way into the Church. We must fight to maintain the unity of the Spirit in our Church.
Ex-Episcopal Dioceses Decline
The departure of the Nigerian-based dioceses accounts for the overall decline, but there is significant decline elsewhere in ACNA. And as we drill into the figures, it becomes clear that different dioceses are faring very differently. The divide centers on the contrasting trajectories of ACNA dioceses that moved en masse from the Episcopal Church (TEC), compared to those of new dioceses founded after the creation of ACNA.
In order to compare like with like, Table 1 provides a summary that excludes those with singular historical roots (the Reformed Episcopal Church dioceses), those outside the United States (the Anglican Network in Canada) and groups that joined ACNA after 2013 or left before 2019 (the Diocese of South Carolina, Anglican Diocese of the Trinity and CANA West).
As far as official membership rosters are concerned, overall growth over the past six years ran at approximately 0.2 percent per year, with a slight dip in the last two years. The figures for average principal worship service attendance (preferred to average Sunday attendance because many ACNA congregations hold their main services at some other time) show growth in the order of 2.2 percent per year, with little slackening between 2017 and 2019.
The contrast between “old” and “new” churches is greatly accentuated, however, if figures for the four dioceses who originally left TEC are removed. In this case, membership growth is revealed to be a most respectable 1.8 percent per year and average principal worship service attendance a remarkable 3.9 percent per year. If ACNA is experiencing a decrease in momentum, this cannot be blamed on the newly planted congregations.
TABLE 1: Changes in membership and principal service attendance 2013-2019
|ACNA membership||ACNA membership less the original TEC dioceses||ACNA
average principal service attendance
average principal service attendance less the original TEC dioceses
* Excludes the REC Dioceses, Anglican Network in Canada, Anglican Diocese of the Trinity and CANA West
** Excludes Diocese of South Carolina, the REC Dioceses, Anglican Network in Canada, Anglican Diocese of the Trinity and CANA West
Further illustration of the problem of the TEC legacy can be found in Table 2, where the condition of those dioceses is considered. Aside from the relative success of the Diocese of Quincy (possibly due to the absorption of a number of successful church plants in the Midwest), ex-TEC dioceses in ACNA have significantly shrunk. Neither the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Fort Worth and San Joaquin nor the Evangelical heritage of Pittsburgh appear adequate to holding the line (never mind building upon it) in the post-Christendom age.
TABLE 2: Changes in membership and principal service attendance in former TEC dioceses 2013-2019
|Members 2013||Members 2019||Average principal service attendance 2013||Average principal service attendance 2019|
To confirm the causes of the decline of the ex-TEC dioceses needs more research. It likely is due to a combination of (a) the fact that most TEC parishes were on a downward trajectory well before the split-off, and this has proved hard to arrest; (b) when these parishes left TEC they also left the umbrella of a large denominational apparatus and were more vulnerable within the more limited infrastructure offered by ACNA; and (c) drawn-out litigation. Pittsburgh, San Joaquim and Fort Worth have had highly damaging legal battles with TEC, some of which are ongoing. It may not be coincidental that Quincy, which has a healthier growth trend is also different from the other dioceses in having won its lawsuit.
The fate of the ex-TEC dioceses raises questions for those who share many of ACNA’s theological instincts, but have chosen to remain within TEC, most notably the Communion Partners. Likewise, those in the Church of England, facing a central church now leaning towards the liberal ethical stance of TEC, have much to ponder as they seek to chart their future course of action.
Growth, in Parts
But ACNA has seen significant growth as well as decline. Leaving aside the two Nigerian dioceses that have left ACNA, the number of congregations in the rest of ACNA continues steadily to increase. Its stress on church planting is bearing considerable fruit and is much more vigorous than that of TEC.
What is particularly telling is the success of the non-territorial jurisdictions, particularly the diocese named C4SO (Churches for the Sake of Others), whose membership doubled and principal service attendance tripled over the six years up to 2019. C4SO is now the second-largest diocese in ACNA, eclipsed only by South Carolina, larger than Fort Worth or Pittsburgh. Western dioceses like Cascadia and the Rocky Mountains also report significant increases in membership and attendance.
C4SO 2013 2019
Congregations 26 52
Members 5,325 10,493
Attendance 3,157 9,373
Members of TEC may be tempted to look askance at a diocese whose name sounds like a droid from Star Wars, but humility is in order. The growth of C4SO massively outpaces all TEC dioceses in the same period.
What Is Going On in ACNA?
Now past its first decade, ACNA is declining and growing.
The experiment with Nigerian-based dioceses has proven more uneasy than might have been expected, but ACNA’s connections with the rapidly growing African diaspora communities in the USA are far stronger than those of TEC.
The trajectory of the dioceses which left TEC en masse is striking. They have not declined more than those which remained in TEC, but they have not done appreciably better. Clearly the dynamics with which they struggled prior to leaving TEC accompanied them after their transition.
However, the dynamism of some of ACNA’s new dioceses is no less worthy of attention. They stand out not only within ACNA but also in comparison with TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada. They are the most dynamic Anglican dioceses in North America, by some distance. Indeed, across Anglicanism in the western world these dioceses stand out.
Given the mixed fortunes of both TEC and ACNA and the huge challenges presented by COVID-19, there would be much value in both churches pondering further what ACNA data signifies. We hope to dig into this material in a future article.
Dr. Jeremy Bonner is honorary fellow of the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. With Professor Mark Chapman he recently edited: Costly Communion: Ecumenical Initiative and Sacramental Strife in the Anglican Communion (Brill 2019).
The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew is Vicar of St Barnabas, Middlesbrough and Visiting Fellow of St. John’s College, Durham University. He is co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research and tweets at @CCGR_Durham.
[i] ACNA’s churches mostly serve the USA, but these figures also include 91 congregations (about 10% of its congregations) which are outside the USA, mostly in Canada.