A Response to Scott MacDougall
By Benjamin M. Guyer
On November 30, House of Deputies theologian Scott MacDougall published “The Church Is Not Dying, It Is Changing: A Message from the House of Deputies Theologian.” MacDougall believes that the decline of the Episcopal Church is overexaggerated and he wants to give Episcopal parishes hope in the Advent season. He opens his short essay by writing, “As leaders in the Episcopal Church, you have all heard a good deal about the so-called ‘decline of the church’” (emphasis mine). He notes that both membership and financial contributions have been “decreasing for decades,” but he fears that “paying too much attention to this narrative of decline may, in fact, be contributing to that decline itself.” It’s an interesting point, and one worthy of further analysis, but even if true, MacDougall’s essay, at best, risks encouraging Episcopalians to ignore the facts of our current state.
MacDougall makes two questionable claims. He first argues that “Individual congregations and even some dioceses are growing.” Second, he writes, “Why are the congregations that are growing growing? Because they realize the church is not dying, it is changing.” No evidence is offered for either assertion, so I will address them in turn.
First, there is no clear evidence that any diocese in the Episcopal Church is growing. Consider the Episcopal Church’s information on Average Sunday Attendance by Province and Diocese 2011-2020. Every single diocese saw declines in average Sunday attendance (ASA) during this decade. In the Episcopal Church as a whole, ASA declined by a stunning 30.8 percent. (If you want to see a visual presentation of the data, the Episcopal Church has a fantastic dashboard on point. And, if you are interested in how COVID has affected both attendance and data on point, see this helpful article.) Ergo, even if individual congregations are growing, it isn’t enough to offset diocesan decline.
If you don’t want to use ASA as a metric for growth (or, rather, decline), you could look instead at the Episcopal Church’s data on baptized members. Of the church’s 111 dioceses, baptized membership declined in 106 dioceses during the same decade. The five exceptions are the dioceses of Haiti (increased by 12.6 percent), Pittsburgh (increased by 1.6 percent), Tennessee (increased by 1.5 percent), the Navajo Missions (increased by 9.9 percent), and Taiwan (increased by 2.9 percent). Yet, even with an increase in baptized members, Sunday attendance in these same five dioceses still decreased. What is more, despite these comparatively small success stories, between 2011 and 2020 overall baptized membership declined by 17.2 percent in the wider Episcopal Church. The claim that some dioceses are growing is correct only as a technicality that privileges baptized members (in only five dioceses!) over and above those who actually attend church.
MacDougall’s second claim is that growth happens where people “realize the church is not dying, it is changing.” But he offers no evidence that Haiti, Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Navajo Missions, and Taiwan agree with this claim. Nor does he offer any sort of discussion of how “change” (a regrettably vague term) is being used to facilitate growth, whether in these five dioceses or elsewhere. Assuming the best (do you see, dear reader, how charitable I can be?), appealing to “change” is well-intentioned. But we need an analytic deep dive into the precise content of change before we hold it up as a matter for parochial and denominational assurance. (And it may be ethnographers and statisticians, rather than theologians, who are best positioned for this sort of analysis.)
But Wait — Look Over There! And Over There! And Elsewhere, Too!
Another problem with MacDougall’s essay is that its comparative framework is misleading. Referencing PEW Research, he writes, “no denomination — no, not even the evangelical ones — is experiencing explosive growth.” This may be true (although some recent evidence suggests that evangelicalism is growing, at the very least as a share of American Christianity), but noting evangelicals’ lack of growth explains nothing about the current state of the Episcopal Church. So, let’s use PEW’s research to unpack larger questions of growth and decline in the United States more broadly, and then use this to see where the Episcopal Church stands.
In 2019, PEW reported that between 2007 and 2019, the number of self-identified Catholics had declined by 4 percent; self-identified Protestants had declined by 8 percent; and, regular Sunday attendance had dropped by 9 percent. By way of comparison, between 2007 and 2019, baptized membership in the Episcopal Church decreased by 21.3 percent, and ASA decreased by 28.8 percent. (To see the Episcopal Church’s ASA between 2007 and 2017, click here; to see baptized members during these years, click here.) I suspect that our decline is, in fact, far bigger than indicated by our waning number of baptized members; religious self-identification, which PEW uses, is a better metric than baptized membership because the latter only matters if you identify with it. As David Goodhew has observed, if current trends continue, the Episcopal Church will have effectively disappeared by 2050. (Briefly, as an aside, even if one accepts the claim that “believing without belonging” is prevalent within the Episcopal Church or among the wider American population, this does no real good for churches, because churches only survive if they have active members.)
Pointing to smaller declines among other religious groups does not explain why the Episcopal Church is declining so much more rapidly. Our denomination has chosen to defer much of its intellectual work to a professional class called “theologians.” And while it is important to set these developments within a theological context, this theological context must also be informed by responsible use of the data.
Before offering a recommendation, allow me to sound three notes of caution. First, there is a popular claim among conservatives which asserts that more traditional forms of belief cause churches to grow. I am skeptical of this view for two reasons. First, I have seen no data which offer anything other than correlations between theology and growth in select instances (e.g., the growth of Orthodox churches in the English-speaking world). Second, even if traditional forms of orthodoxy sometimes correlate with growth, at the macro level, even conservative churches are declining — although they are not declining anywhere near as quickly as, e.g., the Episcopal Church. Finally, neither of the first two points here should be used to deny the fact that significant hemorrhages in membership have occurred due to the Episcopal Church’s adoption of “progressive” positions at variance with a wider, more “conservative,” Christian consensus.
So, I’m going to suggest that, from here on out, it should be every diocese for itself. Let alliances be made and self-selected forms of cooperation ensue, and do not interfere with those who choose a way more “conservative” or more “progressive” than your own. General Convention should be delayed for a decade. General Convention is part of the bene esse (wellbeing), rather than part of the esse (essence), of the Episcopal Church. It is massively expensive, hugely time consuming (and thus quite exclusionary of many, if not most, laity), and there is little reason to have big, expensive meetings with attendance nearing free fall. A period of ecclesial disorganization is not desirable, but it is far preferable to permanent dissolution. We must now live an ecclesiology of emergency.
No institution deserves to survive. Christians are so very foolish in believing that, if they do the right thing, God will take their side and make up the difference. But let us open our eyes. Even if Word and Sacrament remain means of grace, the deity is otherwise silent. The theatre of history is, at present, a testament only to our own choices. The fundamental task of ecclesiastical historians today has become that of preparing to write epitaphs — and that will involve far more truth telling than is currently on offer.
Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
His monograph How the English Reformation was Named: The Politics of History, 1400-1700 is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is the co-editor with Paul Avis of The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose (Bloomsbury, 2017).