By David Goodhew
The membership of the Episcopal Church (TEC) has halved since 1970. During the same period, the Anglican Communion’s combined membership has doubled. It is now heading toward 100 million. The result is a massive shift in the center of gravity of the Anglican Communion. Is the Communion growing or dying? It is growing and, in parts, it is dying too.
Members of TEC (and the wider Communion) urgently need to assimilate these patterns of growth and decline, especially as we approach the 2022 Lambeth Conference.
This article draws on the work of the widely respected scholars Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo and the Center for the Study of Worldwide Christianity based at Gordon Conwell, as well as other materials. Johnson and Zurlo now provide data for the entire Communion up to 2015, which constitutes an updating of their groundbreaking work in the volume Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion which also appeared in an earlier article on Covenant.
Global Anglicanism, 1970 to 2015[i]
Africa 7,718,000 56,947,000
Asia[ii] 358,000 891,000
Europe 29,367,000 24,922,000
North America 4,395,000 2,549,000
Latin America[iii] 775,000 929,000
Oceania 4,781,000 4,533,000
Global Total 47,394,000 90,771,000
The data for 2015 are the latest figures we have for the whole Communion. Individual provinces have more recent data. Since 2015 the Communion has grown further. Notwithstanding COVID, the Anglican Communion is now at least double the size it was in 1970. Those who would write Anglicanism off, please take note.
These figures need treating with care:
- They are figures for membership (people who could be called “Anglican”), not attendance data (the number of “bums on pews” on Sundays)
- They are backed up by other data and are valuable. But data from different countries are of variable accuracy and all the data need handling carefully.
- Within the data are concealed huge shifts. Areas seeing serious growth are not seeing it everywhere. Areas seeing stability or decline may also contain pockets of growth.
- Europe’s figures, in particular, are skewed by the Church of England. Its figures are swollen by the C of E’s quasi-ethnic dimension, whereby the large numbers of the English population have been baptized Anglican, even though they otherwise engage minimally with the church or Christian faith). The C of E’s nominal membership is 24 million, but its pre-COVID Sunday attendance was a small fraction of that figure.
- Beyond this, we should be wary of all church data collected since the advent of COVID. Such data may, or may not, be meaningful. But the scale of disruption means we won’t know for some time yet.
The key, above all, is to look at the trend, rather than focus too much on the exact numbers. And the trends are crystal clear.
The Profound Decline of North American and British Anglicanism
In 1970, the combined membership of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada came to 4,373,000. In 2015, the combined membership of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada came to 2,537,000 and it has dropped considerably since then. In half a century North American Anglicanism has halved in size.
North American Anglicanism has been declining by some metrics for a long time, but much of the decline is recent. As late as the 1990s, membership in the American South grew and it was holding steady in the West. The Anglican Church of Canada’s decline only really picked up from the turn of the century. But it picked up with a vengeance. The Anglican Church of Canada’s membership nearly halved between 2001 and 2017.
Historical perspective matters, even when looking at recent history. The last Lambeth Conference at which the bulk of Anglicanism was represented was in 1998. TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada are profoundly different (and much smaller) now than they were then.
For the rest of the West the picture is mixed. The numbers for England, Scotland, and Wales are as bad or nearly as bad as for North America. In Australia and Ireland the figures show decline, but it is markedly less steep. New Zealand seems to be somewhere in between Australia and the U.S.A. (but clear figures are hard to come by). The Diocese of Europe (which covers Europe, except for the British Isles) has seen significant growth, but from a small base.
The Rise of Africa
That African Anglicanism has grown is well known, but the scale of that growth and its complexity is little understood.
Not every part of African Anglicanism has grown, but much of it has and to such a degree that African Anglicanism is profoundly different, even compared to 20 years ago.
Nigerian, Ugandan, and Kenyan Anglicans number 42 million (as of 2015), nearly half of Global Anglicanism. These numbers matter still more because the bishops of these countries may well not attend Lambeth 2022.
More than that, significant new players have arisen. In 1970 Anglicanism in the Congo comprised a few thousand people in one pocket of the eastern Congo. It was run from Uganda. Congolese Anglicans had no bishop of their own. Now there is an Anglican Province of the Congo with 500,000 members. It has its own primate and multiple, multiplying, dioceses.
Likewise, new provinces have arisen in recent years in parts of Africa untouched or little-touched by British colonial rule — such as the new province of Alexandria for North Africa and the Horn of Africa or the new province of Mozambique and Angola.
Notice, too, the trajectory of South Africa. Here, for over 50 years there has been modest growth, markedly less than the rapid growth of overall population. Notwithstanding the impressive ministry of Archbishop Tutu and others in resisting Apartheid during the 1980s and 1990s, South African Anglicanism has been far less vigorous than Anglicanism in most of the rest of Africa — looking more like western Anglicanism, in its patterns of growth and decline. It is a reminder that population increase is no guarantee of church growth.
The Rise of Parts of Asia, Latin America, and Oceania
Anglicanism in Asia, Latin America, and Oceania is small compared to Africa, but significant and, often, growing. The Anglican Church of Chile had some 4,000 members in 1970 but 20,000 by 2015. And in 2018 it became a separate province of the Anglican Communion. Latin American Anglicanism could well be larger than TEC by 2050.
The churches of the Indian subcontinent are an amalgam of various denominations, of which Anglicanism is but one, and are not considered here. Aside from them, Asian Anglicanism is rapidly growing, albeit from a small base. But the growth is patchy. Most dynamic is Singapore, whose Anglican diocese has planted multiple churches into surrounding countries, from Indonesia to Nepal. By contrast, the Anglican communities in Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan are broadly static.
Oceania is less dynamic than Singapore or Chile, but more robust than North America or Europe. It has pockets of significant growth in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
The Rise of Anglicans Not Invited to Lambeth
At the last Lambeth Conference, the ACNA did not exist. It is now of significant size. “Unofficial” Anglicanism (by which is meant churches not invited to Lambeth but seen as legitimate Anglicans by many official Anglicans involved in Lambeth, yet fully involved in groups such as GAFCON and the Global South group of primates) is expanding into provinces such as Brazil and New Zealand. Frequent meetings and visits mean that the ACNA and other “unofficial” Anglicans connect with African and Asian Anglicanism much more than TEC and other provinces in the West.
Beyond this, the GAFCON and Global South movements show how, prior to COVID, cheap air travel facilitated international Anglican fellowship with a frequency significantly greater than the once-every-decade rhythm of Lambeth.
Central to understanding Lambeth 2022 will be recognition of who is not present. Swathes, perhaps the majority, of non-western Anglicans will be unrepresented. Beyond this, new Anglican groupings will be absent, yet they have substantial links with much of Anglicanism.
Lambeth 2022 and Beyond
In 2019, the Diocese of Northern Michigan had an average Sunday attendance of 385. You read that right, 385 people, across a whole diocese. Numbers are not everything, but should the bishop of Northern Michigan be tempted to share his wisdom at the forthcoming Lambeth Conference, he might ponder what bishops from the Global South may be thinking — given that many of their congregations have a higher Sunday attendance than his entire diocese. In Anglicanism everyone is equal, but some dioceses are more equal than others.
Northern Michigan illustrates the seismic shift within the Anglican Communion in the last 50 years. The Communion has doubled in size in the last 50 years. At the same time, U.S. Anglicanism has halved. The Communion’s center of gravity has shifted from the Global North to the Global South. And this shift has a lot further to run.
The dynamism of the Anglican Communion is shown by the fact that even during the COVID pandemic two new Anglican provinces came into being: Mozambique and Angola, formed in September 2021, and Alexandria (covering North Africa and the Horn of Africa) in 2020. These new provinces are busy founding new dioceses. Rumors of the death of the Anglican Communion are an exaggeration.
Moreover, significant communities of Anglicans (such as the burgeoning churches of Nepal, which are collectively larger than a good many TEC dioceses) do not have their own episcopal voice at Lambeth. And huge numbers of Anglicans have bishops who may well refuse to be there.
Numbers are not everything, but they are not nothing. The massive growth and decline in the Anglican Communion cannot be passed over in an embarrassed silence. It is cause for encouragement. Anglicanism has within it great dynamism and a future. Equally, it requires the Communion itself to change radically, so as to reflect its new shape. The shrinking provinces of North America and Britain need a new humility. Any attempt at “business as usual” will lead to the spectacle of mostly white bishops from mostly declining western dioceses holding disproportionate influence at Lambeth. Such optics would render the deliberations of Lambeth 2022 wholly invalid.
[i] These figures come from the World Christian Database, compiled by Gina Zurlo and Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Worldwide Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Zurlo and Johnson’s work is widely regarded as the best quality data on world Christianity.
[ii] The figures for Asia do NOT include those for the churches of the Indian Sub-Continent. These are ecumenical federations.
[iii] Figures for Latin American include those for the Caribbean and Central America.