By David Goodhew

The Episcopal Church has been in decline for some years. So what is the impact of COVID? New data for 2021 has just been released and, together with other research, it enables us to begin to answer that question.

What Has Happened?

The new data needs careful handling. This is no fault of TEC’s research and statistics department, which has done a stunning job. This is because the circumstances behind the data are so extraordinary, that it has substantial limitations. We need to look at other data to gain a fuller picture.

Sunday Attendance

The headline is that average Sunday attendance plummeted from 458,179 in 2020 to 292,851 in 2021. At face value, this means TEC’s attendance has more than halved since 2010, when it stood at 657,831. But these figures need to be treated with care. They cover a year of huge disruption. The anecdotal evidence from 2022 is of some parishes remaining deeply damaged, but of others bouncing back somewhat.

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Until the 2022 figures are in, we cannot be sure what the 2021 figures really mean. The most reasonable conclusion is that COVID hit TEC hard and has significantly deepened existing decline. But we can’t yet know exactly how much deeper that decline has been.

There are figures for online attendance, but I am very wary of putting weight on them. Measuring online worship has been described as the “wild west” of ecclesial data-gathering. The figures could mean something, but the questions they pose are legion. How solid is the data? How many views are from existing members or from new people? How deep, or fleeting, is online engagement? How many people are being baptized or confirmed as a result of online spiritual nurture, and how does that compare with pre-COVID patterns? We need far more sophisticated and widely accepted metrics of and understanding of online worship to make sense of the data.

Membership

By contrast to attendance, TEC’s membership declined by a “modest” 57,000 in 2021, broadly similar to the trends before COVID, with a deeper drop in the Northeast and less in the South.

Active Baptized Membership of TEC

2000                2,329,000

2010                1,952,000

2020                1,577,000

2021                1,520,000

But beware of taking this number at face value. It is plausible, in the sense that it chimes with pre-COVID trends. But, given the extraordinary events of the past few years, it would be unwise to assume that the measure of membership is comparable to what it measured pre-COVID. The slide toward more nominal membership may well have steepened as a result of COVID-induced passivity.

Other Metrics

A crude but significant metric is the number of TEC parishes and missions closing, in comparison with other churches. In 2004 there were 7,200 parishes and missions in TEC. By 2021, there were 6,294. That’s a drop of almost a thousand. One in seven of TEC’s churches and missions closed in the last 17 years. And a lot more closures are likely on the way. The number of TEC congregations with ten or less adults on a Sunday jumped to 568 in 2021 (from 392 in 2020). Nearly 10% of TEC congregations have ten or fewer adults in church of a Sunday. Such tiny communities are intensely vulnerable to folding completely.

Many other non-Anglican churches have suffered during COVID, but the TEC rate of attrition is high. It is an uncomfortable comparison, but look at the ACNA. The ACNA data doesn’t go back to 2004, but in 2013 there were 932 ACNA congregations and by 2021 there were slightly more, 974.

The Pew Foundation has measured the extent to which different parts of American Christianity resumed work for children. Here the differences are stark.

Percentage of churches that had no provision for children’s faith education (in-person or online) during COVID[i]

Catholic/Orthodox      0%

Mainline                      55%

Evangelical                 12%

Fewer mainline churches offered faith education for children before COVID. And during COVID, mainline churches (including TEC) were dramatically stricter in their closure of in-person work with children and youth. Mainline churches were slightly more ready to offer online provision to children and young people than evangelicals, but offered less than Catholics/Orthodox. And online provision is very far from making up the shortfall of in-person provision.

This is very serious in both the immediate future and long term. It is well known that most people come to faith before the age of 25. The damage COVID has done to TEC’s work with children and young people is an existential threat to the future of the denomination.

Bright Spots

In COVID, the balance of cloud to silver lining is very much toward cloud. But there are some shafts of light.

The Pew Foundation surveyed U.S. congregations (including TEC) and found that over half (54%) had started a new compassion ministry or expanded an existing ministry during the pandemic. This is an impressive achievement at a time of huge pressure.

Online ministries, as is well-known, have bloomed tremendously, as necessity birthed invention. Regardless of the precise significance of phenomena such as online worship, this is a major gain.

And financial giving has been more robust that other metrics, rising by 3% in 2021, compared to a 4% fall in 2020.

The Response of the National Church

TEC’s leaders have had an unenviable position — caught between the vulnerable and fearful who want caution and the parallel need to reactivate worship and mission.

One of the most useful distinctions in theology is between espoused theology and operative theology, between what you say and what you do. And the response of the leadership of TEC and other Western churches to COVID illustrates that tension. Leaders say that they support the local church, that they want it to grow and multiply. But, faced with the battering ram of COVID, what leadership has been given in helping local churches recover from the pandemic? Precious little.

Is there a COVID recovery plan? No. Is there serious thinking about how we reconnect with the many who have dropped away from church? Not much. Is there a tendency to regard fatalistically the slump in attendance as an inevitable event that cannot be reversed? Yes.

And there is a curiously convenient quality to such fatalism. If there is some immutable law that condemns TEC and other Western churches to shrink, their leaders can wash their hands of any responsibility for the huge decline that has happened on their watch.

So Where Does TEC Go Now?

After COVID, where does TEC go now? Many are looking at 2021’s dismal figures and are fearful. That is an understandable but not wholly correct response.

Here are four pointers:

  • COVID has seriously accelerated the decline of TEC (as it has with many other churches and much of civil society). But, and this is a big but, many congregations are capable of a degree of bounce-back. The degree to which this happens will depend on the readiness of churches to seek to grow again. Those who intend to grow will tend to grow. And this in turn depends on theology. If our theology has a high place for the local congregation (the standpoint of the New Testament), intentionality will follow.
  • COVID contains within it fuel for congregational recovery. There is a deal of gloom around. But the Christian faith is, ultimately, centered on the hope we have in the resurrected Jesus. This is good news for battered people and good news amid an often-hysterical media, addicted to bad news and panic.
  • We need a post-pandemic plan. Governments make plans to help societies recover from crises. So should the church. Such planning includes identifying the short-/medium-/long-term effects of the pandemic, identifying key tasks (I’d put work with children and families at the top of the list) and praying over how to respond in one year/three years/five years. The lack of such planning in so many places is a staggering oversight.
  • Some churches and dioceses will need to close. But other churches and dioceses will need to be opened. The fact that a significant number of TEC churches are so frail that they may need palliative care should not distract us from the urgent need for church planting — notably in areas of expanding population, new housing, and ethnic diversification.

Death and resurrection — that’s what church life after COVID is about. That’s what church life always was about.


[i] Data from Pew Research Foundation’s report: Religious Education During the Pandemic: A Tale of Challenge and Creativity. Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations, (covidreligionresearch.org) p. 5.

About The Author

David Goodhew is a visiting fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England.

 

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Colin Ross
1 month ago

LOl why would anyone bother? Serious question. Jack Sprong had it right, the theology is bunk and everyone I know has left the church never to come back (for very good reason) or went Anglican.

C R SEITZ
1 month ago

“292,851 in 2021.” I suppose the obvious question is whether 2022 alters this picture, and if so, to what degree. Throw in weak baptismal figures and the lack of children’s faith education and it may be that that figure won’t change much. If 10% of congregations have under 10 people, how many have under 30? It is hard to see how either numerical reality bodes well for survival over the near term. TEC has provided the data, and it is sobering.

Erik White
16 days ago

Progressive liberal ideology has supplanted Christian ideology in TEC. When the clergy and remaining congregants believed that BLM and LGBTQ+ banners were more important than the spiritual needs of the community, my parish reached a major inflection point. Virtue signaling is divisive, self serving, short sighted, and just plain stupid. The point at which everyone with a functioning brain can see past the leftist propaganda that now fills academia and every mainstream media outlet, the reason for the decline of TEC is quite easy to see. A big problem is that there are too many who are too invested in… Read more »