I am a member of the Episcopal Church, USA (hereafter TEC). I am increasingly worried that in a few years, I might be THE member of the Episcopal Church, USA, the last of my kind.
As Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat and others have pointed out, the church has just issued a summary of its attendance statistics from 2000 to 2010, and they are incredibly bad even by the standards of liberal mainline denominations. Nationwide, average Sunday attendance fell by 23 percent in that short decade, from 857,000 to 658,000. In some dioceses, though, the contraction was far worse – 72 percent in Pittsburgh, 73 percent in Fort Worth, 80 percent in San Joaquin. Now, there is limited comfort in these statistics, because some at least of the factors causing decline will not recur in the next decade. As these three dioceses show, part of the fall in numbers involved the defection of Episcopal believers to new and more conservative Anglican denominations, formed in protest against TEC’s liberal stance on issues of sexuality and morality. As these traditionalists have already gone, they no longer survive to flee again. Dare we hope that if those ideological battles are not exactly over, yet the worst is probably past?
Having said this, in other ways the figures are actually worse than they appear, as the attendance figures represent a net, combining losses and gains. In fact, many Episcopal churches actually added members in the decade from Catholics fleeing that church – usually on those familiar matters of gender and sexuality. So the overall fall of 23 percent includes those new additions, minus a catastrophic exodus of more traditional Episcopalians.
Even apart from the statistics of decline, it is sobering to see the tiny scale of the dioceses that remain. Of a hundred TEC dioceses in the continental US, a sixth cannot muster average Sunday attendances of 2,000, not enough to constitute a single megachurch. Fewer than a quarter of the dioceses have ten thousand or more Sunday attenders. One would think that consolidation and merging of those small and struggling dioceses has to be high on the agenda of church authorities.
Overall, we really have to ask how long a church can survive with statistics like this, and when the time has come to admit that the patient cannot be revived.
My main worry is that TEC authorities are huddled around trying to respond to this crisis, and deciding that the church must conform its values still more closely to those of secular society – you know, to become truly relevant, to face the challenges of the 1970s.
In conclusion, I just offer one wholly scientific theory that I just invented: The numerical growth and success of a religious denomination is inversely proportionate to the favorable treatment it receives in major liberal media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, Nation, New Republic). Examples? The Episcopal Church USA versus Mormons or Catholics; Episcopalians/Anglicans in North America versus Africa.
Anyone care to test that hypothesis?