That “religion guy” — Richard Ostling, formerly of Time and AP — has a post up right now that will be of interest to anyone who has ever followed mainstream religion-news coverage in North America for, oh, more than a week. Here’s the link to the full post over at “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions.”
The question, from a reader named Mark, is pretty blunt and a bit snarky:
Why do so many journalists seem to think that the small (and dwindling) Episcopal Church is the most important of the “mainline” churches?
Well now, I have heard lots of theories on that one myself through the decades — including the viewpoint that the only place The Episcopal Church’s quiet “Decade of Evangelism” was a success, back in the 1990s, was in elite newsrooms. I think there is more to this phenomenon than that, and once wrote an essay on the topic myself. More on that in a moment.
The former leader of the Diocese of Colorado, the charismatic and Charismatic Bishop William C. Frey (a former media professional), kept hearing variations on the same question and he could never understand where it was coming from. Those who envied most of the coverage visited on the combatants in the Episcopal/Anglican wars were like “men who envied another man because of his frequent root canals.”
Nevertheless, Ostling offered his reader some solid insights. Here’s a sample:
Small? In the current “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” the Episcopal Church reports annual proceeds of $2 billion and an “inclusive” membership of 1,951,907, or #14 in size among U.S. religious bodies. Dwindling? For sure. It boasted 3,647,297 members in the peak year of 1966 (using a somewhat inflated headcount method). After decline, average Sunday attendance bottomed out in the 1990s through 2002 at around 850,000, but has fallen to 658,000 after the 2003 installation of its first partnered gay bishop, followed by schism and turmoil.
The headquarters research director asserted that through 2002 the Episcopal Church was the “healthiest” of the so-called mainline churches (defined as long-established, Protestant, predominantly white, ecumenical, and rather pluralistic in doctrine). All such groups have experienced ongoing net membership losses since the mid-1960s, including the American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and lately the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Many think fuzziness or liberalism in belief explain this unprecedented mainline slide, considering that most biblically conservative groups continued to grow (though these may also face a troublesome future). But it’s more complicated. Mainline statistics are affected by lowering birth and marriage rates, increasing death rates and average ages, and losses of youngsters raised in these churches.
Important? In journalists’ defense, Mark has gotta admit the Episcopal Church makes news.
By all means, read it all. Ostling also thinks this ongoing news phenomenon may have something to do with (wait for it) the American fascination with the royal family.
By the way, the scribe also included this: