Is the Episcopal Church really all that important?

MARK (listing no location) ASKS:

Why do so many journalists seem to think that the small (and dwindling) Episcopal Church is the most important of the “mainline” churches?


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. Years ago we had heresy charges against a bishop (the hierarchy merely tut-tutted over his “tone”) and later inaction when a bishop turned even more contemptuous about Christian traditions. Also the Black Manifesto shakedown, battles over Prayer Book revision, illicit ordinations of the first female clergy, followed by official approval, followed by women bishops, a bishop’s trial for OKing gay clergy (the verdict said sexual morality isn’t “core doctrine”), failed efforts to overturn that policy, then gay bishops, nasty schisms with international and ecumenical reverberations, the church’s continuing legal combat to seize the properties of departing congregations and dioceses, a go-ahead for same-sex weddings in the celebrated D.C. cathedral, and assorted accomplishments and scandals along the way.

Admittedly the Episcopal Church grabs more media attention than, say, the mainline’s far bigger United Methodist Church or than conservative groups of comparable size (Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod). Perhaps Episcopalians are more tempestuous in handling their disputes. Or maybe the Episcopal mystique echoes Americans’ odd fascination with the royal family in the church’s mother country, England. No doubt the denomination has enjoyed cultural cachet, whether its Colonial heritage, wealthy and famed forebears, liturgical beauty, or artistic influence. Starting with George Washington, more U.S. presidents have been Episcopalians than members of any other denomination, most recently George H.W. Bush (though young George W. Bush switched to join Laura’s Methodists).

Another index of status is the church affiliations of U.S. Congress members. Episcopalians currently are outnumbered only by Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, with 7.3 percent of the ranks (compared with less than 1 percent of the U.S. population). However, as recently as the 1980s Episcopalians typically constituted 12 percent of the Congress, and today’s most prominent Episcopal member, Senator John McCain, has had more involvement with Southern Baptists.

(Full disclosure: The Guy has often worshipped with appreciation at Episcopal congregations, most recently last summer. And some of his best friends are Episcopalians.)

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • David Allen

    As an Episcopalian I loved your commentary. Short but to the point. I forgot how much we need to focus on demagraphics. Also, besides talking about all the scandals (you forgot the national Treasurer who ran off with millions), you also mentioned our beautiful liturgy which is why my wife and I still worship there every Sunday. Also, for the conservative readers who can’t imagine why any believer would choose the Episcopal Church, I would encourage them to attend ONCE and pay attention to the scriptures. EVERY SUNDAY we have a coordinated group of FOUR scripture readings — OT (excluding Psalms), a Psalm, NT (excluding the Gospels), AND a Gospel reading. Yes, we like symbols. (Even conservatives like the flag which is “just” a symbol.) The priest leaves the altar and carries the Gospel to the congregation and we stand out of respect for the Gospel. What’s wrong with that.

    Enough. Thanks to the religion guy for a great commentary. I’m so glad this blog exists.

    David in upstate NY

  • theoldadam

    I think that any church that proclaims Christ and His forgiveness of our sins, and that administers the sacraments in accordance with that gospel, is important.

    For all their faults.


  • JTFS

    In terms of politics, the affiliation of the Episcopal Church with the National Cathedral is a big deal. When the nation goes to church together to celebrate or mourn, it is an Episcopal Church. Also, the number of Presidents and members of Congress who are/have been Episcopalian Presidents far outweigh those of any other any other denomination.

    Also, I think that pundits find us interesting because, despite our heritage of wealth and privilege, the Episcopal Church offers the most coherent counterpoint to the Religious Right and it’s near unanimous support for the Republican Party.

    • Richard Ostling

      Episcopal Presidents don’t “far outweigh”the others. The list has 11 Episcopalians just edging out 10 Presbyterians. The total would hit an unlucky 13 if we count Jefferson (youthful affiliation gave way in adulthood to a skeptical credo of his own making) and Teddy Roosevelt (considered to be both Episcopal and Dutch Reformed). The image of the denomination countering the G.O.P. is interesting since prior to the 1960s wags would call the Episcopal Church “the Republican Party at prayer” or “the Republican Party on its knees.”

      • JTFS

        Yes, far outweigh was a poor choice of words…but when you consider the size of the denomination, even at it’s height, its influence has be disproportionate…both in the Oval Office and in Congress.

        The transition from “the Republican Party on its knees” to its current place as counterpoint to the religious right has been dramatic. Look at all of the issues that the Religious Right continues to care about…and you will find, at the leadership level at least, the Episcopal Church on the exact opposite side.

  • Mary Morrison

    We have dwindled, but gradually, Episcopalians are coming back. Even in Texas we grew some. No numbers yet for 2012, but there was growth in 2011. So there is still good news!

  • FW Ken

    The Episcopal Church has excellent and accessible statistical reporting online.

    Terry Mattingly, I think, opines that the Episcopal Church is a media darling because it has great Catholic pageantry without all the dogma. When I was an Episcopalian, we seriously believed that it had the potential to be The American Church – the organizing core of American Christianity. Not the only church, but the leading church. Sure, we were young and stupid, but you have to admit there is something compelling about a religion that can command such respect at less that 2% of the population.

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  • Sally

    The Church of England was extremely important to the nation’s founding and the Episcopal Church is its successor. So the Episcopal Church is historically important. In addition, it has a brilliant liberal intellectual tradition. Just two more reasons.