Episcopal Church slide loses a million members

by Institute on Religion and Democracy

— Jeffrey Walton

Episcopalians have been captivated in recent weeks by an unfolding meltdown at the denomination’s General Theological Seminary, but statistics released this week by the Episcopal Church’s Office of Research reveal that the wider denomination is also struggling to find its footing. The church has faced steep losses since the early 2000s with a perfect storm of changing demographics, low fertility and departures by traditionalists.

The 2013 reporting year saw a continuation of the downward trend, with a membership drop of 27,423 to 1,866,758 (1.4 percent) while attendance dropped 16,451 to 623,691 (2.6 percent). A net 45 parishes were closed, and the denomination has largely ceased to plant new congregations.

The new numbers do not factor in the departure of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, of which the church continues to report over 28,000 members and over 12,000 attendees, despite the majority of South Carolina congregations severing their relationship with the Episcopal Church at the end of 2012. If South Carolina departures were factored in, the membership loss would be closer to 50,000 persons.

The decline offers contrast with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which reported growth in membership, attendance and number of congregations in its 2013 statistics this June. ACNA was formed in 2009 by departing Episcopalians who disagreed with the liberalizing direction of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church.

While the Episcopal Church has established a continued pattern of steady decline since the early 2000s, the unbroken trend is relatively recent: the church lost only 18,000 members in the 1990s, a plateau that dropped off about the time Gene Robinson of New Hampshire was consecrated the church’s first openly partnered gay bishop. Overall, the church has declined from a high of 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.8 million today, even as the U.S. population has more than doubled. The church has lost a quarter of its attendance since 2003.

The size of the average Episcopal parish has now dropped to 61 persons from 64 in 2012, while 69 percent of congregations now report less than 100 attendees. Only 4 percent of parishes report attendance of over 300 persons. Fifty-Three percent of Episcopal congregations report that they are in decline.

Losses have not been evenly distributed, with rural dioceses continuing to struggle more than others. The Diocese of Alaska posted a 10.6 percent decline in attendance, while the downstate Illinois Diocese of Springfield posted a 10.9 percent decline in membership and an 11.5 percent decline in attendance. Eastern Oregon membership dropped 7.5 percent and 6.3 percent attendance to only 960 attendees.

Rust Belt dioceses also struggled, with Central New York posting a 5.1 percent decline in membership paired with a 5.2 percent decline in attendance, Bethlehem (PA) reporting a 5 percent decline in membership and 3.3 percent attendance loss and Northern Indiana listing a 4.7 percent decline in members and 5.6 percent drop in attendees. Michigan lost 5 percent of membership and 3.1 percent of attendance, while the tiny Diocese of Northern Michigan posted a 7.4 percent decline in attendance, dropping to 526 attendees, the smallest domestic diocese in the church.

The Northeastern United States experienced the most widespread losses, with both province I and II reporting drops of 4.4 and 4.5 percent, respectively. In a change from previous years, several foreign dioceses, typically immune to declines in domestic U.S. dioceses, have also posted sudden drops. Haiti, the church’s largest diocese, disclosed an 11.9 percent decline in attendance, Venezuela declined 19.6 percent and Honduras reported a staggering 43 percent drop in attendance, blamed on “a change in reporting procedures” in that diocese (Honduras also reported a 57 percent decline in membership).

“Renewing” dioceses attempting to rebuild after traditionalist departures have failed to stabilize, with Fort Worth hemorrhaging members and dropping from 6,126 to 4,790, a decline of 21.8 percent. San Joaquin dropped 2.2 percent of members and attendance declined 3.2 percent, while Pittsburgh dropped 2.1 percent of members and saw a decline of 1.7 percent in attendance. Quincy, Illinois was absorbed into the Diocese of Chicago in 2013.

Overall, 74 of the church’s 99 domestic dioceses reported decline, while all but nine domestic dioceses reported shrinking attendance. A rare bright spot was Rhode Island, which reported in a 6.5 percent increase in new members, while simultaneously reporting a 1.6 percent decline in attendance.

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