By Mark Michael
The Anglican Church of Canada will run completely out of members in just over 20 years if current rates of decline continue, according to a report presented to the Church’s Council of General Synod on November 9. The Rev. Neil Elliott, a priest of the Diocese of Kootenay, was commissioned by General Synod in 2016 to gather statistics on church membership and participation, the first reliable statistical survey in almost two decades.
The church’s new primate, Archbishop Linda Nicholls described the data as a “wake-up call” for Canadian Anglicans, according to Anglican Journal. But she also said she hoped the bad news would not pull the church into a “vortex of negativity,” adding, “It’s my hope that when we leave here, the message we take is not ‘Oh no, the church is dying,’ but ‘Oh, we’ve got a challenge’,” she said. “But we’ve also got a hopeful way of addressing that.”
Elliott relied on five different data sets and measures of participation to gather information, and noted that all generated remarkably similar estimates. His report noted that since the last reliable statistical totals, the annual rate of decline in the numbers on parish rolls has been 2.77%, from 641,845 in 2001 to 357,123 in 2017. During the same period, Canada’s total population increased from 31 million to 37 million, one of the most rapid rates of growth in the West. Other measures of vitality showed similarly drastic rates of decline. The number of baptisms in 2017, for example, was 5411, down from 13,304 in 2001 (and 44,416 in 1961). The overall percentage of Canadians who are Anglicans have decreased from a high point of 7% in 1961 to about 1% today.
In a detailed analysis on Covenant, church statistician David Goodhew noted that the Canadian church has seen decline in all dioceses except the indigenous-majority Diocese of the Arctic, in the country’s far north. The decline has been especially steep in the nation’s rural dioceses, which serve communities that have generally experienced depopulation over the last few decades. Ten dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada — a third of all dioceses — have an average Sunday attendance of less than 1000, which Goodhew identified as unsustainably small.
Elliott said in his report that the Anglican Church of Canada’s rate of decline is increasing, and is comparable to that faced by the United Church of Canada, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. Among Anglican provinces, Elliott noted that the Canadian church’s rate of decline for 2018 was exceeded only by that of the significantly larger Episcopal Church, which has a projected “zero-member date” of 2050.
Goodhew pointed out, though, that not all Canadian churches have experienced decline, and that advancing secularism cannot fully account for the decline. “Canadian Anglicanism is not the whole of Canadian Christianity,” he wrote. “Whilst some denominations in Canada have shared Anglicanism’s steep decline, some have not. It is a seductive delusion to assume that there is some inevitable tide of secularity sweeping all Canadian churches into oblivion and that the ACoC can do nothing. In particular, churches rooted in ethnic diversity are thriving in Canada’s now hugely diverse larger cities. Denominations and congregations have agency over their fate. They are not passive spectators swept along by ineluctable social forces.”
Bishop Jenny Andison, a suffragan of the Diocese of Toronto, reflected on the announcement in a recent post on Covenant. She noted that in her own diocese, 32% of parishes are growing and another 12% are stable. The majority, though, are in various stages of decline. Andison said she hopes the bracing news can help Canadian Anglicans embrace the call to share the good news of Jesus Christ in their communities.
“If our own numerical decline means that we decide to get serious about reclaiming our apostolic calling to be missionaries to our culture and encourage church planting, fresh expressions of church, and reshaping our parishes for mission, then it’s about time. If these statistics light a fire under us to keep re-imagining ministry in our neighborhoods in fresh and creative ways beyond the traditional parish model, then excellent. And if the decline means that we are more ready to acknowledge our own sinfulness (personally and institutionally) and come to God in great humility and repentance, asking to be led forward by the Holy Spirit, then bring on the bracing statistics!”