By Kirk Petersen
After declining yearly for decades, average Sunday attendance (ASA) at domestic Episcopal churches soared 19.2 percent in 2022. But of course, there’s a catch — attendance plunged during the pandemic. Despite the healthy increase in 2022, ASA is still down a third compared with five years earlier, and down 44 percent over 10 years.
“The data bears out what we hear everywhere. We are declining. We have fewer parishes and we have fewer people,” said the Rev. Molly James, deputy executive officer of the General Convention. She presented data from the annual parochial reports to an online meeting of the House of Bishops September 19.
The surge in attendance for 2022 was predictable. In fact, TLC predicted it last year, when nominal ASA declined by a whopping 35 percent. Last year’s article provides a detailed explanation of how the pandemic has skewed the data. The reports include only in-person worship — which means they understate total participation, as many churches now offer services online.
Every year around this time, the office of the General Convention releases a flood of data on attendance, membership, plate and pledge income, and other insights gleaned from the parochial reports that every congregation is obligated to prepare. This year, in response to the General Convention’s request for more data, the annual report is more robust than ever.
The church worked with Charissa Mikoski, a doctoral research fellow at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, to develop new insights from the data. Among other things, this resulted in a 22-page PDF document providing information on the age distribution of Episcopalians (just under half are 65 or older), the number of languages used in worship (more than 40), and the founding year of parishes (just over half were founded in the 19th century or earlier).
The church also contracted with ESRI, a geographic-data provider, to offer a sophisticated mapping tool for analyzing the location and neighborhoods of Episcopal churches. The tool generated the map at the top of this article, which marks the location of every church with a pin. The tool extends to non-domestic Episcopal churches as well, from Taiwan to Europe.
The tool is dizzyingly interactive — a data nerd’s dream. It can zoom in and provide a wealth of information about the neighborhoods surrounding every church location, including median age, race, language spoken at home, income, and more.
For example, the map above shows the entirety of the Diocese of Newark, and parts of the Dioceses of New York, New Jersey, Long Island, and Bethlehem, against a background illustrating the concentration of Spanish speakers at the level of census tracts. You can click each pin to see which church is represented, and click anywhere else in the map to see the percentage of Spanish-speakers in the neighborhood.
Speaking of Spanish, the analysis document states that about 11 percent of Episcopal congregations offer some or all of their services in Spanish. A nearby graphic also provides a visual guide to other “Languages in which Worship is Conducted.” Here we start to see some kinks in the data-reporting process.
According to the graphic, after English and Spanish, the most common worship language is Lakota, in more than 40 congregations — far more widespread than Mandarin, French, Hawaiian, and many others. This, despite the fact that Wikipedia reports there are only about 2,100 native speakers of Lakota, making it a “critically endangered” language.
The chart shows only about a dozen congregations worshiping in Haitian Creole, although there are more than 100 congregations in the Diocese of Haiti, one of the largest dioceses in the church. So apparently this data is only reflecting domestic churches, although it doesn’t say that.
Explaining the Lakota anomaly required a bit of research. James told TLC that virtually all the congregations that ticked the “Lakota” box on the parochial report were from the Diocese of South Dakota. A call to the diocese makes it clear that different people have different conceptions of what it means to conduct worship in a language.
Diocesan Administrator Marlys Fratzke said she was not aware of any congregation in the diocese that conducts services completely in the Lakota language. But she said many South Dakota congregations regularly or occasionally sing hymns in Lakota — an homage to the Indigenous people who lived there for centuries before Europeans arrived.
Despite these quibbles, the analysis represents another advance in the Episcopal Church’s two-century-long tradition of transparency when it comes to statistics. As James said to the bishops, there is an illuminating history of the parochial report in an appendix to the Blue Book report of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, prepared for the most recent General Convention.
The first canonical requirement for annual reporting by congregations was enacted at the General Convention in 1804 — and a peek at the history shows a steady growth in sophistication over the decades.
The early reports were short on statistics and long on broad impressions. In 1811, for example, “the many churches in Massachusetts were ‘in a state of derangement and decay’; other dioceses were reported to show ‘an increase in zeal’ and ‘respect for, and attachment to the church, seems to be growing in several places.'”
Here’s hoping for more zeal and less derangement in the years ahead.