By David Goodhew
The church deserves congratulation for the detail, accuracy, and especially candor it shows in sharing its data. Beyond that, it has to be said that the news is bad. The church is a movement, and the Episcopal Church is moving downward. The data from 2016 showed decline, but some optimists hoped the decline was slowing. This is not borne out by the data from 2017, when membership and attendance continued to drop at the same rate as in 2016 or, in some instances, at a sharper rate.
|Year||Baptized Membership||Average Sunday Attendance|
There are always individual churches and dioceses that buck the trend, but the trend is clear. Baptized membership dropped in domestic dioceses by 19.1 percent in the decade up to 2017 and this continues, with a drop of 1.9 percent in 2016-17.
The Episcopal Church shrank in the 1980s and ’90s by a number of measures, but the pace picked up from around 2000. The pace of decline increased markedly again between 2005 and 2010. Since 2010, it has continued to decline: at a slower pace than 2005-10, but faster than 2000-05. In other words, things are not be quite as bad as they were in 2005-10, but they are bad.
Baptized membership and Sunday attendance has been dropping at a roughly even rate since 2010. The drop in Average Sunday Attendance in 2016 and 2017 is smaller than 2013-15, but the drop in 2017 was bigger than in 2016.
There is wide variation between dioceses, as the chart below, sampling four very different dioceses, shows:
|Fond du Lac||9,736||5,859||4,833|
As can be seen from the table above, the rate and relative timing of decline varies markedly, but almost all dioceses are in decline to some degree.
The steady fall in the number of parishes and missions has slightly slowed in the last couple of years, but continues and is large over time. There was a net fall of 753 between 2004 and 2017, a drop of over 10 percent.
|Year||Number of Parishes and Missions|
The Episcopal Church has made attempts to promote evangelism and church planting in recent years. While such efforts will take time, it is pertinent to ask what is happening. Data on congregation size and congregational closures suggest that the long-term aging of the church continues, as do its deleterious effects. It is striking that the percentage of congregations with big falls in Average Sunday Attendance in the last five years has significantly risen (from 52% to 57%), while the percentage of congregations growing markedly in the last five years has fallen (from 19% to 15%). This suggests much faster action is needed both to start new congregations and rescue those that are shrinking.
Hard data can be a friend, for it allows us to ask hard questions. How many new congregations have been formed in the last three years? What is their demographic profile and growth trend? Which dioceses and parts of the country have most potential for growth, and in which dioceses is that potential not yet being acted upon?
Numbers are not everything, but the virtue of hard data is that it makes churches face tough questions.
 Bonner’s research appears in Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion: 1980 to the Present, ed. by David Goodhew (Routledge, 2016). That article and this one examine data from the Episcopal Church’s dioceses in the United States. They do not include those in Province IX or overseas dioceses in other TEC provinces.