By David Goodhew and Jeremy Bonner
Substantial swathes of the Anglican Communion were unaware of the birth of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2009 and remain unaware of it to this day. Others may be conscious of ACNA’s existence but, depending on which side of the various theological divides they fall, will question (or exaggerate) its size and significance. This article is an attempt to clarify the nature of ACNA on its 10th birthday.
ACNA is reporting growth, but is that growth real? Originating primarily as an exodus of parishes and dioceses unhappy at the theological stance of the Episcopal Church (TEC), does ACNA remain primarily a reaction to TEC, or is it changing into something else as the break from TEC recedes into the past?
Put briefly, the data shows that ACNA has been growing and that it has significant reach beyond the usual Anglican enclaves in North America, but it has vulnerabilities, too.
Understanding ACNA matters. It matters greatly both for Anglicans in the United States and, as similar divisions spread to other areas, for the Anglican Communion more widely.
The Value of ACNA’s Data
As a new denomination, ACNA’s systems of data collection are still bedding in. Data up to 2012 appears to contain significant noise, but data from 2013 is increasingly solid. In recent years the majority of parishes provided detailed data. The Episcopal Church long enjoyed more effective data collection protocols than many other parts of the Anglican Communion, and some of these have been inherited by ACNA. ACNA’s data can also be checked against other sources of information, and, while it is not infallible, we believe the conclusions in this article hold water.
There is some evidence that ACNA’s data may be undercounting. One source from the denomination said to us that many ACNA clergy “are younger and allergic to old forms of church involvement; declaring people as members.”
The Overall Message of ACNA’s Data
ACNA compared to TEC
|ACNA membership||ACNA attendance||TEC membership||TEC attendance|
|(average principal service)||(average Sunday)|
Excluding the ACNA’s Canadian churches and the Diocese of South Carolina — which left TEC in 2012 (with a loss of 21,808 members and 9,193 ASA to TEC in 2014) and affiliated with ACNA in 2017 — ACNA’s membership has risen from 103,090 in 2013 to 105,691 in 2017. Average principal service attendance has risen more in the same period, from 65,885 to 74,027 (excluding South Carolina and Canada).
Including South Carolina, the number of ACNA congregations in 2017 was well up, at 1,020, from 932 in 2013. Excluding South Carolina, the number of congregations has risen modestly from 932 in 2013 to 967 in 2017. This small change masks much larger shifts.
We have more detail from 2014. This shows that 62 ACNA congregations closed between 2013 and 2017, but 109 opened in the same time. The propensity to proliferate may be increasing. In 2017, 41 congregations opened, while only seven closed. This has happened in a situation of wider ecclesial churn, with new dioceses forming and some existing dioceses being absorbed into others.
Conversations with members of ACNA suggest that a large number of church plants were sparked from 2009 onward by then-Archbishop Bob Duncan’s challenge to plant 1,000 churches. This led to much activity, including many effective plants, but also a significant number that started and closed. There is a sense in which this policy helped the church move on from the issue of sexuality and conflict with TEC to focus on mission.
Overall, ACNA’s growth is significant, but not stellar. Its significance lies, in part, in comparison with TEC, which has continued a steady and substantial decline in the same years. That said, ACNA, a church of 74,000 Sunday worshipers (or 83,000 with South Carolina) should be seen in its context: the more than 325 million people who live in the United States, of which roughly 126 million attend church each week.
The data becomes particularly interesting when you drill down. The jurisdiction of many ACNA dioceses extends across multiple states, but ACNA has six dioceses that could truly be described as non-territorial. Membership in these dioceses increased from roughly 13,500 to almost 21,000 between 2013 and 2017. One diocese, intriguingly named C4SO (the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others), more than doubled its attendance in this period, increasing from 3,157 to 7,471.
In the same period, however, territorial dioceses declined by at least 4,800 members. The majority of ACNA dioceses are neither growing nor shrinking much. A few areas are in noticeable decline: between 2013 and 2017, the Diocese of San Joaquin, California, dropped from 5,543 members to 3,981 members; the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 8,742 to 7,720; and the Diocese of Fort Worth from 11,758 to 10,667.
The figures suggest that the ACNA dioceses largely composed of ex-TEC parishes have tended to plateau or shrink, although the Diocese of Quincy may be an exception. Such shrinkage requires proper research before solid causation can be ascribed. But they may reflect that (a) most TEC parishes were on a downward trajectory well before the split and this has proved hard to arrest; and (b) when these parishes left TEC they also left the umbrella of a large denominational apparatus and were more vulnerable within the more limited infrastructure offered by ACNA.
A further factor is litigation. Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, and Fort Worth have had highly damaging legal battles with TEC, some of which continue. It may not be coincidental that Quincy, which has a healthier growth trend, is also different from the other dioceses in having actually won its lawsuit. A significant number of ACNA congregations have closed in a number of other dioceses too. This may ease off in coming years, once the most vulnerable have gone to the wall.
The sizable number of closures and openings of congregations in the past decade means that ACNA has substantially changed in its first 10 years. In 2009, it was largely defined by being “ex-TEC.” Now, many members and congregations have no memory of being part of TEC. Talking with members of ACNA, we sense that that it may be reaching a tipping point, in that more working clergy have no knowledge of or experience in TEC.
The geography is equally fascinating. Only about a quarter of ACNA’s members reside in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, compared to more than one-third of TEC’s members. Almost half of the denomination’s members reside in a belt of settlement extending from Washington, D.C., across the Upper South (North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee) to Texas and the Southwest. This region has also been — coincidentally — one in which TEC’s rate of membership decline has hitherto been less than elsewhere, though that may be changing.
One notable shift is ACNA’s congregational expansion in the Midwest, an area where TEC has been historically weak. If one excludes from the ACNA congregational statistics those dioceses that left TEC en masse, then the Midwest is ACNA’s best performing region outside the South. While the number of ACNA members in the Midwest remains modest, there may be more members of ACNA in the Midwest than in the Pacific Rim states.
Another key area is ethnicity. It is sometimes noted that ACNA has influenced African churches in recent years, but it ought also to be noted that African churches are influencing ACNA just as much, or more. Most striking is ACNA’s Diocese of the Trinity, which is predominantly Nigerian, is rapidly proliferating, and for which the Church of Nigeria has just consecrated four new bishops, which has caused unease elsewhere in ACNA.
While affirming an openness to all, the Diocese of the Trinity bears remarkable resemblance to the so-called national parishes established by the Roman Catholic Church in the United States at the height of mass immigration and which only fell into desuetude in the 1950s. As with Roman Catholicism, ACNA may find having a national diocese in the shape of the Nigerian Diocese of the Trinity is both a strength and complication.
While we have no detailed ethnic breakdown, there is evidence that ACNA is reaching beyond the white community and may even be growing more ethnically diverse than TEC — which remains 87 percent white. As the American population rapidly diversifies, this is of potentially great importance for the future.
ACNA contains an intriguing mix of traditions. It is strongly linked to the global GAFCON network, yet is markedly friendlier to Catholic spirituality and liturgy than most of GAFCON. ACNA is making significant attempts at a via media— with a stress on blending evangelical, charismatic, and Anglo-Catholic traditions and including those in favor and those opposed to the ordination of women. ACNA’s enthusiasm for church planting will further alter its blend of traditions in ways as yet unknown.
A different question is the background of ACNA ordinands. The denomination is ordaining significant numbers of people. If the bulk of ordinands are from the newer dioceses with little memory of TEC, that will substantially influence the future path of ACNA.
Comparing ACNA with TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada
ACNA is much smaller than TEC, but their trajectories are converging. The Sunday attendance of TEC domestic dioceses dropped from 623,691 in 2013 to 556,744 in 2017. Even if the 9000 worshipers from the seceding Diocese of South Carolina are stripped out, this is still a loss of 58,000, nearly 10 percent down. ACNA’s growing attendance needs setting in this context. ACNA dioceses that left en masse from TEC are still doing better (or at least no worse) than comparable TEC dioceses. The new dioceses of ACNA have tended to do much better than anywhere in TEC, which shows hardly any of the church planting vigor in parts of ACNA.
Were ACNA’s growth and TEC’s decline to continue at the same rate, it would take several decades for them to draw level. But the gap is closing significantly. On any given week in 2013, one could expect to find one member of ACNA at worship, compared to 11 members of TEC, but in 2017 one member of ACNA would be balanced by eight members in TEC.
A different question arises in relation to the Anglican Church in Canada. The comparison is inexact, since the latter, obviously, does not cover the United States, whereas ACNA covers the United States and Canada. It is not possible to obtain overall figures for the historic Anglican Church of Canada for the last 10 years. But the evidence available suggests that it has shrunk dramatically.
In 2001 the Diocese of New Westminster had a Sunday attendance of 10,500; a more recent diocesan profile stated that this had halved to 5,554 by 2012 . On the basis of this and other evidence, ACNA may well now have a larger Sunday attendance than the Anglican Church of Canada.
Beyond this, ACNA is nearly double the size of the Church in Wales and six or seven times the size of the Scottish Episcopal Church. ACNA’s growth makes it distinct from most Anglican churches in the West, and is likely to affect them over time.
A different form of comparison is the way ACNA relates to the wider Communion. Many Anglicans in the Global North are blithely unaware that ACNA exists, but much of the Global South now has stronger links with ACNA than with TEC and other Global North churches.
ACNA faces many challenges, notably over gender in ministry and how its various traditions relate to one another. As the time lengthens since the break with TEC, the unity evoked by having a common opponent may lessen and have less ability to hold ACNA together.
A different question is how ACNA relates to wider culture. ACNA is not only at variance with TEC but, as a theologically conservative church, it is at odds with the elite culture that dominates the media and academia. Conversely, it faces the delicate question of how it relates to the polarized America of Donald Trump. Navigating the waters of popular culture can make navigating ecclesial division feel tame in comparison. At the same time, ACNA’s combination of theological conservatism with liturgy and episcopacy may have a particular appeal to American evangelicals seeking greater historic rootedness while retaining orthodox theology within an English-speaking culture. This could be a fruitful furrow for harvest in the future.
Notwithstanding all the qualifiers, members of TEC and the wider Communion need to recognize that ACNA is now of significant size and is expanding. And in terms of church planting, ACNA is streets ahead of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada. There is growing evidence of its ability to connect with minority ethnic communities, especially recent migrants.
Whether ACNA could ever catch TEC up is impossible to answer — and not that important right now. It is more important for all Anglicans to recognize that, 10 years on from its foundation, ACNA is a substantial and growing force in North American Anglicanism.
The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew is director of ministerial practice at Cranmer Hall, St. John’s College, Durham University. He directs the Centre for Church Growth Research (@CCGR_Durham).
Dr. Jeremy Bonner is honorary fellow of the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. With Mark Chapman he recently edited Costly Communion: Ecumenical Initiative and Sacramental Strife in the Anglican Communion (Brill, 2019).
This essay is a companion to earlier work on the Episcopal Church in the USA, based on the research of Jeremy Bonner found in Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2017). Most of the statistical data on ACNA is, or has been, publicly available. We are grateful to a range of people for their assistance in researching this article, but stress that the conclusions reached are entirely our responsibility.