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Facing Decline in the Anglican Church of Canada

By David Goodhew 

In 2001, 162,000 people attended the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) on an average Sunday. But new figures show that by 2017 this had fallen to 97,000.[1] In 16 years the Anglican Church of Canada’s Sunday congregations have dropped by nearly half.

This article asks three things: first, what is going on, overall; second, what is going on in different regions; third, what all this means.

What is Going on in General?

The fall in Canadian Anglican attendance is matched by the fall of its membership, which fell from 642,000 to 357,000 between 2001 and 2017. This is part of a long-term trend, dating back to the 1960s.

Year     ACoC Membership        Population of Canada   % of Anglicans in Canadian Population

1961    1,358,459                             18 million                    7%

2001    641,845                                31 million                    2%

2017    357,123                                35 million                    1%

Anglican membership in Canada peaked in the early 1960s. By 2017 it had shrunk by three quarters. Since the Canadian population doubled in the same period, that means that Anglicans have moved from being 7% of Canadians to 1% of Canadians, between 1961 and 2017.

This decline is confirmed by other metrics.

  1961 1971 1981 1991 2001 2017
Baptisms 44,416 28,722 23,334 20,953 13,304 5,411
Confirmations 32,774 21,965 15,021 8,267 5,506 1,997
Marriages 11,963 16,197 12,343 9,552 6,009 2,071
Burials/Funerals 20,137 21,108 19,043 18,316 15,635 9,074
Total # of clergy 2,380 2,367 3,015 3,459 3,675 3,491

Most notably, baptisms, confirmations, and marriages have plummeted, with especially steep decline since around 2000. The drop in baptisms is particularly striking. The number of ACoC baptisms in 2017 was just over 10% of the number baptised in 1961. Worse, the rate of decline is increasing. Baptisms dropped from 13,304 in 2001, to 5,411 in 2017 – a fall of well over half.

To a degree Canadian Anglicanism is an ethnic denomination, drawing much of its strength from people of white British heritage. A large percentage of Anglicans entered Anglicanism via infant baptism. So, the huge fall in baptisms is a harbinger of more decline to come.

It should be noted that the number of clergy in the ACoC has markedly risen since 1961 (from 2,380 to 3,491). In places like the Church of England, church decline correlates with falling numbers of clergy. Here, rising numbers of clergy correlates with more decline.

In sum, the huge fall in Sunday attendance from 2001 to 2017 is of a piece with the rest of the data – which points to a denomination in deep decline.

What is Going on – in Detail?

Serious decline has happened across almost all dioceses, with the exception of the diocese of the Arctic. The latter has grown, but is too small to impact on figures overall.

But alongside overall decline, there are marked variations between dioceses. The situation is most serious in rural dioceses. Depopulation in rural Canada is damaging congregations in some rural dioceses. But rural depopulation is not happening everywhere and not on anything like the scale to explain these figures.

Average Sunday Attendance     2001                2017

Brandon                                   1,895              625

Moosonee                               1,083               485

Saskatchewan                        1,423               736

Saskatoon                               2,004               686

Yukon                                       319                  191

In 2001, three Canadian dioceses had under 1,000 worshippers on an average Sunday. In 2017, ten dioceses had under 1,000 worshippers on an average Sunday – that is a third of all Canadian dioceses. If the recent decline experienced by the above five dioceses continues, they will cease to exist within 20 years, at most. Amalgamation of dioceses is a tactic tried elsewhere in the Communion, but evidence suggests that this is simply decline-management and makes no difference to the downward trajectory.

Dioceses containing the larger urban centres tend to retain a bigger presence. But even here, there has been dramatic decline.

Average Sunday Attendance                             2001                2017

Montreal                                                          5,429               2,930

New Westminster (Vancouver)                    10,498             4,704

Ottawa                                                              9,240               5,780

Toronto                                                            22,058             18,448

The diocese of New Westminster, which includes Vancouver, had 10,498 Sunday attendees in 2001, but 4,704 in 2017 – a fall of more than half. The diocese of Toronto has declined, but to a lesser degree than most Canadian dioceses. It had an average Sunday attendance in 2001 of 22,058, which fell by 2017 to 18,448. The diocese of Toronto is a crumb of comfort, but it is a small crumb. Whilst less of a decline than most other dioceses, it is still a fall of nearly 20%. The diocese is not growing; it is simply declining more slowly than the rest of dioceses covering major cities in Canada. Moreover, given the burgeoning population of Toronto, the percentage of Anglicans in the city has fallen by more than 20%.

In other major Canadian cities, such as Quebec and Montreal, there is now minimal Anglican presence. These cities are French speaking and not natural soil for Anglicanism, but it should be noted that francophone Anglicanism exists and is growing in parts of Europe and Africa.

All this means that Anglicanism in large parts of Canada has died out already or can expect to die out in the next couple of decades. There remain islands of Anglicanism, especially in some of the big cities, but they are not large and they are shrinking.

What this all means

One common response to church statistics is that “church is more than just numbers.” In one sense, that has been the recent approach of the ACoC, which did not produce statistics between 2001 and 2017 – the period in which decline intensified. Leaving aside the theological problems with viewing congregational decline as insignificant, evidence suggests that ignoring statistics leads to ignoring hard truths.

But even if one views congregations as minor phenomenon compared to “kingdom values,” the deep shrinkage of ACoC congregations means their ability to do “kingdom values” is now much diminished.

Serious commentators on the ACoC are now debating whether it will cease to exist in 20 years’ time, in 2040. That may seem extraordinary. But in some ways the situation is worse. In large parts of Canada, it barely exists now. And whilst it is likely that parts of the ACoC will still exist in 2040, they are likely to exist in a highly attenuated state.

Canadian Anglicanism is not the whole of Canadian Christianity, and 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.

So what Anglicans do, or fail to do, in the future will impact on whether decline continues, worsens or turns into growth. Yes, we always have hope in Christ, but the Christian faith has historically assumed that churches and denominations have a responsibility to act in concrete ways to further that hope.

Responses thus far from the Canadian house of Bishops do not show the degree of radical change of both theology and practice that will be needed if change is to happen. A key starting point is to face squarely the seriousness of the situation.

The wider communion would do well not to avert its eyes from the difficult Canadian data. The Episcopal Church’s own decline may not appear as marked, but that is largely because it is starting out from a higher base. Beyond North America, patterns of decline in Wales, Scotland and parts of England and Australia are not so far removed from what has happened in Canada. If lessons are learned from the recent past of Canada, such lessons will benefit parts of Anglicanism well outside the borders of Canada.

David Goodhew is a Visiting Fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, Vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough, England and co-director of the Centre for Church Growth Research, which can be followed on twitter @CCGR_Durham



[1] These figures come from a recent report to the Canadian House of Bishops. I am grateful to Canon Neil Elliott for access to the report and the data behind it. But I must stress that responsibility for all judgments in this article is mine alone.



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