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Facing Episcopal Church Decline – the Latest Numbers

By David Goodhew

The Episcopal Church has published new statistics from the annual parochial reports, covering 2019. They build on what we have hitherto learnt and give us a significant steer as to what is likely to happen in the future. Occurring in the time of COVID-19, they make deeply challenging reading. But, alongside the tough message of the numbers, there are ways to go forward hopefully.

With the latest figures, we now have almost two decades-worth of data since serious decline set in around 2000. This means we can make substantive judgments on future trends. What I say builds on Dr. Jeremy Bonner’s important chapter on TEC in the work, Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2017), which goes up to 2010-11. There are four key metrics: members, average Sunday attendance, baptisms, and marriages.


The chart below shows how TEC has lost almost 40 percent of its members, 1980 to 2019, within the context of a rising U.S. population. Most of the drop happened after 2000 and is ongoing. In the years from 2010 to 2019, TEC’s baptized membership has dropped by a sobering 314,000.

Episcopal Church Baptized Membership 1980-2020

1980                 2,556,926*
1990                 2,446,050
2000                 2,329,045
2010                 1,951,907
2019                 1,637,945

* A conversion factor of 0.918427 was applied to the raw data to render it compatible with that for 1990 and subsequently.

Average Sunday attendance

Figures for average Sunday attendance (ASA) provide a more objective metric and a more striking message. During the 1990s average Sunday attendance was relatively stable but from around 2000 deep decline set in. This is ongoing. TEC’s average Sunday attendance dropped by over 40 percent between 2000 and 2019. The decline of attendance was most rapid between 2005 and 2010. But recent years have seen a very substantial drop – a fall of 61,000, over 10 percent, in the last four years

Episcopal Church Average Sunday Attendance 2000-19

2000                 856,579
2005                 787,271
2010                 657,831
2015                 579,780
2019                 518,411


Baptism of children offers a different and crucial measure. TEC is a church with a strong stress on infant baptism, so its baptism figures give a sense of the future demographic trajectory of the church. The figures show massive, ongoing slump in baptisms since 2000, from 46,603 in 2000 to 17,713 in 2019. As the demographer Eric Kaufman puts it, most people enter faith the old-fashioned way, by birth. The falling number entering TEC in this way should be a profound worry.

Episcopal Church Child Baptisms, 1980-2019

1980                 56,167
1990                 56,862
2000                 46,603
2010                 28,990
2019                 17,672


However startling the drop in baptisms, the most dramatic data is that for marriages, from 38,913 in 1980 to 6,148 in 2019. The number of marriages has declined markedly across the last 40 years, but the rate of decline sharply increased since 2000 and shows no sign of slowing. In the years when TEC argued about whom it should marry, it has largely ceased to marry anyone.

1980                 38,913
1990                 31,815
2000                 22,441
2010                 11,613
2019                 6,128

The Last Twenty Years and the Next Twenty Years

It is nearly 20 years since TEC began its current trajectory of deep decline. Past trends do not guarantee future performance, but robust conclusions can now be made. The likelihood that COVID-19 is encouraging congregational decline makes the following projections more likely to be underestimates than overestimates.

The number of Episcopalians in church of a Sunday in 2040 could be as few as 200,000 – less than a quarter of the number in church in 2000. On current trends, by 2040 the number of children being baptized and marriages solemnized in TEC churches will be negligible.

Large numbers of parishes are now so small as to be highly fragile. It is hard to see them surviving the next two decades. The same is true of many dioceses. Seven have fewer than 1,000 adults in church of a Sunday now. They are effectively virtual dioceses already. Many others are likely to join them in the next 20 years.

And this data describes the picture prior to COVID-19. There is strong evidence that the pandemic is stress-testing denominations. Those already struggling, like TEC, are likely to be most damaged.

So Where Next?

First, Christian faith is good news and in many parts of the world the church is growing. I often point people towards data for the diocese of London. That diocese was in long term decline up until about 1990 and has grown substantially since then. It is proof that Anglicanism can survive and, to a degree, thrive in one of the most secular, diverse, uber-modern cities of the world. And Anglicanism outside of the west is mostly growing. Given the diversification of the U.S. population, that should be cause for cheer.

Second, if I can say this as an outsider to TEC’s Anglo-Catholic wing, you need to remember who you are. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church has a deep tradition of church planting and proliferation. This tradition stretches right back to Cuthbert and the Celtic saints of the seventh century, to Francis and the friars and the Cyril and Methodius as Orthodox “apostles” to the Slavs. More recently, the Oxford Movement led to a vigorous stream of church planting and evangelism and produced many congregations. That tradition has tended to be forgotten in recent decades, but it is there ready to be recovered.

Third, COVID-19 is a profound challenge to congregations, but it also opens up some possibilities – and I don’t mean the tired debate about whether we need to do church online or offline (we have to do both). The notion that we can be “saved by science” rings a little hollow right now. Our profound human need for community and our equally profound need for hope in the face of suffering and death are addressed by the good news of Jesus – and not addressed by modern secularity. It is no accident that secularization has blossomed in rich, stable Western countries. As those countries are shaken and face economic hardship, so is secularity being shaken.

Fourth, it is important to be frank about measures put in place in the last five years. The new stress on evangelism and church planting in TEC is welcome – but it has not touched the decline in any meaningful way. Far more vigorous work is needed. It particular, all church plants have to be judged by hard metrics – notably bums on seats (in due course) and numbers being baptised. Fuzzy metrics generally mean fuzzy impact.

Fifth, there are some simple, though far from easy, wins to be had. In particular, remember demography. The American population is diversifying fast ethnically. This is the best soil in which to plant churches. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has set ambitious targets for church planting. TEC should do the same. Perhaps it needs to plant some new dioceses, not just amalgamate those too small to survive?

The current period has been likened to wartime. And in the suffering and deep disruption, that analogy makes sense. What is rarely also noted is that the Second World War was a time of significant spiritual renewal for Anglicanism. It was the age of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers and T.S. Eliot. Churchgoing was probably more vigorous in the late 1940s and 50s than for much of the 20th century. The Third Reich and Cold War made talk of sin and death meaningful and made people yearn for redemption. COVID-19 is extremely tough, but out of this death could come new congregational life.

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. Well, there you have it. TEC is demographically moribund. She will not survive without converts. Churches convert people by preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. If TEC emerges from this pandemic once again preaching the Good News, then there is hope for TEC.

  2. Re: Dr. Goodhew’s second point under “So Where Next?”: The Anglo-Catholic wing was effectively ejected from TEC many years ago. I realize that many churches retain the trappings of high church Anglicanism — music, vestments, liturgy — but the guts are gone, since the TEC will not countenance traditional Anglican beliefs any longer. Happily, many of those Anglo-Catholics have gone to Rome under the Ordinariate, taking their traditions with them and utilizing the new Rome-approved liturgy which is almost identical to Rite I, and they are doing their own form of church planting. There are hundreds of these parishes in the US now, and the one I’m most familiar with is in the suburbs of Washington DC, in an economically disadvantaged demographic, where the Ordinariate congregation has been paired with an existing Roman Catholic parish. The combined congregations have revived the youth and adult education programs, instituted more traditional music at services, cleaned up the playground, begun work on a community garden, and are now raising funds to restore the historic church building (built 1868). The pastor, a former Episcopal priest, is energetic and above all else concerned with the care of souls, in addition to the obvious outreach to the community. Forms of devotion (long forgotten in some cases) have been reinstituted and the whole church year is observed. The story of this parish so far is very reminiscent of the way Oxford Movement parishes arose in England, often consigned to disadvantaged locations due to the condescension of “proper” Anglicans. It is tremendously heartening, especially when you see on a typical Sunday morning the large numbers of young families and small children who attend mass. There’s a lesson here for those willing to see it.

  3. I think Tucker Carlson said it best, “Once renowned for its liturgy, now a stop on architectural and garden tours. Only tourists go there anymore.”

    The Episcopal “church” is basically a club for rich anglo atheists at this point. Gay bishops, gay priests, a complete ignorance regarding the Book. Why would any serious Christian give them anything but a well deserved sneer? The fact that hollywood celebrities flock to it should have given you a hint that something had gone wrong.

    If you’re serious about your religion, you have to know there’s no saving the disaster the institution has become. Find a new home, one where people actually follow the religion they profess to believe in.

  4. After 72 years I left Episcopal Church. Too much talk of politics, not welcoming to traditional, conservatives, and we were told if we vote for Trump, we aren’t Christians. So, enough.

    • I left almost a Year ago. Joined the Holy Roman Catholic Church I have never been happier. I am never going back.

  5. Um….I wonder if social “wokeness”, the ordination/consecration of female and gay priests and bishops, the removal of penitential prayers from the liturgy because “they’re too negative”, and other trendy beliefs that depart from precedent and tradition, both things that define “religion” – have anything to do with the decline?

  6. Nothing to cheer about. Sadly, the author talks superficial repairs and does not mention the real reason for the decline: The apostasy and heresies prevalent in TEC, and it’s only accelerating. Why not try a return to scripture and the 39 articles? The path they’re on now isn’t working, so more of the same? Full speed ahead with the next outrage?


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