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When Will the ACNA Overtake TEC?

The Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) only came into being in 2009. To suggest that it will overtake the Episcopal Church (TEC) — so large and long-established  — might sound absurd. But it is on the cards, as this article shows. Not soon, but also not that far away.

TEC after COVID

Data from TEC and the ACNA’s congregations in the United States for 2022 has just become available.[i] The 2022 data is far more significant than that for the previous two years since, through it, we can see much more clearly COVID’s effects on church life. Briefly, the ACNA has largely rebounded after COVID, but TEC has not. TEC’s attendance made a modest recovery in 2022 compared to 2021. But, overall, the attendance of TEC churches in the United States is way down, compared to before the pandemic.

TEC Average Sunday Attendance

2000    857,000

2010    658,000

2019    518,000

2022    349,000

The 2022 data is crucial because it gives us a realistic idea of what COVID did to TEC. The data for 2020 and 2021 was distorted by the disruption of COVID and it was impossible to know whether the huge drop in attendance in 2021 was a blip or sign of things to come. The year of 2022 was not wholly normal, but it was a lot closer to normal than the previous two years, and the data from that year has a greater solidity to it.

It was the first year since COVID when most people could reasonably get to in-person worship. All the evidence suggests that those who had not returned to Sunday worship by 2022 are unlikely to do so in the future — at least not in significant numbers.

At first glance, the 2022 figures look positive for TEC. Attendance rose by 56,000 persons compared to 2021. But the data from 2021 was deeply depressed by the pandemic. The more important comparison is with 2019 — the year before COVID. And TEC attendance in 2022 was 169,000 lower than in 2019, down by nearly a third.

It is also important to remember that TEC was in long-term decline for many years before COVID. Having lost 339,000 attendees between 2000 and 2019, it lost a further 169,000 from 2019 to 2022. This means that TEC’ s Sunday attendance is now well under half what it was in 2000.

The rise in TEC attendance in 2022 compared to 2021 was, to use the crude metaphor beloved by the stock markets, “a dead cat bounce.” It reflected how the easing of COVID restrictions meant some worshipers resumed attendance. It was a blip, which has not interrupted TEC’s long-term severe decline.

What of online attendance at worship? The figures for this have been well-described as the wild west of ecclesial data gathering. It is impossible to know exactly what they signify, and church leaders cannot put too much weight on them. The rise of online church has proved compatible with dramatic congregational decline in TEC, and there is no reason to think this will change.

TEC had 6,736 parishes and missions in 2011, but 6,249 in 2022. In other words, over 500 have been lost in just over a decade. The closure of churches, like financial giving, is a lagging indicator of decline. It is the final result of trends across decades. It is highly likely that there is much more of this to come. It also shows us that, despite talk in TEC of starting new congregations, few have actually started, and those that exist are having minimal effect on the overall shrinkage of TEC.

The chances of attracting people back after 2022 are low. Those who have been lost during the locust years of COVID are, as occupants of TEC’s pews, probably gone for good. There may have been things that could have been done to prevent such hemorrhaging, but it is largely too late to do such things now. And as an aside, senior leaders of TEC and across Western Anglicanism as a whole showed a staggering lack of concern about how to reconnect with the masses of its members who dropped away during COVID.

Individual parishes largely had to figure it out for themselves. Some did good work, many more struggled. The massive decline of TEC during COVID should not be seen as some unstoppable calamity, about which the leaders of TEC could do nothing. There is striking variation between TEC dioceses in the degree of bounce-back from COVID, some dramatically growing in 2022, others changing little. This deserves serious scrutiny. Not every denomination has been effected to the degree TEC has. Rather, in significant measure, the huge size of TEC’s decline during COVID was due to the inaction or dubious actions of the senior leadership.

How does the ACNA Compare?

It is an uncomfortable question, but how is the ACNA doing in the United States? Many in TEC will resist such a comparison. But hard data contains hard truths. The ACNA and TEC are rivals. But they are also very similar in liturgy, polity, and heritage. And their comparative trajectories tell us significant things about the strategies their leaders have followed and about their likely future trajectories.

In 2013, the first year when we have plausible data for the ACNA, it had a Sunday attendance of around 64,000 in the United States. TEC in 2013 had a Sunday attendance of 624,000, ten times higher. The ACNA Sunday attendance in 2022 was 71,000. This is down, compared to 78,000 in 2019. So the ACNA lost about 10% attendance by 2022, whereas TEC lost around a third of its Sunday attendance in the same years. TEC’s Sunday attendance in 2022 was 349,000, compared to 518,000 in 2019. This has a marked effect on the comparative size of the ACNA and TEC. In 2013 the ACNA was 10 percent of the size of TEC, in 2022 the ACNA was 20 percent of the size of TEC.

But members of the ACNA have no cause to feel smug. The ACNA’s attendance rose significantly as a percentage up to 2019, but the rise was from a modest base (and was in significant measure due to “transfer growth” from the majority of TEC’s Diocese of South Carolina choosing to join the ACNA). From 2019 to 2022, the ACNA’s loss was modest, bearing in mind the scale of the shock of COVID, but it was still a loss. More importantly, even if you add together ACNA and TEC’s attendance for 2022, you get a figure far smaller than that for American Anglicanism 10, let alone 20, years ago.

What about Nigerian Anglicans?

One large wild card is the future trajectory of Nigerian Anglicanism in the United States. There is a large and growing African Anglican diaspora in the United States, the largest segment of which is Nigerian. It is energetically planting churches across the country. Reliable data is hard to come by (and researching America’s Nigerian Anglicanism should be an urgent priority for scholars of American Anglicanism). Moreover, such churches are structurally amorphous. They have been part of the ACNA, then separated from it and some have rejoined it. But whatever the ecclesial banner under which they operate, they are usually more vigorous than TEC’s congregations. Such congregations have tended, largely, to serve expatriate Nigerians. But regardless of whether they continue in that manner, this sector of American Anglicanism is growing.

TEC shows deep concern about ethnicity as an issue, but when it comes to attracting people of color into its pews, it has made limited progress, despite the huge diversification of many parts of the United States in the last decade, a diversification that continued during COVID. Many African Anglicans have moved to the United States in recent years, but few have made their ecclesial home in TEC.

When Will the ACNA overtake TEC?

In 2013, the ACNA’s attendance equated to around 10 percent of TEC. As of 2022 its attendance is equivalent to over 20 percent of TEC. In under a decade, it caught up on significant ground. If Nigerian diaspora Anglicanism is factored in, the gap is closer still.

The gap remains wide, but we should note that the decline of TEC also has a lot further to go. The drop in ordinands and decline of TEC’s seminaries are canaries in the mine. The ACNA’s growth before COVID and markedly better recovery from COVID compared to TEC suggest that the gap will close much more in coming years.

When will the ANCA overtake TEC? It is reasonable to predict that the ACNA could overtake TEC in the next 20 years, perhaps sooner. Between 2010 and 2019, TEC’s Sunday attendance dropped by 140,000, significantly falling most years. If that pre-COVID decline resumes with the same trajectory, the ACNA will likely pass TEC in about 20 years, somewhere around 2042. That would happen even if the ACNA shows no growth during that time. If the ACNA were to grow in coming years, that would hasten the point when it becomes the largest section of Anglicanism within the United States. And if you factor in Nigerian diaspora Anglicanism, that could happen significantly faster still.

Given that the ACNA did not exist before 2009, readers of this article may wonder, “can these things be?” But the onus of proof lies with those who expect TEC to remain the biggest Anglican kid on the block. For that to happen, one of two scenarios must come to pass. Either TEC must arrest its long-term decline (and the data from 2019 to 2022 shows that such decline just grew significantly worse) or the ACNA must collapse (and the stress-test of COVID showed it to be much more robust than TEC). So, will the ACNA overtake TEC? The answer is yes, if current trends continue. When will it do so? Not soon, but not that far away either.


[i] The data quoted refers only the congregations of TEC and the ACNA found in the United States. Congregations outside the United States have been excluded from the data.

9 COMMENTS

  1. If, not necessarily when.
    When I was ordained in 1985, it was routine for clergy to inflate their numbers in order to ‘look good’. That has stopped for the most part. But those numbers of the past are clearly not reliable. Without impugning the folks at ACNA, could a similar effect be happening?
    As for trends, if nothing changes, there will be more French speakers in the world than English speakers by 2050. Really?
    I think the real point of this article is that TEC cannot be complacent…about our faithfulness to our Lord and the work he gives us to do: live the Gospel and share it.

  2. 45 dioceses with less than 3000 ASA, as many as 8 with under a 1000, half of the 45 under 2000.

    Raw numbers are significant, of course, and TEC is going downward at rates around 40%. But the diocesan structure of the present TEC is sprawling–too many sub-state entities, reflective of church growth or party-ism in the last century–and unworkable.

    ACNA, being new, is not going to face that same challenge. 100s of Bishops for dioceses that are too small to pay them, and the next decade looking worse. This is the TEC challenge on the doorstep, leaving aside survival in the coming years.

    • Thank you for your comment, Pierre.

      I would question it on a couple of counts:
      – TEC and ACNA have worked hard at their figures. There will always be the odd rogue figure, but where is your evidence for systemic bias?
      – as for the projections, these are based on long-standing trends, notably TEC’s dramatic decline since 2000. The onus of proof is on those who argue that such trends will go into reverse. If the trends continue, TEC will end up smaller than ACNA.

      • Reply to a question in Dr. Goodhew’s original post, “When will the ANCA overtake TEC? It is reasonable to predict that the ACNA could overtake TEC in the next 20 years, perhaps sooner.” “Take over”–what a pugilistic word, as though ACNA’s purpose is primarily competitive. I guess it is. I was deeply hurt, as a member of a long-standing Episcopal organization, when ACNA took steps to keep ACNA members from meeting with TEC members as we had been doing for years. After what seemed like a very good joint prayer meeting a few years ago, the ACNA chapter (whose members had participated) was disbanded. I don’t know whether their rector disbanded them, or the bishop at the time. –Another group I belong to, however, is encouraged by ACNA to reach out to members of ACNA, which we are trying to do.

      • Thanks for replying, David. I wondered about inflation of numbers, as I experienced years ago in TEC.
        As for decline, that has been the theme of our House of Bishops meetings for some time. The numbers of diocesans and dioceses will continue to drop, reflecting our numbers. But I first encountered the mantra “manage decline” 21 years ago, when I met for the first time with the English bishops at their College for Bishops.

        As for an “onus”, the onus is as I said upon The Episcopal Church to live out and spread the Gospel. That is not statistical but existential. Competing with our daughter church will not change that imperative and it would be faithless to be distracted by such rivalry. We have the same challenge as the Anglican Church of North America: be faithful, and leave the “marketing” to the Holy Spirit.

  3. Thank you, Christopher, for your comments.

    Certainly, there is a strong argument for merging dioceses once they shrink below a certain size. That said, such a strategy must be understood as decline management. It does not address the fundamental question that TEC faces.

    For TEC’s congregations, the issues are fundamentally theological. The only path to the future is through an understanding of salvation in which the congregation is an integral part. This is the rocket-fuel which alone can give the energy for the highly demanding work of starting and sustaining congregations in the late modern west.

    TEC appears dominated by a view of Christian faith which posits ‘higher’ kingdom values, to which congregational life is subordinate. This is why TEC – and other liberal denominations – have shrunk so much in recent years. Their theologies simply don’t value congregations enough. Only if TEC can recover a sense that the local church is Christ’s body, through which, God dares to work, can it recover the theological octane to sustain it in the coming years.

    Beyond that, there are a range of important practical questions about how to grow existing congregations and start the great many new congregations that are needed in the USA – but these depend on the prior theological issues that need facing.

    • I agree with your response.

      My point is that the diocesan structure of TEC is a glaring problem that ACNA does not have to face.

      Behind my comment is also the culture of TEC wanting to keep-on-keeping on (big numbers of Bishops) when it is manifestly problematic, costly, and unnecessary. It is ‘decline management’ that is not being managed, in other words. A Bishop for less than 900 ASA?

      As for the comment above, how did ‘overtake’ become ‘take-over’ — an entirely different idea. ACNA has nowhere on its horizon ‘taking over TEC’ and Prof Goodhew didn’t say that.

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