Change and decay in the USA

Colin Podmore examines the latest statistics published by The Episcopal Church (USA)

These days, the publication of annual statistics rarely gives much joy to any mainstream church. The 16% fall in average Sunday attendance in our own church between 2003 and 2013 must make us reticent in commenting on the statistics of others. Our decline may be slower than some, but it is still decline, and relatively rapid decline at that.

But when decline is so great that significant structural change seems likely to result, it deserves wider attention. Judging by its recently-published 2013 statistics, that seems to be the position in The Episcopal Church (TEC).

A new Episcopal Communion?

Following its marginalization in the Anglican Communion, The Episcopal Church now stresses its identity as an international church (its own international communion?), consisting of ‘109 dioceses and three regional areas in 17 nations’. When the House of Deputies meets, the flags of these seventeen nations (six of them European) are proudly and prominently displayed.

This is slightly misleading, in that on an average Sunday last year 95% of TEC worshippers were in the United States and only 5% in the other 16 nations put together. As the Diocese in Europe has congregations in 42 countries, the Church of England could, with equal justice, present itself as consisting of ‘42 dioceses in 43 nations’ – a true statement that would tend to create a false impression. This article will concentrate on TEC’s ‘domestic dioceses’.

Differential decline

In the ten years from 2003 to 2013 TEC’s average Sunday attendance (ASA) in the USA fell by just under one quarter (24.2%) overall, but this average conceals significant regional variation. The Episcopal Church consists of nine units called ‘provinces’ (confusingly, since they have no metropolitan and are not even necessarily presided over by a bishop). In Province 4 (south of Virginia

 

and east of Texas – the heart of the conservative South) the average decline was ‘only’ 17.6%. However, the decline in the domestic dioceses of the other seven US-based provinces ranged from 23.7% (Province 2: New York and New Jersey) to 28% (Province 5: Missouri and the eastern Mid-West, including the former Anglo-Catholic heartland of Illinois and Wisconsin). The average decline outside the South-East was 26.3%.

At the level of dioceses, the disparity is even greater. Dioceses established by

TEC’s leadership for those who remained Episcopalians when three dioceses seceded show declines in attendance of over 70% compared with the 2003 figures: Fort Worth (79.9%), San Joaquin (79.3%), Pittsburgh (70.9%). Two mid-western dioceses have lost over 40% of their attendance in ten years: Springfield (42.5%) and Northern Michigan (40.8%), while another nine have seen their attendance shrink by more than one-third. On the other hand, Utah and ten Southern dioceses managed to keep their decline below one-sixth, while Nevada even saw increased attendance, growth between 2009 and 2012 resulting in a net gain of 5.2%.

Reasons

Doubtless there are many reasons both for the dramatic overall decline in attendance and for the variations between the dioceses.

The withdrawal of five dioceses, with the majority of their worshippers, is certainly one factor. The departure of many congregations from other dioceses is another. (Where congregations left but the diocese remained, in most cases they left their property behind, or will lose it, because TEC’s Canons, though silent on the question of diocesan

 

secession, stipulate that parochial property is held in trust for the diocese and The Episcopal Church.) The Anglican Church in North America, formed by four of the former TEC dioceses and the great majority of the departing congregations, now claims an average attendance at principal services of over 80,000. The majority of these are former Episcopalians, and their departure has contributed to the decline in TEC’s attendance in the USA from 823,000 in 2003 to 624,000 in 2013.

To what extent the consecration of Vicky Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire (in defiance of the Primates of the Anglican Communion) in 2003, the ministry of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop since 2006, or any of the individual decisions of recent General Conventions has hastened the decline, it is impossible to determine.

Consequences

Although the departure of conservatives is one of the reasons for the overall decline, the fact that liberal dioceses are declining more swiftly than more conservative dioceses means, paradoxically, that the latter are gaining slightly in numerical strength as a proportion of the whole church. Thus, for example, the share of TEC’s attendance enjoyed by the 20 dioceses of Province 4 (the heart of the conservative South) rose from 24% in 2003 to 26% in 2013.

Thus far, this gradual shift has had no impact on TEC’s national stance, however. The reason for this is that TEC is a confederal, not a unitary church. In important votes in the House of Deputies of its General Convention, each diocesan deputation casts a single block vote in each ‘order’ (clergy and lay). And the dioceses are by no means equal in size. In Province 4 the average diocese has 8,157 people in church on the average Sunday. By contrast, in the now predominantly liberal Province 5 (the eastern Mid-West, where Anglo-Catholics sub-divided the original state dioceses so that the bishop would be

closer to his people and a more frequent presence, and where recent decline has been more drastic), the average diocese has just 4,165 people in church on the average Sunday. So in the lay ‘order’ the single block vote of a (somewhat) more conservative Southern diocese represents almost twice as many Episcopalians as that of a liberal Mid-Western diocese.

Only if some of the declining liberal dioceses become so small as to be unable to continue their separate existence will this imbalance begin to change. In 2013 the nine congregations from the Diocese of Quincy (with a total ASA of 333) that remained in TEC when their diocese withdrew re-united with the Diocese of Chicago. Will others follow suit?

 

Mergers

There is resistance to change. In 2011 a proposal to merge the Diocese of Eau Claire (ASA now 792 – down 25% in ten years) with that of Fond du Lac (ASA 2,065 – down 23%), from which it was partly created in 1928, failed for lack of sufficient support in Fond du Lac.

However, given the large number of small dioceses, there are many candidates for merger. Seventy US dioceses have a smaller ASA than England’s smallest, Hereford (8,100 in 2013), and of these thirteen have an ASA smaller than the eighteen parishes of Sodor and Man (1,700 in 2013), seven of them standing at under 1,000. Given the scale of the decline that some of American dioceses are experiencing (Northern Michigan averages 526 worshippers, having lost 40% in ten years, Western Kansas 653, having lost one-third), it seems inevitable that sooner or later some or all of these will be forced to merge.

Numerical decline thus seems likely to result in structural change, but it seems unlikely that, in the near future at least, that change will be sufficiently radical to alter the position whereby more conservative Episcopalians, in relatively large and relatively slowly declining Southern dioceses, have to endure the dominance over The Episcopal Church of liberals whose dioceses are smaller and declining more rapidly. ND

Return to Trushare Home Page

Return to Home Page of This Issue