Changing Patterns of Church Membership among American Anglicans by Jeremy Bonner

The subject of church growth continues to bedevil ecclesiastical discourse. Is it a matter of mere numbers or should some account be taken of active commitment? Is baptism still the best metric of Christian identity or should the researcher also look for evidence of spiritual transformation? Is it better for a denomination to generate many small congregations or a few larger ones with satellite congregations?

In the Anglican Communion a more stark debate has been under way over the last twenty years concerning which provinces are thriving and which are in retreat. In the past year, I have been assembling data on The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States of America for a volume to be published by Ashgate in 2015 that examines changing patterns of provincial membership. Underpinning this research are two significant questions: is TEC – taken as a whole – in decline and, if so, does that decline reflect something peculiar to the Anglican experience or is it part and parcel of a general retreat within mainline American Protestantism?

The Episcopal Church has always constituted a numerically small part of the American religious landscape. In part because of its ability to attract many communicants of high social status, in part from its self-conception as a “bridge church” that could provide the basis for Protestant reunion, it enjoyed a standing that went beyond mere numbers. Many of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution identified as Episcopalians, as did three of the nation’s first five presidents. Since the 1960s, however, the denomination’s high social standing has been increasingly at odds with its dramatically declining membership rolls, a fact that even its current leaders are struggling to redress.

On adjusted figures, TEC lost 605,109 members between 1980 and 2010, almost a quarter of its 1980 membership. Almost two-thirds of those losses have occurred during the last decade, a period marked by bitter strife both in TEC and in the Anglican Communion as a whole. Four dioceses have withdrawn from the national church (though these withdrawals have been contested in civil court) and many other congregations and individuals have left TEC for other Anglican bodies or have joined other churches. The pattern of decline has been marked by a drastic reconfiguration of the geography of Anglican residence. Where two-fifths of Episcopalians resided in the eastern United States in 1980, less than one-third of Episcopalians were to be found there in 2010. Today there are almost as many Episcopalians in the South as in the East, while the Midwest, which in 1980 accounted for almost one-fifth of Episcopalians, is now closer to one-sixth. Though decline is evident in all regions, TEC has been more successful in holding its own in the Sunbelt regions than elsewhere in North America.

Of the five largest mainline Protestant groups, TEC has, despite its self-evident decline, actually turned in a respectable performance. While it lost a greater proportion of its members than other groups during the 1980s, this was probably due to a change in the method of calculating church membership. During the 1990s, by contrast, only the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America lost a smaller proportion of its members, while both the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) posting double-digit losses. In the first decade of the twentieth century, although the rate of loss swelled from 5.3 percent to 15.7 percent, TEC actually lost a smaller proportion of its members than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Between 1980 and 2010, therefore, TEC constituted a mid-level loser among mainline American Protestant groups, performing less well than the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but significantly better than either the Presbyterian Church (USA) or the United Church of Christ.

However preliminary these findings, they serve as an important corrective to overly simplistic accounts that speak of uniform patterns of decline in North American Anglicanism, or, alternatively, underestimate the severity of the situation. More work is needed on the factors contributing to this decline but it is clear that the future of The Episcopal Church as a national denomination now very much hangs in the balance.

Dr. Jeremy Bonner.  Dr. Bonner is the Michael Ramsey Fellow in Anglican Studies at Durham University and has authored  The road to renewal: Victor Joseph Reed and Oklahoma Catholicism 1905-1971 (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008) and contributed to “Who will guard the guardians? Church government and the ecclesiology of the people of God, 1965-1969,” which appears in Empowering the People of God: Catholic Action before and after Vatican II edited by Jeremy Bonner, Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, and Christopher Denny (Fordham University Press, 2013). Dr. Bonner is also the author of the Monograph Called Out of Darkness Into Marvelous Light. A History of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, 1750-2006 (Wipf and Stock, 2009).  He also authors a blog titled Catholic and Reformed.  Additional information about Dr. Bonner can be found on the Department’s website and his LinkedIn page or you can contact him at jeremy.bonner@durham.ac.uk.

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