Monday, 7 November 2011

Will the Last Priest to Leave Please Blow Out the Sanctuary Lamp

Speaking of Episcopalians (see recent post on 'Sydney Anglicans'; for Australian readers 'Episcopalians' are American Anglicans), this report recently appeared in the 'Church of England Newspaper', further chronicling the numerical decline of the denomination as it has embraced liberal theology:

'The US Episcopal Church reports that attendance has fallen 16 per cent over the past five years with the number of Episcopalians dropping below two million.

According to statistics released last week, the number of Episcopalians fell from 2,006,343 in 2009 to 1,951,907 in 2010. Over the last 10 years the Church lost 16 per cent of its members, while the rate of decline for the past five years was 11 per cent.

After holding steady in the 1990s membership and attendance began to drop in the wake of the controversies surrounding the consecration of the Church’s first gay bishop. Over the last 10 years attendance has fallen by 23 per cent to 657,831.

Declines are reported across the whole church. Fifty-four per cent of all congregations suffered a decline in attendance last year, while only 24 per cent saw a rise.

The national Church’s statistical office also reported a sharp disconnect between the leadership of the Church and people in the pews. While the national leadership is overwhelmingly very liberal in its views, the denomination’s members are equally divided between liberals and conservatives.

Only five per cent of congregations categorised themselves as very liberal, 24 per cent as somewhat liberal, 41 per cent as moderate, 23 per cent as somewhat conservative, and seven per cent as very conservative.

The ordination of gay and lesbian clergy had led to internal conflict amongst almost two-thirds of congregations (62 per cent), while financial worries afflicted 54 per cent.

The denomination, which once claimed over 3.5 million members as recently as the mid-1960s, has lost over 40 per cent of membership over the last 40 years while the US population grew by over 50 per cent during the same period.'

Commentary - There's nothing surprising in the continuing downward trend of Episcopalian membership, which, as the report says, has been going on for decades. What is interesting is the self-identification of Episcopalians as '41 per cent...moderate, 23 per cent ...somewhat conservative, and seven per cent ...very conservative.' Admittedly, 'one man's moderate can be another man's liberal', but these figures do imply that 71% of Episcopalians probably have serious concerns about the 'very liberal' direction of the church leadership, which would seem to be reflected in the report that ordination of gay and lesbian clergy caused conflict in 62% of congregations.

What the report doesn't mention is how many congregations - and in at least one case an entire diocese - have left the Episcopal Church altogether, often at the cost of the loss of their church property after the denominational leadership have fought aggressively in the secular courts to retain title to it (even when there is no continuing congregation to use it, often resulting in the sale of the property).

If present trends continue, how long can the Episcopal Church in the USA survive?

Will the last priest to leave please blow out the sanctuary lamp...


Melanchthon said...

The entire diocese here (San Joaquin) up and left for the Anglican Church in America. There are only splinter groups of Episcopalians left in Bakersfield.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


Yes, I thought the diocese that left was in California - I didn't have time to check. I think I've heard of rumblings in other dioceses as well.

Melanchthon said...

Pittsburgh and Fort Worth left as well. Duncan (of Pittsburgh) is the presiding bishop of the Anglican Church in North America.

Lvka said...

Why the dramatic tone, Father? The pastoral void left by the priests leaving the sanctuary will soon be filled by the newly-annointed priestesses and bishopesses of the blossoming Anglican Communion: so there's no need for anyone to blow out any candles... really, now, Father... :-)