New numbers reveal that the collapse of the Episcopal Church dramatically accelerated in the last ten years. The denomination is literally falling apart, with attendance down 25% between 2000 and 2010.
For a link to the PDF file with the numbers, and for Rod Dreher’s comments on them, look here; but it’s important to note that the effect of these numbers on the life and the well being of local churches is even greater than the raw figures might suggest.
Many mainline Protestant congregations today are stuck with an infrastructure built in the 1950s and 1960s. There are buildings to maintain and salaries to pay. As congregations have dwindled and aged, it gets harder and harder to keep the place running. The congregation has less money for program, for outreach, for anything but survival, and the energy of the congregation turns inward. There is less going on that can attract new members, and each year more maintenance is deferred, more corners are cut, and the congregation gets a little smaller and a little greyer.
Ten years ago, roughly half of Episcopal parishes faced this kind of situation. Ten years of declining attendance on this scale means that many more parishes are now in survival mode. As the church’s resources decline, more and more of the energy and the funds of its members go to staving off collapse. Less and less is available for the wider world.
The numerical decline, bad as it is, matters less than the collapse in the moral authority of the church. The Episcopal Church has made many controversial pronouncements on social issues; at the latest General Convention the church declared that transgendered persons cannot automatically be barred from the priesthood. One can agree or disagree with some of these individual decisions, but what is striking over time is the decline in the moral weight of the church.
It used to matter what the Episcopal Church thought of this or that social issue. Other mainline Protestant churches and many social and political leaders followed its theological and political debates. Now, basically, no one outside the dwindling flock in the pews really cares what The Episcopal Church says about anything at all. General Convention can pass a million resolutions, and nothing anywhere will change. No one is even really angry anymore at anything the Episcopal hierarchy does; at most, there is a sigh and a quiet rolling of the eyes. Soon, there will not even be that.
It’s an extraordinary decline in an institution that a generation ago was still one of the pillars of American life. At this point the disaster appears irretrievable; those running the church are determined to run it into the ground and it is hard to see how that can change.
For Anglicans, the theological and demographic collapse of their church is a bitter blow. The traditions of this church exert a powerful hold on those who were raised in it; those declining attendance figures bespeak a lot of sadness and despair. But The Episcopal Church has moved on, headed down what looks increasingly like the theological path of least resistance as it makes the transition from a church that once spoke to a nation to a sect in communion only with itself.
Let us wish The Episcopal Church well on its journey towards whatever hope its bureaucrats and functionaries see glimmering ahead of them in the deepening twilight. God moves in mysterious ways, and the failure of a church is not the failure of a faith. Christianity is all about hope in the face of death; America’s Anglicans are learning a lot about what that means. For this, perhaps, we need to learn to be thankful.