December 24, 2009
According to numbers released in December by the Episcopal Church, that denomination's membership dropped by 3 percent in 2008. That doesn't sound like much, but I am a bit of a demographics junkie, plus I researched and examined a lot of church membership and growth data in writing my book A Lover's Quarrel With The Evangelical Church. I can tell you that I have never heard of a major denomination that has ever lost 3 percent of its membership in a single year.
What's even more interesting about these numbers is that the Episcopal Church now says it has only about 2 million members in its 7,000-some parishes in the United States. That's particularly astounding when you consider that the Episcopal Church had 3.5 million on its rolls in 1965—that's a 43 percent drop from a year when the United States had about half as many people as it does today.
To make these numbers even more troubling (at least, if you're a leader in the Episcopal Church), is the fact that while there may be 2 million on the rolls, it's likely that only about 800,000 people actually attend Episcopal Churches on any given Sunday.
Theologically speaking, the Episcopal Church is winding down, too. In 2003, the church consecrated an openly homosexual priest, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Earlier this month, Episcopalians in Los Angeles elected a lesbian priest to the office of bishop—despite warnings from Anglicans around the world that such a move would widen the rift created by the Robinson consecration.
And then there's the general theological drift of the denomination, which has been going on for 40 years or more. Today it is common for leaders in the Episcopal Church to deny such core Christian doctrines as the Resurrection, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the Virgin Birth. Conservative Bishop Fitz Allison famously summed up the situation when he said that retired liberal Bishop John Shelby Spong "perjures himself every time he recites the Apostle's Creed." One might reasonably wonder by what standard the Episcopal Church might still be called a Christian denomination.
If you are not a leader in the Episcopal Church, however, these numbers are not so much as troubling as they are encouraging. After all, if a building is on fire, the goal is to get people out alive—and as quickly as possible. And that is certainly what is happening, as the other side of the story—the growth of alternative Anglican churches—makes clear. Indeed, earlier this year, disaffected Episcopalians, who have left the church at various times to form other denominations over the past 40 years, came together in an unprecedented move to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
And the great news is that the ACNA is made up only partly of former Episcopalians. Many of the new Anglicans are new converts to Christianity as well as pilgrims from other denominations who are being nourished by the rich theology and liturgy of the Anglican tradition. The ACNA now numbers in excess of 100,000—and it's growing rapidly. It's easy to see that within a decade, if both churches continue on their respective paths, the Anglican Church in North America could pass the Episcopal Church as the primary expression of Anglicanism in the United States.
So don't grieve the demise of the Episcopal Church. God has preserved a remnant. And the coming together of the various "continuing Anglican" churches under the ACNA organizational structure is one of the major religious developments of this year, a development what will likely resonate for many years to come.