Ralph Webb: Is Only 5 Percent of the Episcopal Church Experiencing Conflict?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

This morning, after listening to tales from over 20 dioceses of congregations splitting and foreign "incursions" (evidently the new preferred term for the formerly popular "border crossings") around the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori made this astonishing statement:

"The conflict that you read about in the headlines is not reality for 95 percent" of the church.

Read it all.

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Posted September 25, 2007 at 1:30 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Sir Highmoor wrote:

Pluriform is the word needed to understand TEC’s truth.

September 25, 1:40 pm | [comment link]
2. CanaAnglican wrote:

So laughable it makes me cry.

September 25, 2:05 pm | [comment link]
3. CanaAnglican wrote:

Perhaps the way they count produces some of their blindspot.  In the case of our congregation (St. Stephen’s, Heathsville, VA) one-quarter of the congregation continues to meet as Episcopalians.  I think their core group of worshipers is about two dozen.  Most weeks in the Anglican worship there are around 100.  So DioVA counts that they have lost no congregation.  I think they also count they have lost no people, as they have kept all the Anglicans (except the rector) on their mailing list.  Perhaps they are thinking that someday, when they win their suit, we Anglicans will rejoin them.  I would not recommend they hold their breath.

There has been a huge loss is in individuals.  ECUSA(TEC) membership figures:
1936 — 2,068,000
1946 — 2,100,000
1956 — 3,111,000
1966 — 3,647,000
1975 — 2,860,000
1985 — 2,740,000
1995 — 2,500,000

(Membership figures through 1966, are from the US Census Bureau.  I could not find data from them after that, so for 1975 forward, I have used figures from th Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches.)

If the growth through the 1960’s were projected to today parallel to the growth in US population, TEC would have about 6 million members.  However you count it, as a 1.6 million loss or as a 4 million potential loss, the loss is staggering.

For some reasons that we can only guess at, God has drawn them down to around 2 million.  He seems to have a plan for them.  Maybe it is His own millineum development goal.

September 25, 2:13 pm | [comment link]
4. In Texas wrote:

If its such a small number, then why all the concern over “incursions”?

September 25, 2:15 pm | [comment link]
5. Zoot wrote:

She is in denial.  I bet 75-80% of the South is disgusted with the whole thing.  I know some who are about to jump ship.

September 25, 2:21 pm | [comment link]
6. Ross wrote:

Well, what is 5% of the Episcopal Church?

Using the numbers from here, we see that TEC claims:

- 110 dioceses
- 7,200 parishes and missions
- 2,247,819 active baptized members
- 795,765 average Sunday attendance

5% of those numbers is:

- about 5 dioceses
- about 360 parishes and missions
- about 112,000 active baptized members
- about 40,000 average Sunday attendance

If “conflict” means “broken away or actively considering breaking away,” these numbers don’t strike me as being entirely out of the ballpark.  Compare to this article, which quotes:

- a drop in membership over three years of “nearly 115,000”—fairly close to 112,000.
- Parishes in the “alphabet soup” of CANA, AMiA, etc., totalling roughly 285—not far from 360.
- Three dioceses seriously considering breaking away—not quite 5.

So at a first glance, 5% seems at least plausible.

September 25, 2:22 pm | [comment link]
7. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

Yes, I have watched with dismay at the havoc this is bringing to the Episcopal churches in the South (my native homeland). So sad…

September 25, 2:23 pm | [comment link]
8. jayanthony wrote:

815 will soon need a new calculator.

September 25, 2:30 pm | [comment link]
9. Rolling Eyes wrote:

Well, she’s a proven liar.  What else would anyone expect her to say?

September 25, 2:43 pm | [comment link]
10. Stefano wrote:

As I read the words coming out of House of Bishops I wonder if I’m in an alternate reality where the dialogue all seems to be out of a Space Opera

‘The more you tighten your grip, Chancellor, the more dioceses and parishes will slip through your fingers.’

‘The New Orleans Bishops Meeting: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.’

‘Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Presiding Bishop. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the Millennium Development Goals, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the Network’s hidden parishes.’
PB: I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Bp Duncan: This is not going to work.
Matt: Why didn’t you say so before?
Bp Duncan: I did say so before.

‘Today will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of the Windsor Report, it will soon see the end of the Network.’

September 25, 2:43 pm | [comment link]
11. Eugene wrote:

I think Ross’ numbers are on the mark. I do not think the PB is lying, but using reasonable numbers.  When all is said and done there will be at most 125,000 that will leave TEC for a new American denomination.  That is one reason not to leave!

September 25, 2:52 pm | [comment link]
12. anglicanhopeful wrote:

5% becomes 50% very quickly, especially when the 5% are the most active, and actively tithing.  TEC is losing 5% of the 20 in the 80/20 rule. 

At the same though we should be just as concerned with the millions of Americans who haven’t responded to the Gospel or who’ve left church entirely or who are living with financial and personal traumas.  Where have the TEC evangelism goals gone?  Do the bishops and deputies even believe in evangelism anymore?  I place my hope in churches that are doing something to reach the seeking and lost, not churches that are playing makebelieve with the numbers.

September 25, 3:13 pm | [comment link]
13. Sidney wrote:

Even if it’s only 5% who leave, that 5% affects far more.  It’s not as though the 5% don’t talk to the other 95% at coffee hour.  And the notion that people are either totally supportive or totally opposed to the church’s direction is a false dichotomy.

September 25, 3:14 pm | [comment link]
14. Alli B wrote:

11, you are so wrong.  You sound much like those after the 2003 convention that sought to minimize those of us who were upset.  You have yet to see the full wrath of those who have been patiently sitting on the fence.

September 25, 3:23 pm | [comment link]
15. Ross wrote:

Of course, the open question is what will happen in the future.

One scenario is that the bulk of all those in TEC who feel strongly enough about these matters to leave, have in fact already left.  If this is true, then we can expect that the losses will taper off over the next few years as the remainder of those with the desire to walk away do so; and the overall blow to TEC will be painful but by no means fatal.

Another scenario is that the losses will continue at the same or an accelerating rate.  In that event—if we’re talking about 5% loss per year—then TEC is doomed in short order.

And of course there is a spectrum of scenarioes somewhere in the middle between these two.

My crystal ball is cloudy, so I won’t pretend to predict with confidence what I think is going to happen.  Anecdotally I can say that my parish—which is as solidly reappraising a church as you’re likely to find—is thriving; the pews are full and the parish hall is swarming with kids.  So liberal theology is by no means a kiss of death for church growth, any more than “orthodox” theology is a guarantee of it.

September 25, 3:24 pm | [comment link]
16. Jennifer wrote:

#14 - I know a lot of those, and they haven’t left yet, or dropped pledges, but they’re in complete opposition to the new thing.

September 25, 3:27 pm | [comment link]
17. anglicanhopeful wrote:

Ross (#6, #15) I reserve my criticism for the leadership of TEC who seem to think there’s nothing going on here - just a bunch of media hype about insignificant losses (tiny vocal minority is the word we hear alot).  Your experience is apparently quite different from what the rest of the church is seeing and experiencing.  I’d refer you back to the official TEC Fast-Facts report and have another look at median priest age, median congregation age, sources of conflict, and demographics and see if you still feel like the new meds are curing the disease:  http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/Episcopal_Overview_FACT_2005.pdf

September 25, 3:38 pm | [comment link]
18. justme wrote:

The main problem is that one cannot leave Ecusa!!!!!  Ecusa will not transfer members to any other denomination but will put them on an inactive list.  Therefore even although 80% plus of a congregation moves out - Ecusa still count them as being part of the parish they left. Talk about having your cake and eating it!!  What is forgotten is that they do not even have 20% of the pledges left to support the orginal parish because most of the pledge money came from those who moved on.

September 25, 3:43 pm | [comment link]
19. Peré Phil wrote:

Of course, it depends on what the definition of “conflict” is.  Is it parishioners/parishes leaving TEC.  Is it disgust shown at Coffee Hour?  Is it disappointment in the amount of time spent on issues of sexuality when there is a hurting world in need of Good News?

I get the feeling more and more we should be known as The Semantic Church.

September 25, 3:47 pm | [comment link]
20. Ross wrote:


I didn’t say that I thought that “the new meds are curing the disease.”  The losses to date are, obviously, reason enough to be deeply concerned.  I was attempting to make two points:

1) It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future.  TEC might wither and die the way that some reasserters predict; it might suffer significant but survivable losses and continue on its way.  Neither future is certain, both are possible.

2) Some reasserters make sweeping statements that “orthodox” churches prosper and thrive while “liberal” churches inevitably decline.  I can demonstrate that this is at least not universally true.

So yes, the numbers provide ample reason to be worried about the future of TEC, and I am worried.  But I’m not ready to give in to hopelessness yet, because I see reasons for genuine hope as well as worry.

September 25, 3:59 pm | [comment link]
21. pendennis88 wrote:

I think the main difference is that that 5% mostly attends church every Sunday and tithes.  Probably 2/3ds of the other 95% is just on paper.  (And actually, the bishop said 5% of diocese.  If she means that is how many diocese will leave in total, that might be right.)

September 25, 4:34 pm | [comment link]
22. Reason and Revelation wrote:

Ross, I agree with you that there is little reason to believe that TEC is about to die out, now or even the next 30 years, though it is certainly possible that large numbers of churches will be closing their doors or become essentially museum pieces.

You are also right that there are a lot of liberal churches that are thriving, and often a liberal church will thrive more than a comparable “pew-sitter” church—i.e., one of these basically conservative upper middle class churches without any discernible Christian passion but which is also not exactly Moveon.org types.  Those are sometimes decaying by comparison to a church that at least tries to embrace a liberal theology with some passion.

That being said, the overall picture can’t be ignored.  With an average age of over 57, below-replacement birth rates and a generally moribund evangelical approach, the numbers don’t lie.  I don’t remember the proportion of churches with ASA under 100, but it’s something like half of all TEC churches?  Something alarming.

Also, the numbers you put forth above are a little misleading.  If you say that 110,000 have left and 5 dioceses are threatening to leave, it’s not really accurate to say both represent 5%.  You really need to add the two, because if the 5 dioceses leave, the number who are gone goes up a lot more than 110,000. Additionally, the number who have left is a huge understatement of the problem, which really can only be expressed by ASA figures.  Lots stayed in hopes of APO or allegiance to the priest or other such, but just look at the number of churches that have left in the last 1.5 years, for which we have no data still.

I do agree that we are not going to see a massive exodus in the next three months or even year.  The average pew-sitter has no idea there even was a HOB meeting this week.  BUT, the problem is that TEC’s lack of any theological foundation (admitted in at the highest levels) or desire to provide doctrinal guidance is what will cause long-term declines to continue slowly but steadily.  There is regrettably no evidence that any change on this point is on the horizon.

September 25, 5:36 pm | [comment link]
23. anglicanhopeful wrote:

Ross I understand better what you’re getting at.  True, TEC could and likely will end up like UCC - diminished in size but not gone.  Given the size of TEC endowments this is my guess too.  But to say that 95% of the church is healthy and ‘vibrant’ (these are KJS’s actual words) is missing a huge problem already documented and identified by TECs own studies.  Maybe her words are for PR purposes only.  Something tells me that is not the case.  Internally at 815 in NYC I would hope there are alarm bells loudly ringing.  This is not a healthy church by any measurements.  Ignoring the problem is unwise and anyone in the private sector would tell you it shows negligent leadership.

September 25, 5:49 pm | [comment link]
24. Reason and Revelation wrote:

To clarify, the “110,000” figure is, as I understand, just the numbers of people who have physically left the membership rolls.  However, as anyone who peruses their local church rolls knows, huge numbers are no longer in any way connected to the parish or even live in the state.  Membership numbers don’t really tell the story of the numbers who have switched denominations or who have stopped coming to church altogether.

September 25, 5:52 pm | [comment link]
25. Ross wrote:

Yeah, the age demographics are also troubling.  The Episcopal church my mom goes to is a case in point—off the top of my head, I’d guess ASA around 15-20 and average age perhaps 55-60.  It wasn’t much bigger when I was in high school, but it was younger—it’s pretty much the same crowd that’s attending now.

Granted, that’s in a pretty small town.  But still, that’s a small town that most likely won’t have an Episcopal church in another twenty years.

If I were 815, I’d be worried about two things:  losses due to the current brouhaha, and the overall decline and graying common to most of the mainline Protestant denominations.  And I’d be more worried about the latter.

Losses because of the controversy over human sexuality/Biblical authority/insert your favorite root cause here, are almost certainly limited—only a finite number of current members of TEC are prepared to leave over the issue.  It may be—in fact, it already is—a big enough fraction to be painful, but my suspicion is that it’s far short of a majority.  At worst, and based on nothing much more than my gut instinct, I’d be surprised if it were more than 25-30% when all was said and done.  A quarter to a third loss would be a major body blow to TEC, make no mistake, but it would be survivable—and once they’ve left, I would expect the exodus over the Great Unpleasantness to cease.

But once that’s done, there’s still the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of an aging and largely complacent denomination—and that will take something dramatic to reverse.  The fact that we’re in the same boat with pretty much all of our ecumenical partners is cold comfort; it just means we have company as we gradually decline.  That’s what I’d be losing sleep over, if I were 815.

Now, where do I find hope in this?  My experience is necessarily conditioned by where I live—in liberal Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest, a.k.a. the “None Zone.”  But my experience among my unchurched friends, and there are many of them, is that they are repelled by an image of Christianity they get from televangelists and the “Moral Majority”-type political action groups—which they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, and worst of all conservative.  I also see an immense hunger for spirituality, which—since they don’t think they can get it from the church—they seek in a variety of Eastern religions, New Age gimcrackery, or Neo-Paganism.

So I think there is a need for a liberal, liturgical church that encourages intellectual engagement as well as spiritual growth; and I think the Episcopal Church is capable of being that church.  It’s a hard sell, because the people who need us are often prejudiced against Christianity—and sometimes with good reason.  And we, as a church, are largely allergic to the word “evangelism.”

But I think that if we get snapped out of our complacency—and, ironically, it’s possible that a good chunk of TEC walking out the door would be just such a snap—then I think there’s a chance we could find a way to reach out to the people who need the church that we are.

September 25, 7:06 pm | [comment link]
26. palagious wrote:

There probably will never be an accurate account of the number of persons, not parishes, that are/have left the Episcopal Church.  Especially, the thousands that have voted with their feet over the last few years and do not attend an Episcopal Church.  Mostly, they have done so quietly and remarkably have probably never terminated membership (for various reasons—John McCain).  ASA will probably be a better metric, year-to-year, for the actual damage.  I wouldn’t completely trust the record keeping as it appears to especially poor and non-extent in smaller, under-resourced parishes an there is nothing to be gained by the national church in reporting the actual numbers.  If it was good news for TEC then we would have had the numbers by now.

September 25, 7:26 pm | [comment link]
27. Cennydd wrote:

Not meaning to change the subject, may I offer the following observation?

When dioceses talk seriously of leaving TEC by the end of the year, there is something VERY SERIOUSLY WRONG.  The problem is that Schori & Company - the majority in the House of Bishops - are in a state of denial, and they won’t admit it.

September 25, 9:16 pm | [comment link]
28. Larry Morse wrote:

I rather think that changes in revenue, the balance sheet in short, is more likely to tell where TEC is headed than attendance numbers. LM

September 25, 11:57 pm | [comment link]
29. Harvey wrote:

The attitude expressed by the PB still seems to be expressed by “..figures don’t lie but liars can figure..”

September 26, 7:32 pm | [comment link]
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