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Alarm Bells as Episcopal Church Decline Accelerates

Editor’s Note: This article was first published by the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s blog Juicy Ecumenism. It is reprinted with permission.

Episcopalians took a major hit in the year 2020, not only in attendance but also in membership and—unusually—in the pocketbook of the historically affluent denomination.

Statistics released last week by the Office of the General Convention show domestic membership in an uninterrupted drop of 61,243 persons to 1,576,702 (-4%) from 1,637,945, while average Sunday attendance declined 60,232 persons to 458,179 (-12%) from 518,411.

These numbers indicate a doubling in the rate of membership decline and a tripling in the rate of attendance decline over the previous year. Median Average Sunday Attendance in the denomination has dropped from 57 persons in 2016 to 50 persons in 2020. Long-term, 61% of Episcopal parishes saw their attendance decline 10% or greater in the past five years.

The statistics cover the year 2020 and are the first affected by COVID-19 restrictions, although the church only reported attendance data for the pre-pandemic period January 1 through March 1 (missing the traditionally high-attendance periods of Christmas and Easter), similar to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Membership and giving, in contrast, were reported across the entire calendar year.

Finances Hit

In a first, the church’s giving metric, known as “plate and pledge” dropped $59 million (-4.3%) from 1,353,835,316 to 1,294,757,071. This is especially noteworthy as the U.S. inflation rate was only 1.4% in 2020, easing from 2.3% in 2019: fewer Sundays to attend corresponded with fewer opportunities to give, and collection plates suffered.

In response to a newly surveyed question, 24% of Episcopal parishes reported a “very significant” negative impact of the pandemic upon their congregation’s finances, while an additional 39% reported a “somewhat significant” impact.

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Many Episcopal parishes closed in-person worship for much of the pandemic. Parts of the Episcopal Church ceased services altogether—streaming or otherwise—with parishioners directed to either a diocesan-wide virtual service or to the Washington National Cathedral.

The church’s official 2020 table of statistics includes information on baptisms, confirmations, receptions, weddings, and burials. Unlike membership, attendance and giving (three objective metrics that illustrate how the church is doing at present), weddings and baptisms provide an idea of how the church will fare in future years.

From 20192020, weddings across the denomination dropped from 6,484 to 3,530, down 46% (an additional 309 weddings were reported conducted online in virtual services). Children’s baptisms dropped from 19,716 to 7,286, down 67%. Adult baptisms dropped from 3,866 to 1,649, down 57%.

In Autumn of 2020 the Episcopal Church Executive Committee authorized an amended form of the parochial report for the year.

Trouble Spots

Dioceses in the Great Lakes, Rust Belt, and Upper Midwest continue their multi-year collapse.

In Wisconsin, three Episcopal dioceses are considering juncture (merger) prompted by ongoing financial stress. The Diocese of Milwaukee dropped from attendance of 3,033 in 2019 to 2,583 in 2020 (-15%), Fond du Lac dropped from 1,521 to 1,287 (-15%), and Eau Claire crashed from 592 to 357 (-40%).

I reported earlier this year that the tiny Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan had effectively collapsed. In 2019, the diocesan attendance was 385. In 2020 it dropped to 233 (-39%). Membership dropped from 1,197 to 908 (-24%).

Other big membership declines were in Pennsylvania (-8.7%) which reported a corresponding 27.1% drop in attendance and Delaware (-8.6%) which saw a 5.7% attendance drop. Rhode Island shed 12.3% of members and 8.5% of attendees while Maine lost 8% of members and 12.4% of attendees.

A handful of bright spots were the Diocese of Easton (Maryland’s Eastern Shore) with a 17.2% increase in attendance, New Hampshire up 2.3% (after reporting a sharp decline the previous year), the Tampa-based Diocese of Southwest Florida, up 3.7%, and the Diocese of Iowa up 21.7%.

Statistical Totals for the Episcopal Church by Province and Diocese can be browsed through by clicking here.

A report on 2019 numbers can be viewed here.

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Jeffrey Walton

Jeff Walton is Communications Manager and Anglican Program Director for the Institute on Religion & Democracy. Walton serves on the board of directors for Anglican Frontier Missions, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, and the Executive Committee of the Anglican Church in North America.

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