You will not see banners marking our “Golden Anniversary of Decline” when The 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church convenes this week in
. Nevertheless this is the reality of the last 50 years. For all practical purposes the Episcopal Church stopped growing in 1962 with a membership of 3.6 million persons. The Episcopal News Service recently reported membership is now 1.951 million; this is a 47% loss in half a century. But the numbers are even worse when compared to the total Indianapolis population. In 1960 there were 19 Episcopalians per 1000 Americans and now the number is less then 8 Episcopalians, a loss of 58%. So why not be honest and festoon the Convention with “Commemorating 50 Years of Decline” or “Golden Anniversary of Decline”? United States
The 1950s were filled with religious energy and worshippers overflowed our buildings, but that changed when we were confronted with the tumultuous Age of Aquarius. Our bishops in the 1960s sought to identify the Church with the culture’s needs but were ‘out at first’ by half a step and the decline began – 50 years ago.
The House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church published report to this General Convention details the loss of membership numbers noted above and the fact we also lost over 300 congregations between 2006 and 2010. We will lose twice that many in the next five years because, as the Committee reports, 72% of Episcopal congregations are in financial difficulty. This would equate to shutting down 20 dioceses in a fifteen year period. Considering the ageing of our membership and that most of our congregations are small with low average Sunday attendance, the number of viable dioceses in ten years could be calculated at 25 to 30 rather then the current 100 domestic dioceses. The time to pursue mergers and/or partnerships is now and not after scores of jurisdictions have sunk in a sea of red ink. For example, it is not that difficult to imagine six or eight jurisdictions forming together to become The Diocese of the Heartland.
Readers should be aware of our other marks of decline as reported to an Executive Council meeting this past January: child baptisms down 36%, adult baptism down 40%, confirmations down 32%, Church school enrollment down 33%, and marriages down 41%. Equally as troubling is that our number of clergy has jumped 80% during our half century of decline; when we were 3.6 million members strong there were 10,000 clergy and now that we are 1.9 million members we have over 18,000 clergy – more clergy is obviously not the answer to stopping decline.
The General Convention will this week consider a great number of important but secondary issues all the while believing that our diocesan and national leadership, both ordained and lay, must be on the right track and that if they ‘keep doing what they have been doing’ -- divine intervention will turn a dying denomination around. The last fifty years suggest otherwise.
Many of the entries in Episcopal Journey of Hope by my fellow bloggers and comments from our readers provide insight to the issues that ought to be on the floor of Convention but won’t make it. As a responder wrote this past week, about all we can expect is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.