Preliminary membership numbers released last week by the Episcopal Church confirm another year of decline. Last year, 2012, the Church experienced a 4.15% membership loss. This now reduces the Episcopal Church to 1.8 million members – a 13% drop in the five years since 2007 and a 50% loss in the last 50 years. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), often hailed as the best indicator of active membership, also nose-dived last year by 4.9% which was called “staggering” by one reporter.
The Episcopal Church is no longer a part of America’s religious narrative, according to one commentator. That bears repeating: “The Episcopal Church is no longer a part of America’s religious narrative.” That is to say, we are no longer a meaningful part of the future religious story of America; even the National Missionary Baptists are bigger than we are and how often do you hear about them? The best the Episcopal Church can hope for is a place in the “boutique” culture – joining boutique shops, boutique hotels, and boutique medical practices. Boutiques in any endeavor are upscale, trendy, expensive, exclusive, snobby, and cater to an elite clientele. Boutiques do not worry about reaching the masses; a few well-healed patrons and they can survive.
Consider the recent House of Bishops meeting with the theme of “Transforming Loss into New Possibilities.” The 148 bishops in attendance considered re-imagining the Episcopal Church but it is nowhere reported that those same bishops addressed the fact that they, themselves, will cost the Church over 22 million dollars this year just for stipend and benefits; their staffs easily triple that number to a cost of $700,000,000 or more in the next 10 years – pricy even by boutique numbers.
The bishops heard Dr. Elaine Heath, Perkins School of Theology, challenge them “…to go into neighborhoods and engage people where they are, where they live.” Let’s be fair; scores of good men and good women have been bishops over the last 50 years and they have all understood what Dr. Heath advocates and even after spending over a billion dollars for bishops and staffs – our membership is down 50%.
We can play Monday morning quarterback and wish we had dramatically avoided all the dumb stuff of the last fifty years and instead shrunk the number of dioceses, reduced the number of bishops, kept multi-millions in assessment dollars in parish treasuries, and refused ordaining late-vocation, non-seminary graduates – would our declining situation be different? Perhaps, but we’ll never know.
We do know that nothing we have done in the last 50 years has stopped the hemorrhage. Time to bind up our wounds and actively plan to be the best boutique church on the block.