Episcopal Church sees greater drop in membership in 2018

The 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, held in Austin, Texas, July 5-13, 2018.
The 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, held in Austin, Texas, July 5-13, 2018. | (Photo: Facebook/The Episcopal Church)

The Episcopal Church saw a greater decline in members and average worship attendance in 2018 than in 2017.

According to statistics recently made available by the Office of the General Convention, The Episcopal Church saw its active baptized members decline from approximately 1.712 million in 2017 to 1.676 million.

The 36,000-member drop is larger than the previous two years, when the denomination declined by about 32,500 members in 2017 and a little more than 34,000 members in 2016.

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In 2018, the average Sunday worship attendance declined by about 23,500 people, making it the largest drop the church body has seen since at least 2014.

In previous years, 2017 saw an average worship attendance decline of around 13,700, 2016 saw a decline of 9,300, 2015 saw a decline of 20,600, and 2014 saw a near equal decline of 23,200.

The report on The Episcopal Church’s domestic dioceses also found that the number of congregations with 20 or fewer members had increased from 388 in 2017 to 418 in 2018. 

Jeffrey Walton, Anglican expert at the theologically conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, wrote on Tuesday that the numbers were not all bad for the liberal mainline denomination.

“Notably, non-domestic dioceses (many of whom did not support same-sex marriage rites) saw attendance nudge upward by 0.2%,” he explained.

“Similarly, the denomination’s flagship church, the Washington National Cathedral, reports an attendance rebound from 1,200 to nearly 1,500 in 2018, even as plate-and-pledge dropped more than one third, possibly indicating an increase in Sunday visitors.”

While during the 1960s The Episcopal Church reached a peak membership of 3.6 million, by 2010 the denomination’s total active baptized members dropped below 2 million.

Some have argued that this decline has been accelerated by the overall liberal theological direction of the denomination, which has been public about its support for same-sex marriage and other progressive causes. 

"Formerly traditionalist dioceses now under progressive leadership seem to be faring especially badly," wrote Walton.

"The Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana, where Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg was married and is a parishioner, shed 9.5% of attendees in a single year."

The apparent uptick in decline for both membership and average attendance contrasts with previous reports on numbers, in which the denomination noted an apparent stabilizing of their losses.

When reporting the release of the 2016 numbers, Canon Michael Barlowe of the Genneral Convention stated in 2017 that “rates of decline in such key figures as Average Sunday Attendance have decreased,” adding that “congregational income through pledges and other offerings has remained constant.”

The release of the latest numbers comes as the mainline denomination announced the next meeting of its General Convention-appointed leadership.

The Executive Council of The Episcopal Church is scheduled to meet Oct. 18-21 at the Embassy Suites Montgomery Hotel and Conference Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

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