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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church



By The Rev. William R. Coats

The Episcopal church has experienced a dramatic loss in membership over the last 35 years. This climate of loss has clearly affected our morale and has fed a level of internecine antagonism rarely seen in our church. What caused this decline? Who is to blame?

Let us look at the raw figures. (Note: all statistics are drawn from tables in the red Episcopal Church Annual, years 1965 - 2003. Numbers will be rounded off). In 1965 we had 3, 615,000 baptized members. Every year thereafter showed a decline. By 1970, for example, that number had decreased slightly to 3, 475,000. In 2001 the total baptized members had dropped to 2, 317,000 a decrease in 35 years of 1,300,000 baptized members . There was similar drop in communicants though this number is a bit misleading because the church changed its definition of a Communicant in the 1990's (using a stricter standard) and also ceased counting overseas communicants (usually 70 - 80,000 per year) in 1986. Still the numbers for communicants also show a decline: 2,202,000 in 1965 and 1,868,000 in 2001, a less precipitous drop of 330,000 over the 35 year span.

On the surface, the steep decline in numbers seems to suggest a mass exodus: people angry about this or that leaving the church. This is the familiar refrain of church conservatives who maintain that the increasingly liberal activities of the church (or at least the policies and resolutions of General Convention and the actions of some East and West Coast dioceses ) literally drove hordes of disaffected people from the church. It should be recalled that until roughly 1960 the Episcopal church was often referred to as "The Republican Party at prayer." There is little doubt, however, that much of our church took on a more liberal hue at some time in the post- WWII era . But did this "cause" a massive walkout?.

In light of the overall statistics, the conventional view of a 'walkout' caused by a liberal swing may seem intuitively correct, but it is hard to prove. If this claim of the disaffected walkout is not true then one would have to come up with another more plausible and demonstrable explanation for church's decline.

I will argue that the largest contributor to our membership loss is not the drift to liberalism but a sharp decline in the birth rate among those descended from the British Isles or Northern Europe - our essential "tribal" base. (One additional feature I will not address is the gradual loss of African Americans, a trend which started after the Civil War)

If one assumes that the church has traditionally "grown" or replenished itself not through evangelism but simply through the addition of its own children, it would follow that a decline in numbers of those who "come up through the system" would account for the overall decline in numbers. There are a number of factors to suggest this is the case.

During and after the Great Depression there was a gradual but noticeable decline in both birth rate and family size in America. In 1925 there were 24.1 births per 1000; in 1961 that number had dropped to 22.1 per 1000. By 1980 the figures were 15.1 per 1000 and in 2002 the rate was 13.9 per 1000. Similarly the number of children in families fell dramatically. In 1900 there were close to 5 children per married household. In 1972 that number was 2.7. In 1990 it was 1.8 and in 2000 the number had dropped to .9. The rate among Episcopalians is currently one of the lowest in the nation

We always "grown' primarily by bringing our children up through the ranks, as it were. Indeed, until very recently, seminaries were training parish priests not to "grow" their churches but to preside and maintain what was perceived to be a naturally expanding institution. The drop in numbers of children per household, therefore, would seriously affect the overall membership in our church and becomes a possible explanation for the Episcopal Church's decline in overall numbers.

Here the statistics are dramatic..

Let us begin with Sunday School figures. In 1965, there were 880,000 children in our Sunday School programs. In 2001, that number had declined to 297,000. Thus in 35 years Sunday School attendance dropped by close to 600,000 students (almost double our decline in communicants during that same period). In 1965, we confirmed 128,000 persons. In 2001, we confirmed 34,000 persons. This decline confirms anecdotal evidence offered by many senior priests and long -time parishioners of a golden era in the dim past when parish Sunday School programs had 200- 300 children (compared to the 30 - 40 children enrolled today) . In other words, over the years, the Episcopal Church has had fewer and fewer people coming into the church at the entry level. One might argue that parents were withholding their children due to the Church's lurch to the political Left, but a more plausible explanation is that there was simply a diminishing pool of young people from which to draw .

Can it be demonstrated that the drop in numbers of those coming into the system "at the bottom" is in some way responsible for our decline in membership? One common sense way might be to show that at some point the number of those being buried is larger than the number of those being Confirmed and received (bolstered by adult baptisms). But this is not the case . In fact, the number of Confirmations and receptions plus adult baptisms continues to outstrip burials though at a decreasing rate (a plus 6,000 in 2001 compared to a plus 12,000 in 1990). Does this invalidate the thesis?

Not if we adjust our figures to reflect that as far back as 1963, statistics showed that the church retained barely 50% of her Confirmands. If, in any year, we were to add the number of adult baptisms and receptions to 50% of the confirmation numbers, a different picture emerges. In 1970 for example, employing this 50% discount, the number of burials equals the number of those Confirmed/received plus adult baptisms. In 1975 the number of burials (53,000) outstrips Confirmations (69,000 x .50 = 35,000) and Adult Baptisms (6,000) plus adult receptions (8,000) by 4,000. In 1980 the discrepancy was a negative 6,000. The numbers have remained in the negative until this day: in 2001 50% of 34,000 confirmations plus 7,000 adult baptisms plus 8,000 receptions comes to 32,000 which is 12,000 short of the burials that year (44,000).

Can this thesis also explain the years of steady decline? Between 1976 and 1985 the number of Baptized members declined by 67,000. In 1976, the number of burials exceeded 50% of Confirmations plus adult receptions and adult baptisms by 5,000; 6,000 in 1977; 7,000 in 1978; 7,000 in 1979; 6,000 in 1980; 6,500 in 1981; 4,000 in 1982; 5,000 in 1983; 5,000 in 1984; 7,000 in 1985.. This total, again based on a mere loss of 50 percent of our confirmands totals 58,500. Using a more realistic figure of 45% as the retention rate for confirmands, the total would jump to 83,000. These figures, do not support the charge that hordes of people left the church. Instead they show that there simply were fewer and fewer people coming up "through the ranks."

I intend to show that a similar dynamic is at work between 1986 and 1995, but first I must acknowledge that the drop in church membership between 1970 and 1973 does not conform to the thesis that the drop in birth rate alone has affected overall church membership figures.

In 1967 the Episcopal Church reported a baptized membership of 3,588,000. In 1968 that figure dropped by 52,000. In 1969 there was further loss of 61,000. In 1970 the loss was another 30,000. In 1971 there was another 60,000 drop and in 1972 there was a whopping decline of 177,000. In 1973 there was a further drop of 125,000. As I suggested earlier, the church began to feel the impact of the drop in the birth rate around 1975; therefore one must look for other causes of this loss in the years 1968 - 1973. It would not be wrong to suggest that the racial turmoil of the late 1960's reflected in a variety of fairly liberal policies undertaken by the national church and a number of dioceses provoked a severe backlash and loss of members. While I suspect some rue these actions on the part of the church, few today, even among conservatives, would be likely to say the church was wrong in its decisions of that era. A campaign to combat racism is not quite the same as a sell-out to secularism.

When we turn to the periods of 1986 - 1995 and 1996 to 2001, however, I don't think we see anything like the "exodus of the 60's." Between 1986 and 1995 the church lost approximately 93,000 members (2, 500,000 - 2, 411,000). During this period the gap between burials and Confirmation/adult Baptism/receptions (using the 50% discount on confirmands) remained in the negative: 10,000 more burials in 1986; 10,000 in 1987; 12,000 in 1988 and 11,000 in 1989. So it goes through 1995 when the negative number is 10,000. The total of close to 100,000 more burials than new members approximates the overall decline of church membership for the period.

During this time, however, the overall yearly decline numbers began to slow (8,000 for 2003). Thus if the gap between confirmands/receptions/adult baptisms and burials has now outstripped our overall loss of numbers we must now be picking up people at the "other end", which may be the most hopeful sign in an otherwise dismal record.

(One could ask why I do not use communicants as a measure. The definition of communicant was originally so loose that it was often unclear who was actually a communicant. Later when the criteria for communicant became much stricter, clergy began to categorize larger numbers as baptized members. Hence I use the latter number as a better indicator of church numbers)

What conclusion is to be drawn from this quick look at our church's numbers over the last 35 years? It appears that the problem with the church has not been its political "drift to the left." My sense is that as many joined as left during this period. What was lacking however was any sense of evangelizing outside our own "natural" base. Because America religious life remains largely ethnic with each domination still rooted in a European or Latin base-stock, we continued over the years to assume our British Isles/European base (with an African-American component) would simply replicate itself . However the decline in this base, the broadening out of ethnic choices, vast demographic changes and dramatic mobility features means there is no primary stock left to replicate. This was evident a generation ago and could have signaled not simply a need for evangelism in general a need for developing strategies to work with other expanding ethnic groups in the United States (Hispanics and Asians being the most obvious examples).We did not do this. We continued to assume we would simply replicate ourselves. By paying little or no attention to changing ethnic patterns, the declining birth rate or other demographic shifts, our myopic laziness has cost us dearly.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.


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