One of the great traditions of the Episcopal Church is about to again to hit the radars of us governance weenies.
In just a few days, the national church will report the results of the annual parochial report, a tradition that dates to the earliest days of the church. Reporting a variety of statistical data that reflects the state of the church, a copy is sent to every parish and mission in the church.
Of particular note is that this is the last set of pre-pandemic results. Covering the previous calendar year, raw data is reported each spring and reported in the fall. Thus, this year’s reporting, which will be released on or about September 12, covers 2019.
It is a safe bet that this year’s data will reflect further sharp declines in attendance and participation. Giving will remain relatively steady, while other data will suggest that an existential crisis looms ever closer. Specifically, while membership has dropped by 26 percent from 2002 to 2018; baptisms, weddings, and confirmations have declined twice as rapidly. For example, adult baptisms declined from 44,995 to 20,069 during the same period. Similarly, confirmations of children are down 14,996 to 7,043 (-53%), while adult confirmations sank from 17,701 to 8,595 (-51%). For those already confirmed in another denomination and received into the Episcopal Church, the number has dropped from 7,785 to 5,506 (-29%). And weddings declined by 59 percent.
These data are particularly troubling, for they reflect the future of the church. Much like parishes that fail to save for the future suggest that they are not planning to have a future, so too do these numbers suggest a dying denomination.
That begs the question: Why is the church not taking these trends seriously? No one knows the answer, but my sense is that church officials believe that if they just keep on keeping on, things will be fine. In some cases, officials seem to just be hoping to retire, and hand off the mess to someone else. That appears to be the case here in the Diocese of Virginia, where Susan Goff has shown zero interest in steering the church towards health and wholeness. Indeed, my experience is that she has categorically refused to address clergy misconduct, while encouraging clergy to take time away for health and wholeness. Hardly an issue when most churches have been closed since March.
Nor are the diocese’s listening sessions helpful. Bishops should be listening all along; there shouldn’t be a need to hold sessions. Indeed, Goff has proven remarkably unwilling to listen to this author and others hurt by the church, so why listening sessions would now be helpful is beyond me.
What is needed is vision, enthusiasm, and courage. Courage to call a spade a spade. Courage to admit that the status quo is neither sustainable nor desirable. Courage to do things differently.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the Acts 8 and Episcopal Resurrection movements have largely vanished. Yes, Susan Snook, one of the leaders, has managed some changes in the national church budget, including finally getting a small amount of money appropriated for church planting. But the church continues to cling to its fusty old antediluvian heap headquarters, often referred to as 815. And the national church continues to spend 40 percent and more of its budget on a costly and ineffectual hierarchy that bloviates about things like the nature of the Holy Eucharist in times of pandemic, when what it really needs is to bring the good news of Jesus to the world. Fewer meetings of the Pointy Hats club aka bishops, more caring for a hurting world.
My sense is that the phenomena illustrates one of the great paradigms of the Episcopal Church, which is that it is great at conflating activity with progress. The church spends thousands and thousands of person-hours a year on meetings of everything from flower guilds to annual retreats, and plenty of time on petty squabbles, bickering, and power plays. Indeed, long-time members may recall the extent of the headquarters infighting that came to light amidst the debacle of Ellen Cooke, the disgraced former treasurer of the Episcopal Church who went to jail for embezzlement, even though she was hired without any financial management experience. Yet she advanced, doubtless due in no small part to her habit of giving gifts to other church employees using her allegedly ill-gotten gains. This illustrates a painful reality for the church—all too often, there is little that reminds one of Jesus as one travels the halls of power within the church.
More when results are officially released.
Statistics for this post were derived from official church statistics, available here.