The Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA, is not officially part of the Anglican Communion. Yet its success, including membership in 2021 of 122,450, can tell us a great deal about why the Episcopal Church (TEC) is failing.
To be clear, even with net growth, some parts of ACNA are shedding members. Areas of decline include those dioceses that were originally Episcopal. In those dioceses, we need more data to reach definitive conclusions. However, protracted litigation and decline before disaffiliation seem to be critical factors. In the case of declining dioceses, the downward momentum seems challenging to arrest.
Relatedly, ongoing schisms within ACNA, hardly surprising given the denomination’s history, have resulted in the departure of two Nigerian-based dioceses. With these dioceses included in the total, ACNA membership has declined over the past two years.
Yet when we look at the remaining ACNA dioceses, they grew slightly, even during the pandemic.
It’s difficult to obtain empirical data to explain ACNA growth versus TEC decline, but several factors and trends emerge:
- ACNA members care. When we look at Average Sunday Attendance or ASA, 65 percent of ACNA members are in the pews on any given Sunday. That stands in sharp contrast to TEC, where only about 40 percent of members actively attend church. Moreover, TEC’s attendance has been dropping sharply for many years, with a 2-3 percent annual decline.
- ACNA plants churches. To be sure, many ACNA church plants appear to decline after the initial enthusiasm wanes. But the denomination makes an effort.
- ACNA websites are fresh and vibrant. Most Episcopal churches treat their websites as an afterthought, with little attention to user experience, best practices, or interactivity. Meanwhile, ACNA websites project enthusiasm and newness.
- ACNA engages with African-Americans. Despite the departure of the Nigerian dioceses, ACNA is less God’s “frozen chosen” than TEC regarding race. Enough said.
- ACNA takes clergy ethics issues more seriously. Granted, the uproar over #ACNAtoo illustrates profound shortcomings in ACNA. But the denomination at least recognizes spiritual abuse, which is not something even on the radar in TEC.
- ACNA acknowledges the need to grow leaders. That contrasts sharply with TEC, which in our experience, often passionately resists change and younger leaders.
In short, ACNA has decided to grow. But, on the other hand, TEC still doesn’t understand that it has two paths forward: Growth or death.
Meanwhile, the old line about insanity remains true. It isn’t very reasonable for TEC to do the same thing repeatedly, perhaps with incremental tweaks, and expect a different result. Nor can the church cut its budgets and programs indefinitely and expect growth.
We also note that none of these changes needed for TEC to grow are, or should be, difficult. Most involve nothing more than changing the attitudes of church members and leaders.
We’ve said it many times before, and we will repeat it: Now is the time for church leaders to lead. There is still time. But the church has to take its decline seriously and stop fooling around with empty Jesus babble.
Let us be clear: Absent significant changes, the death of the Episcopal Church is at hand.