In a sobering report released this week, the data from the 2019 parochial reports (submitted annually by each parish church, and which include data on average attendance and giving) paint a picture of a continued steady decline. From Episcopal News Service:
The decline is, of course, nothing new. The Episcopal Church has seen declining membership, to varying degrees, since the 1960s, when it counted 3.4 million members. As of 2019, it had about 1.8 million. Membership is down 17.4% over the last 10 years.
After some fluctuation – including a period of stagnation and minor growth in the early 2000s –the statistics seem to have settled into a trajectory of steady, gradual decline.
“The trends are continuing,” said the Rev. Tom Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandwich, Massachusetts, who has blogged extensively about the church’s decline. “It does seem, at least from this data, to maybe have slowed down a bit, but we have no idea whether that’s a blip or whether that’s a trend.”
Across the church, the declines in average Sunday worship attendance have slowed slightly over the past few years, but a decline is still a decline, Zscheile says.
“This most recent report shows a slight moderation of the trend of decline in the past year, but overall the trajectory is clear,” he told ENS. “The Episcopal Church has lost a quarter of its worship attendees over the past decade.”
Across the church, year over year, the decline in active members was essentially unchanged at 2.29%. However, Sunday attendance did show some signs of slight improvement. Sunday attendance fell 2.55% from 2018 to 2019, compared to 4.5% from 2017 to 2018. And the percentage of churches that saw an increase in Sunday attendance year-over-year shot up from 24% to 32%, while the share of churches that had a decrease fell from 53% to 49%.
However, there are also signs of a trend toward disparity in the church when it comes to attendance, with more churches at either end of the spectrum and fewer in the middle. In 2018, 14% of churches saw at least 10% growth in Sunday attendance over the preceding five years, while 59% had lost at least 10%. For 2019, that gap widened to 15% versus 61%.
“It would be my hunch that the healthier churches are getting healthier and the unhealthier churches are getting unhealthier,” Ferguson said.
However, the news is not all bad, as giving has trended upward in recent years.
The ENS article adds that the 2020 version of the parochial report will count the “Average Sunday Attendance” statistic only from January 1 – March 1, to account for the pandemic’s effect on in-person worship attendance. It will also include a narrative section where parishes will be able to describe their “opportunities, innovations, and challenges.”
The full results of the 2019 parochial reports are available on the General Convention website.