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Three types of Episcopalians?

Three types of Episcopalians?

by Benjamin Knoll


A recently-released report by the Pew Research Center details seven major “religious typologies” among Americans. Researchers discovered these typologies by using a statistical analysis of 16 different questions in a nationally representative telephone survey. These typologies include “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Relaxed Religious,” “Diversely Devout,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.”

Using survey results from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, I used the same statistical analysis to analyze different types of religious typologies* among self-described Episcopalians. Belonging to a denomination that has preserved traditional liturgies and practices while being on the forefront of social, theological, and political modernization, Episcopalians are an interesting case study. What types of worshipers would be found in this type of denomination?

The analysis revealed three primary groups of Episcopalians:


Group 1: Devout Believers

This group makes up about half of all Episcopalians (48%). They are distinguished by the certainty of their religious beliefs. Three quarters (76%) believe firmly in the existence of God with another 22% saying that they are “fairly certain.” They unanimously believe in the existence of heaven and hell. More than two thirds (71%) of Devout Believers say that the Bible is the word of God (although only 18% believe that it should be interpreted literally). About four in five of this group say that they attend church at least monthly and about half pray daily. They have mixed views on the role of religion in American society, with about half thinking that religious institutions focus too much on rules, power, or money and are too involved in politics. Demographically, they tend to earn less income than the other two groups and only one in five have a college degree. Half identify as Republicans and a third as Democrats.


Group 2: Uncertain Optimists

This second group makes up about one in five of all Episcopalians (21%). They tend to be less certain about their religious beliefs but also more optimistic about life in the church and the role of religion in society. Only half are confident that God exists, although another third say that they are “fairly certain.” Over half (63%) believe in heaven, but no one in this category believes in hell. They are also skeptical about the Bible, with a full 57% saying that it was written by man and is not the word of God. Nearly three quarters (75%) say that the Episcopal Church should adjust its beliefs and practices “in light of modern circumstances.” Despite uncertain beliefs, 96% of Uncertain Optimists say that they attend church at least monthly, and nearly half (44%) pray daily. They also tend to be positive toward religious institutions, with only a third saying that they are too involved in politics and less than half (44%) saying that they focus too much on rules. No one in this category believes that religious institutions are too concerned with money and power. Demographically, this group is more likely to be female (62%) and highly educated, with four in five having a college degree. Nearly half (45%) earn more than $100,000/year. Half of this group (52%) identifies as Democrats and a third identify as Republicans.


Group 3: Skeptical Cynics

This last group makes up a third (32%) of Episcopalians. Similar to Uncertain Optimists, they are characterized by their skepticism toward religious belief, but unlike them, this skepticism extends to religious institutions as well. Among Skeptical Cynics, a clear majority believes that religious institutions focus too much on rules (86%), are too involved with politics (73%), and too concerned with money and power (100%). They have the lowest levels of confidence in the existence of God among the three groups, with only 43% saying that they are certain and another 43% saying they are fairly certain. Four in five say they believe that the Bible is not the word of God. Less than half (47%) believe in heaven and only 5% believe in hell. At the same time, about three-quarters attend church at least monthly and 43% say they pray daily. Demographically, about two-thirds of this group has a college degree and they are slightly more likely to be GenXers than the other two groups. Nearly two-thirds (63%) identify as Democrats and only a quarter (25%) identify as Republicans.


What these groups have in common

Despite many differences, there is much that these three groups of Episcopalians have in common. They are all frequent church-goers, and they all pray and have spiritual experiences on a regular basis. About two in five of each group say that religion is “very important” to their lives. About three in five of each group tend to think of God as a person rather than an impersonal force. Most Episcopalians embrace some kind of universalist theology; very few if any of them believe that one must be Episcopalian (or even Christian) to merit eternal life. They all tend to be nuanced thinkers, with only about a third of each group believing that there are “clear and absolute standards of right and wrong.” They are about as equally likely to claim religious teachings as their primary source of ethical values (about one in five each). And they are all in strong agreement that religious institutions, despite their flaws, also can be a source for good in American society, specifically when it comes to their belief that religion can bring people together, strengthen communities, and play an important role in helping the poor and the needy.


The Episcopal Church and Millennials

There is much talk about the role of Millennials and religion in modern American society, including the increasing secularization of Millennials and the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” who no longer claim a religious affiliation. Interestingly, this analysis revealed very few differences between the three Episcopal groups based on age. Millennials tend to make up a similar proportion of the three different groups (19% of Devout Believers and Uncertain Optimists and 9% of Skeptical Cynics).

Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, Episcopalian Millennials are strong and committed. Nearly three in five (58%) are Devout Believers and another quarter (24%) are Uncertain Optimists. Only 17% are Skeptical Cynics. In other words, Millennial Episcopalians tend to strong believers and optimistic about their church.

We should exercise caution, though, in how we interpret this information. It is also likely (if not probable) that those who grew up Episcopalian but are more pessimistic about religion and more secular in their belief structures would be more likely to simply disaffiliate later in life. They would not be represented as “Episcopalians” in our survey research. Indeed, according to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, nearly 20% of those who grew up Episcopalian now identify as atheist or agnostic and another quarter identify as “nothing in particular.” A full two-thirds say that they attend church only sporadically or never. Thus, Millennial Episcopalians are more devout and optimistic because they are the ones who remained in the church (so far).



In sum, Episcopalians share much in common, including a commitment to worship and a religious life as well as a reluctance to view religion and morality in stark black and white terms. Where they differ, the chief points of disagreement center around their certainty of belief (including the existence of God, heaven, and hell), the role of God in the creation of the Bible, and how much trust they have in religious institutions. These differences tend to fall most starkly along demographic lines (specifically education and income) as well as political partisanship.

Finally, despite these differences, about two-fifths of those who are in the pews on Sunday are Devout Believers, about a quarter are Uncertain Optimists, and the other third are Skeptical Cynics. In other words, Episcopal priests are likely to see all three groups regularly represented in their congregations.


*These typologies are based on clusters of patterns in the way people described their levels of church attendance and prayer, the importance of religion in their lives, how often they feel spiritual peace and wellbeing, their belief in God, heaven, and hell, their views of salvation, the role of religion in American society, how their religious views shape their ethics, how they interpret the Bible and views on traditionalist vs. modernist belief and practice. 



Dr. Benjamin Knoll is an associate professor of political science at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. His research interests include the intersection of religion and politics in the United States. Along with Cammie Jo Bolin, he is the co-author of She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America.


Image: Procession with choir and incense from midnight Mass 2016 Christmas Eve services at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Phoenix, Arizona from Wikimedia commons


*These typologies are based on clusters of patterns in the way people described their levels of church attendance and prayer, the importance of religion in their lives, how often they feel spiritual peace and wellbeing, their belief in God, heaven, and hell, their views of salvation, the role of religion in American society, how their religious views shape their ethics, how they interpret the Bible and views on traditionalist vs. m


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David Nicholson

I’m a red door, Rite 1, High Church Conservative who was born into the Church seventy three years ago. While I fit more closely with Group 1, I have a love/hate relationship with the Episcopal Church that has existed off and on for the past twenty years. I’ve watched three outstanding Priests retire only to be replaced by Social Justice Warriors who want to tell be I have too much and I’m not doing enough with what I have.

Gregory Orloff

You’d have a host of problems with Ambrose of Milan, Basil of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, and plenty of other saints too, then. Not to mention Christ Jesus…

David Carver

20-something Uncertain Optimist here 🙂 I’ll be one of my parish’s delegates to the upcoming diocesan convention, and I’m really excited. I love the Church.

Sarah Price

I’d love some more information from the author on the methodology for this analysis. What was the sub-sample size and demographic composition of Episcopalians in the original PEW data from which this sub-analysis was drawn? While the original survey was designed to be population representative, it wasn’t necessarily denominationally representative so I’m curious as to who the Episcopalians are who are in the sample. The results seem to suggest findings infer to all Episcopalians but it would be very helpful to have a stronger understanding of the method as it relates to the sub-sample so that we’re having an informed conversation. Thank you!

Benjamin Knoll

Hi Sarah:

The various demographic and religious characteristics of the nearly 500 Episcopalians included in the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey are here:

I also used the same methodological approach that Pew used in their Religious Typology report. Essentially, the analysis looks at answers to several different survey questions and tries to find “clusters” of individuals who tended to answer the questions in similar ways. Of course not everyone fits each cluster perfectly, but these three groups were the dominant clusters that emerged from the way that the Episcopalians in the Pew survey answered the various questions related to their religious beliefs and practice. All the details about the process are available here:

Genie Rayner

I am a 65-year-old progressive ‘cradle’ Episcopalian with 6 years of theological training who hasn’t been to church in almost 10 years, except for a couple of funerals and two church-shopping tries. There’s no category for those of us who will always identify as Episcopalian but can’t find or feel comfortable in the right church home. I was very active for over 20 years, but I think I must’ve burned out – though never theologically – and had to stop going. Several moves didn’t help. Luckily I’m in a diocese that’s small enough that I can keep up with most of the important functioning, decisions, and news to feel somewhat connected. My cremains will be buried in and from the Episcopal Church – in my view, no other denomination does funerals better – but I hope I can find a good fit with a parish community before then. Surely I’m not the only lapsed Episcopalian out there who wants to go ‘home.’


Curious what percentage of the respondents were in each age demographic? (mill., genx, boomer, etc.) Also wondering how you determine that each congregation will have the same breakdown of the three categories?

[Last name, please, Margaret. – eds.]

Margaret Will

Per question: last name Will. I don’t seem to be able to edit the profile.

Margaret Will

Margaret Will

Benjamin Knoll

Great question.

Among Group 1 (devout believers): 19% Millennial, 23% GenX, 46% Boomer, 12% Silent.

Among Group 2 (uncertain optimists): 19% Millennial, 22% GenX, 37% Boomer, 19% Silent.

Among Group 3 (skeptical cynics): 9% Millennial, 29% GenX, 41% Boomer, 21% Silent.

Looking at it another way:

Among Millennials: 58% group 1, 24% group 2, 17% group 3.

Among GenX: 45% group 1, 19% group 2, 36% group 3.

Among Boomers: 51% group 1, 18% group 2, 31% group 3.

Among Silent: 34% group 1, 25% group 2, 41% group 3.

As to the other question, each congregation will of course have a different balance depending on the region and demographics of the parish.

Thanks for the questions!

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