On the imminent demise of the Episcopal Church…

I hate it when the wrecking ball arrives just as I’m settling into a new home.

A little over a year ago, my wife and I joined the Episcopal Church. We were confirmed on a Saturday. Our daughter was baptized the following day, Pentecost Sunday.

Last week, Episcopalians wrapped up their triennial convention, and the big story was our denomination’s impending demise.

Over the last three years, nearly 200,000 people have fled the Episcopal Church. The long-term picture is even more depressing. One in four regular worshippers have disappeared from our pews during the past decade.

You can feel it in our more-than-half-empty churches. If this pace continues (and it probably will), in 20 years the Episcopal Church will be half its already-diminished size.

Episcopalianism has been a part of this country for over 400 years. At this rate, we won’t make it another 400. We won’t even come close.

Enter conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who blames the decline on the extreme liberalism he sees in mainline denominations like mine. In a recent New York Times editorial, he asked whether “liberal Christianity can be saved.”

Despite some of the reaction to his piece, I think Douthat asks some important questions. His article  was thought-provoking and nuanced. We should listen, for example, when he urges liberal Christians to come out of their denial:

Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.

Yet Douthat sees no cause for celebration in the demise of liberal Christianity. He warns conservatives — many of whom left denominations like mine years ago — against triumphalism:

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.

Douthat encourages liberal Christians to remember why they exist in the first place — and what sets them apart from their secular counterparts. He laments that most “leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

There are days when I worry about that too. In my tradition, we’ve devoted plenty of time and energy to the ways in which Christianity needs to evolve. But at the end of the day, is there anything left of “historic Christianity” which, to quote Douthat again, we would “defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”?

I think it’s a valid question.

I believe that historic, orthodox Christianity offers a compelling foundation for many of the “progressive” causes taken up by my denomination (and many other Christians as well). But is our engagement consciously rooted in the reality of the resurrected Christ and his kingdom? Would anyone even know if it was?

For example, are we advocating for the Millennium Development Goals (a subject on which our Presiding Bishop has spoken eloquently a number of times) simply because it’s the cause du jour of the industrialized world? Or is it because the resurrected Christ compels us to labor so that everyone can experience life “to the full” now and in the future?

Are we demanding diversity and equality outside the church only? Or do we also practice it in our churches, acting from the conviction that God is making a new, worldwide family — one where the old barriers are rendered meaningless?

Are we just welcoming gays and lesbians into our congregations, or are we also inviting them (and everyone else, for that matter) to make Christ the center of their lives?

These are questions we ought to be asking as we take stock of our diminishment. If what we have to offer the world is indistinguishable from secular liberalism — if it is not at its core a vibrant, Christ-centered faith that compels us to embrace causes like caring for the poor and the planet — then, well, who needs us?

Or as the apostle Paul put it once, if the tomb is not empty, then what’s the point?

That being said, I think there were a few other factors which Douthat didn’t address. (To be fair, Douthat only had about 800 words to work with). Here are some other lessons I think we should take from the Episcopal Church’s decline.

1. All Christians, liberal and conservative, are in the same boat.

Last week, Gallup revealed that public confidence in organized religion has reached an all-time low. Just 4 in 10 Americans have much faith in the church, down from 60 percent as recently as September 2001.

It’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. We may have been hit with it first, but now others are joining the party. The Southern Baptist Convention, a stalwart of evangelical conservatism, has been declining five years in a row. Their rate of decline increased more than 600 percent from 2009 to 2011. (In fairness, they still have a long way to go before they catch up to us.)

Pundits will offer competing theories to explain Christianity’s decline in the West. Whatever you make of it, though, it’s no longer confined to one ideological corner of the church.

2. You can’t have it both ways.

It’s fascinating to hear some Christians interpret the mainline church’s decline as proof of God’s disapproval. Mark Driscoll, for example, is fond of comparing the growth rate at his church with that of other groups with whom he disagrees.

There are, of course, a couple problems with this approach. First, if numbers are the clearest sign of God’s (dis)approval, then we should all drop what we’re doing and start imitating Joel Osteen. (Mark, you’re gonna need a new hairdo.)

Second, let’s be honest. Most of us only apply this logic when it works in our favor. How many Southern Baptists would countenance the notion that their decline is punishment for some doctrinal error or apostasy? When it’s some other group who’s hurting, we tend to assume it’s because they’ve lost their way. Yet when we’re the ones facing decline, either we go into denial (it’s just a fluke!) or we nurse a martyrdom complex (being right has a cost!), as Douthat rightly points out.

Speaking of martyrdom complexes…

3. Sometimes the right course is the unpopular one.

Within two years of ordaining its first openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church lost 115,000 members. No one questions why they left. And the debate over that decision is a long way from being resolved.

But when was the last time Episcopalians experienced a comparable exodus? 1967 to 1969.

During that two-year period, the church lost an almost identical number of people — in part because it started speaking out against racial discrimination.

Was the fallout from that decision a sign of God’s displeasure? Was the Episcopal Church capitulating to culture, or was it leading prophetically? (Bear in mind it would be another 25 years before Southern Baptists apologized for their support of slavery and segregation.)

Doing the right thing is no guarantee of success. Nor are skyrocketing numbers always proof you’re doing the right thing.

4. Maybe all our fighting is driving people away.

There’s no question many have left the Episcopal Church because of the national body’s more controversial decisions in recent years. Heck, we’ve lost entire dioceses. So in one sense, the commentators are right. This fight is costing us.

But that’s the point. What if it’s the fight (more than the underlying issues) that’s turning people away?

Most people who’ve left the Episcopal Church have done so because their conscience compels them — not because they’re hateful or mean-spiritied. But in the process, both sides have engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight — including, among other things, taking each other to court. (Didn’t Paul have something to say about that?) I haven’t followed every sordid detail, but it seems likely to me that both sides have escalated this fight in ways it didn’t need to be escalated.

So what if it’s not just the Episcopal Church (or the congregations who’ve left) that people are staying away from, but Christianity as a whole?

Today, most outsiders define the church according to its worst characteristics: anti-gay (91% say this), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and too political (75%). Meanwhile, most major denominations are experiencing (or are about to experience) some form of decline.

Is it possible these two facts are related?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that how we — and I mean all of us, liberal and conservative — handle conflict is driving people away.



14 thoughts on “On the imminent demise of the Episcopal Church…

  1. I don’t know if you saw a comment I left on Evans blog, but the gist of it was – previously unchurched people were surveyed and asked “why are you now in a church?” (That’s a different audience than people who aren’t in a church and might never be no matter what, you recognize.) Around 90%! of people credited the doctrine and preaching of the churches they joined.

    So, why is Mark Driscoll’s church thriving? I’d guess hour long sermons by a good speaker are a big part of it. Our culture is done with fluffy cultural religion, and they are not going to show up at a church to hear two sentences of scripture followed by a 5 minute personal anecdote about how we should be nice to each other. (And in fact, I find those sermons a lot more tedious than the meaty 45-minute monsters I’m blessed to hear now.) I think the end of cultural religion is probably a good thing.

    As to the future – there is no secret recipe, but I think many churches could help themselves and their future congregants greatly if they really dived into the text every week and squeezed everything they could from it. And it’s well known that this is more likely to happen at a conservative church that thinks every word on the page is trustworthy and from God’s mouth. How much of the comparative liberal antipathy to scripture is accidental, and how much is necessary, you could answer better than I.

    ~David Shane


    1. A few thoughts.

      I agree that many people (myself included) are hungry for a more substantive Sunday morning experience. I don’t doubt that’s part of Driscoll’s appeal. (Though when I listen to his sermons, I’m reminded that “long” doesn’t necessarily equate “substantive.”) In any case, our generation is tired of fluffy, consumer-oriented Christianity. And for good reason, too.

      I also agree with you that diving more deeply into the text is something churches should do more of… not just so they can grow, but because it’s a good thing to do. But I don’t accept the premise that this is automatically more likely to happen in a conservative church – at least not in a way that’s going to do people much good. I would contend that we engage more of the Bible in my Episcopalian church each week than most evangelical churches do in a month.

      “Liberal antipathy to scripture,” is a loaded phrase, don’t you think? Most liberal or progressive Christians I know are not antipathetic toward scripture; that’s a perception imposed on them by conservatives. What they are antipathetic to is a certain approach toward scripture, one we argue doesn’t properly honor the Bible for what it is.


  2. As someone observing from the UK side of the pond I wanted to make a couple of points.

    1. @longerthoughts. You seem to have missed Ben’s point that successful doesn’t meant right – and uses Joel Osteen’s church as an example. Just because something is big, it doesn’t mean God is blessing it – that is folk religion at its worst.

    2. @ben – what about the issue of catholicity? If the TEC accepts the principles of episcopal authority and apostolic succession, is there a danger of acting so alone. Looking at the council of Whitby in 663/664 the British church decided to accept the authority of the wider church as opposed to their own convictions. Not making a definitive statement, but just wondering how episcopal ecclesiology fits into things in the US.


    1. Ian, my guess is that many Episcopalians are rather ambivalent about episcopal(!) ecclesiology, when pressed. This is, after all, ‘Murica, land of the free and home of the “I’m gonna do things my way.”

      Having spent my youth in mostly independent churches, I’ve grown to appreciate the value of catholicity. (I’ve seen what happens without it.) So yes…I do think there is danger in acting alone. But isn’t it fair to say we Anglicans don’t have a clear sense of what apostolic authority means for us as compared to, say, the Catholic Church? I mean, we don’t have a pope who can act as final arbiter of disputes. It seems have a figurehead (more or less) who can summon people to meetings. Of course, there’s the Anglican Covenant… which even the Church of England rejected. I’ll say this: I don’t envy the Archbishop’s job, which job must feel at times like herding cats.

      So the questions I have are: where does apostolic authority reside within the Anglican Communion, and how far does it go? Also, what are Episcopalians (and Canadian Anglicans, for that matter) to do when, after 30 years of deliberation, they’ve arrived at the conviction (despite opposition from other faithful Anglicans) that the inclusion of gays and lesbians is a matter of biblical compassion and justice?


      1. Hi Ben.

        I see the catholicity as going beyond just the Anglican communion – which is really an artificial construct anyway.

        The catholic church have more than the Pope – they have the Magisterium, the Holy Spirit speaking through collective wisdom of those in the Apostolic succession – of which the office of the Bishop of Rome is the visible expression. They also recognise the validity and authority of those in the succession in the Eastern churches, although some differences still apply.

        The problem is that arguing for apostolic succession is bigger than the conscience of individuals or even individual collections of Bishops (or Synods), and that whilst there is a prophetic imperative (of which the issue of sexuality may be an example) it is important to hold these things lightly and with grace and humility. It is a difficult thing.

        The other danger is that by acting alone the principle of episcopality (is that a word – I don’t think it is!) is sacrificed resulting in just another protestant sect – something that Anglicanism is not supposed to be.


      2. So…the question is how do balance the need to work within the establishment with the prophetic imperative to challenge the establishment? (Seems to me this is something God’s people have done with gusto, going all the way back to Jesus and the prophets.)

        Also, what happens when apostolic authority is corrupted with time? I believe in apostolic succession. I believe it’s taught by the NT (and explicitly affirmed by Jesus, no less, in Matthew 18 when he gave the apostles authority to “bind and loose”). But what impact has 2000 years of institutionalization had on apostolic authority? What happens, for example, when Catholic apostles use their institutional authority to cover up a priest sex abuse scandal (as the Vatican has been accused of doing)? How do you tear down the detritus that, arguably, has accumulated around the institution of apostolic authority without destroying the thing itself?

        Put another way, how do we use catholicity to keep the church from fragmenting even further, while making sure it doesn’t become the very thing that causes the church to implode?


    2. No, I didn’t miss the point that popular doesn’t equal right. I’ve said before, actually, that while liberal churches may be struggling, liberal *ideas* are often actually quite popular. (In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons liberal churches sometimes marvel at their situation.) That’s why I focused of the style of Driscoll’s church and not his Calvinism or something.


      1. Ben (I think we’ve reached the nested reply limit!)

        I think I would argue that actions by Bishops do not equal apostolic authority. Regarding abuse – the sin on the part of the Church (as opposed to the horrific crimes committed by individuals – the proportion of which was roughly equivalent to perpetrators in te respective societies at large) was in individual Bishops covering up those crimes, moving priests about etc. This was generally done out of some profound level of misunderstanding of the nature of abusers, and probably to avoid scandal etc. Within the wider society similar actions were done within state children’s care, but was dealt with much earlier (in the 1980s) and didn’t have the shock factor that comes with betrayal.

        All of that to say that sinful actions by the church do not negate the work of the Holy Spirit through the episcopal structure.

        It often means a discipline of submission to the authority of the Church, even when one may disagree and believe the Church to be wrong – although a clause of conscience also exists when it comes to ones individual actions as a lay person. This could be seen as a lay equivalent of the vow of obedience taken by Religious.

        This isn’t to negate the necessity of prophetic agitation (Dorothy Day is one of my heroines, for example!), but that it needs to be held in creative tension with the disciplines given by God through the Church.

        I guess this probably makes me considerably high up the candle than you!!!!


      2. Yes, but one of those bishops accused of shielding perpetrators is now the pope. His predecessor, John Paul II, has been accused of foot-dragging at best and active cover-up at worst during his tenure. Without judging the merits of these accusations, it begs the questions: what should be done when the highest, most apostolic (are there degrees of apostolicism? now I’m making up words) authority errs? Can the Holy Spirit still work through them? Who holds them accountable?

        Even Peter, the first head of the church, was not above confrontation by a lesser apostle. As I see it, Paul didn’t just confront Peter; he publicly humiliated him (Galatians 2).

        So how serious does the error have to be before discipline of submission must give way to higher concerns? (I know that’s such a typically American question for me to ask. Individual conscience!)

        Oh, and best be careful about the whole Dorothy Day thing. You might wind up on Glenn Beck’s Conspiratron 2000 Chalkboard.


  3. I think shielding is too emotive a word for the allegation (I assume you are talking about Fr Lawrence Murphy). It appears there was probably inaction or delay by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (disciplinary division), but no evidence that the priest was shielded, or that Ratzinger was in any way directly involved.

    But the more important issue is that this isn’t about any individual bishop, whether that is the Presiding Bishop of TEC, Archbishop of Canterbury or the Bishop of Rome. It is about the grand sweep of consensus that sees and eventually corrects errors through the guidance of God. The Pope cannot act without the Magisterium – and the pronouncements of the Church require the acknowledgement of the Pope. It is when this is corrupted – for political ends, weakness or other sinful motives – that error happens that then later needs correcting. However, I view this from afar as a member of the Church of England – recognising the importance of the See of Rome but not willing (as yet!) to swim the Tiber. There are many things that my own conscience is at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church and I have not yet reconciled this.

    I would draw a distinction between institutional and individual conscience. There are many things upon which personal conscience plays an important part and the drive of individuals to challenge the status quo is an important aspect of the way God works. However, for a collection of Bishops to act outside of the consensus of the Church is a much bigger step. It may be necessary, and the issue of sexuality may well be such an area, but it should be done carefully, with humility and with fear and trembling.

    I hope that makes sense!!!!


    1. I wasn’t thinking of any priest in particular, but of the 3,000+ who were referred to the disciplinary division on allegations of sexual abuse (only a fifth of whom were ever put on trial).

      It’s interesting to have this conversation within an Anglican perspective because we accept apostolic authority, yet we owe our existence to the fact that a collection of bishops (namely, Henry VII, who appointed himself supreme head of the Church of England) acted outside the consensus of the Church. I agree it’s a big step, and not one to be taken lightly. And I, for one, hope my Episcopal Church doesn’t thumb its nose at the rest of the Anglican Communion in the process of reassessing some things which, in my view, ought to be reassessed.

      So I guess in a roundabout way we’re saying the same thing: this should be done carefully, with humility and fear and trembling.


  4. Ben,
    I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 2000 because my husband grew up Episcopalian. I found the marriage ceremony to be so much richer and deeper than those we grew up with at First Baptist. The Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy are so beautiful. I saw many people just rotely reciting each week, but as an outsider, It was so meaningful and gave me a fresh way to worship God.


  5. I read your post and comments with a very painful vested interest. I am struck by the reflected education of all, a group to which I belong. Two degrees from Indiana University enabling me to be a secular priest, aka psychotherapist for 30 years.

    I am liberal to the core, thus supporting the theological thrust in recent years. More recently, this became personal for me. My beloved daughter came out to me two years ago. 

    All this said, from my vantage point, the bane of TEC is the lack of humility and integrity of a substantial number of the clergy. Yes, this is a sweeping indictment. Two years ago, I would have dismissed some unknown person “out on the Internet” making such an allegation with the catch all, “disgruntled”, label. 

    Episcopalians like me get tossed aside or leave, individually or families, when they become a perceived menace or rival by unscrupulous clergy. Most do not know about Title IV and simply move on. If they do, and seek accountability, they will run into a kafkaesque  meat grinder. 

    No one that I know of has taken a serious study of the modern day culture of Episcopal clergy. TEC has managed to keep just below the threshold that would be a catalyst to turn a microscope on its virtually impenetrable interlocking clergy networks fostered to protect each other. 

    Yes, there is a path to stemming the demise of TEC. It entails laity being much less differential to clergy. After all, it is the laity who pays the bills. It would entail the laity forming an independent commission to take a very serious study of clergy abuse of power. 

    Yes, this is a shot across the bow of Episcopalian intellectualized nicey nice.


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