Is The Episcopal Church Down for the Count?

The way some evangelicals gleefully portray the decline of members in The Episcopal Church can lead others to think that the national church is about to close up shop, is down for the count, waiting for the ringing of the bell to disclose her loss. I have heard these gleeful shouts from some pulpits of conservative Southern Baptists over the last two decades: "The Episcopal Church lost a million members; and this is what happens when 'liberalism' (however defined by our detractors) consumes a denomination."

Ironic, though, how Southern Baptists have lost a million members within the last decade. If we were snarky, and we're not called by Christ to be snarky, we might suggest that this is what happens when "conservativism" (however defined by detractors) consumes a denomination. That is not fair. Reports suggest that some have left conservative churches, some even joining with mainline ("liberal") denominations, because of the 81% of evangelicals who supported Trump for president. But perhaps decline in American churches is more complex than blaming politics or conservative/liberal theological tenets.

Over the last, say, thirty years, the truth is that The Episcopal Church did lose a million members, as many of those members were conservatives who decided, nearly a decade ago, to form their own Anglican movement (ACNA: the Anglican Church in North America). There were a few dividing issues that led to the split; but the primary issue centered around full inclusion of LGBTQ members as legitimate children of God, deserving of full participation in the priesthood, and an affirmation of same-gendered marriage. "Conservatives" considered these actions to be "a promotion of sin." "Liberals" considered these actions to be merely commensurate with the Christian narrative as outlined by Christ. There is no Anglican-cherished via media ("middle way") approach to this subject. One either affirms or does not affirm full inclusion of LGBTQ people.

Does the exodus of conservative Anglicans signal defeat for The Episcopal Church? I think the answer is no. In his book, My Church is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century, Greg Garrett, who is 2013 Baylor Centennial Professor at Baylor University and a proud Episcopalian, underscores the fact that, yes, we may be experiencing a crisis in the church. Most churches in America are witnessing decline. However, he notes, "what I heard over and over from people in the research and writing of this book is that a crisis can actually be a good and necessary thing."1 Note that, when Jesus' ministry experienced a decline in numbers (John 6:66), He did not panic and wonder what that means for His ministry. Nor did He attempt to "win them back." He let them go without protest.

HOW SOME PORTRAY THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH

Garrett continues: "Often, it's not until things fall apart, in times when we must change or die, that we are able to do what we ought to have been doing long ago. And that seems to be the situation for the Episcopal Church as well. The crisis of the past decades became an opportunity to change, to grow, as well as to continue bringing the world some things it desperately needs."2 Standing for significant issues, like women in unlimited leadership and full inclusion of LGBTQ people in all aspects of The Episcopal Church and its function and ministry, may have cost us a million members. But, when standing up for righteousness (for the marginalized and the oppressed), there will always be a cost.

Also, consider that our perspective is entirely skewed if we perceive of growth merely by counting noses, when we should rather be focused on growing spiritually. Garrett reminds us that Episcopalians have always been small in number in this country.3 I want to remind us that Jesus' command to us is to make disciples (Matt. 28:19), not merely converts to an idea or a movement, and "making disciples" takes time, concentrated effort, with attention on the person and not the number of persons who fill a sanctuary.

REALITY FOR THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH

Regardless of national decline in The Episcopal Church -- which has become a reality for nearly all Christian churches in America (so we are not alone) -- there are pockets of growth (in numbers). My own small parish experienced a 25% increase last year in membership. Garrett states that his diocese in Austin, Texas, as well as others, added members,4 and asks about the appeal of The Episcopal Church to these newcomers.

Besides being inclusive of women and LGBTQ persons in ministry, Garrett lists the beauty of the worship in The Episcopal Church as a contributing factor to its appeal for many, beauty that is instrumentally guided by the Book of Common Prayer.5 The Book of Common Prayer was the catalyst that drew me into Anglicanism and membership in The Episcopal Church. I agree with Anglican-Arminian John Wesley, regarding the Book of Common Prayer, who states: "I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England." The prayers we pray turn my spiritual gaze to the beauty of a God who loves me immensely, self-sacrificially, from eternity past.

No, The Episcopal Church is not down for the count, but is prime for focusing its attention on communicating the goodness, the greatness, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ to a world starving for His righteousness (rightness), His justice, His felt-presence in the here and now in and through God's people: the Church. As long as God still loves the Church of Christ Jesus, and longs to continue conforming her to the image and likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29), then we in The Episcopal Church will thrive -- even if our numbers decrease.

Our pride and boast and confidence is in Jesus and not in numbers of people. "Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God." (Ps. 20:7) Or, stated another way, Some take pride in church stadiums, and in large numbers they draw, but our pride and confidence is in the Name of the Lord our God.

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1 Greg Garrett, My Church is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), 3.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 8, 11.

4 Ibid., 7.

5 Ibid., 10-11.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.