by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
My very first experience with The Episcopal Church (TEC) was on a youth group mission trip to Huntsville, Alabama. We were with a group called World Changers, which was an evangelical organization that helped organize free labor from young people for individuals who did not have the ability to pay for home repairs. Some groups were tasked with painting, others were focused on cleaning up yard debris, while my group put a new roof on a house in the Alabama heat. For reasons I can’t fully recall, our youth group was going to be in Alabama on a Sunday morning and the organizers at World Changers had decided that the teenagers from First Baptist of Salem, Illinois would visit the local Episcopal congregation.
I have to admit – I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I was raised in a very low church fashion in a Southern Baptist Church. No vestments, no stoles, no creeds, and no communion each Sunday. I remember sitting in the pews and thinking how different it was, and coming to the realization that I didn’t know about any faith tradition outside my own.
I have a lot of affinity for Episcopalians. In fact, my American Baptist Church has latched on to many aspects of the liturgy followed in TEC. We say the creed each Sunday, we read the lectionary, we recite the Lord’s Prayer, and we sing the Doxology and the Gloria Patria. I like the rituals that can be found in TEC.
What I also enjoy is that the Episcopalians are really good at data collection. There’s no denomination that compares to how meticulous they are in collecting annual statistics and making them publicly available. That makes it very easy for me to write a post about what’s going on with Episcopalians. I wrote one such post last year entitled, “The Death of the Episcopal Church is Near.” It has easily become the most popular article on this website over the past twelve months.
I now have data from 2020 and my conclusion hasn’t changed. The Episcopal Church is in serious trouble. Some of it may be pandemic related, but some of it is clearly not. The end is coming fairly rapidly for the TEC as it exists today. Let me explain.
In 2009, about 725,000 Episcopalians were classified as weekly attenders. That has declined every single year since then, usually by two or three percentage points. By 2016, the number of regular attending Episcopalians had dropped to about 600,000. Before the pandemic hit, regular attendance had leveled off around 550,000. But, then COVID-19 shut down churches all across the United States. It hit TEC hard. Average attendance dropped by about sixty thousand between 2019 and 2020 – a dip of nearly twelve percent in a single year. Or said another way, church attendance in The Episcopal Church dropped by a third between 2009 and 2020.
Alongside a decline in attendance, there was also a noticeable reduction in “plate and pledge” totals between 2019 and 2020. It’s important to note that it’s fairly modest at about sixty million dollars (or 4.4%). The amount of money in the plate and pledge totals was essentially the same in 2014 as it was in 2020. But that $1.3 billion in 2014, adjusted for inflation, would be about $1.42 billion today. Thus, donations are not keeping pace and are noticeably slowing down.
However, when the total plate and pledge is divided by the number of actual weekly members reported by The Episcopal Church, a different trend is revealed. In 2014, the average giving per weekly attender was just over $2000. In 2020, that had risen significantly to $2,676. It’s hard to parse why this is the case because it could be due to several factors. One could be that while attendance dipped because of the COVID-19 lockdowns, many faithful members still gave their tithes and offerings online. Another is that those who are left in the pews are the ones most committed to the cause and thus the most likely to make the biggest donations. Regardless of the reason, overall the financial picture of TEC is relatively healthy.
However, when I drilled down on some other key metrics related to the activities of a typical denomination, there were plenty of warning signs. TEC collects data on baptisms, burials, confirmations, and marriages that occur in their parishes throughout the United States. I tracked those changes from 2013 through 2020 and the overall trend is clearly alarming.
In 2013, Episcopalian dioceses conducted nearly 33,000 baptisms. In 2020, that had dropped below 9,000. Now, it’s logical to assume that a good deal of that drop could be tied to the fact that many Episcopal churches were not meeting regularly during 2020. However, there were already clear warning signs before the coronavirus was discovered. In 2019, there were only 17,713 baptisms. That means that baptisms had declined by nearly fifty percent before COVID-19 shut down American society. Just for reference, in 1990, TEC did nearly 57,000 baptisms. That’s eight thousand more than occurred in 2018, 2019 and 2020 combined.
In 2013, there were just over 22,000 confirmations. In 2020, that number was a paltry 3,710. Again, COVID-19 probably made it difficult, if not impossible, to hold the necessary confirmation classes, but that doesn’t explain the fact that in 2019 there were 15,594 confirmations. Confirmation numbers had already dropped thirty percent prior to COVID-19.
In terms of weddings, there were over ten thousand conducted nationwide annually in TEC through 2014. But from that point forward, the number of ceremonies dropped by about seven hundred a year between 2015 and 2019. Between 2019 and 2020 the number of weddings dropped from 6,148 to 3,839. Just for comparison’s sake, in 1980 Episcopalians conducted nearly 39,000 wedding ceremonies. They did 33,000 fewer weddings in 2019.
Finally, burials have also trended downward in recent years. There were nearly 30,000 conducted in 2013. That number had slipped to 26,667 in 2019 and there were only 18,739 in 2020. Consider this grim fact: beginning in 2017 Episcopalians were conducting more burials than baptisms. In 2019, there were more burial services than there were baptisms and weddings combined.
Those are obviously some very ominous signs of a grim future for those affiliated with The Episcopal Church. But, from a pure academic perspective, the data team at TEC is providing an incredibly valuable service to the academic community. It’s highly likely that the denomination will be releasing statistics on these types of activities for the next few years, which will let us know just how much of an aberration the numbers were in 2020 and 2021. We can answer questions like: will religious activity rebound to 2019 levels in 2022? And, which types of behaviors will come back the fastest or the slowest?
However, being able to answer these academic questions is cold comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Episcopalians who are trying their best to keep their church alive and vital in a post-pandemic America. The numbers look bleak, but the death of the Episcopal Church or any other religious organization is not a foregone conclusion.