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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dying yet, behold! We live!

The church is dying!

This has become the lament of The Episcopal Church.

Indeed, it is the lament of many church across denominational lines.

Even some Roman Catholic Churches are closing, although even half their rates 'low attendance' would constitute a ‘vital congregation’ in most of the other mainline Protestant denominations.

Part of it is true.

Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) is down, over all. That is due to the complicated and complex nature of this time of transition and uncertainty in our culture.

As Robert Putnam in his book, ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capitol’, testifies, the nature of organizational membership across the cultural divide, has radically changed. He uses the decline of Bowling Leagues as a metaphor for this cultural phenomenon.

Putnam looks at the decline of what he calls ‘social capitol’ in America since 1950, and discusses the ways in which Americans have disengaged from political involvement including decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, serving on committees and working with political parties.

He cites Americans’ growing distrust of their government and accepts the possibility that this lack of trust is not without warrant.

It is an interesting if not painfully ironic parallel to church attendance that, in his metaphor of ‘bowling alone’, although the number of people who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people that bowl in leagues has decreased. Since people bowl alone, says Putnam, they do not participate in social interaction and civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.

I suspect that a growing number of people would identify themselves as ‘deeply spiritual’ who would never associate themselves with ‘organized religion.’

Therein lies the painful rub between what is happening in our culture and what is happening in our church.

All that being said, I want to address my self specifically to the lament which seems to be the loudest from conservative, fundamental, orthodox and neo-Puritan Episcopalians who lament the “serious decline” in ASA and church membership statistics, which gets trotted out like the proverbial ‘perp walk’ when a serial rapist or other criminal type has been apprehended.

As you might assume, it is always the “fault” of the “reasserters” (Lord, have mercy but I do deeply resent that term) as opposed to the “reappraisers” (Okay, I’ve already told you what I think about Dr. Kendall Harmon’s Lexicon of the Right Wing).

For those of you who are blissfully unaware, ‘reasserters’ is the term Kendall and Company use for those of us who are on the conservative, fundamental, evangelical, and (I know Kendall hates this term but it does apply to some in his ranks) neo-Puritan or Right side of the church aisle. The term ‘reappraiser’ is used to describe those who are liberal, progressive and otherwise on the Left side of the church aisle.

Anyway you look at it, it’s a set up for a rhetorical argument that has little to do with faith-based reality or faith or spirituality or anything having much to do with any one’s personal experience of God or Christ Jesus or the Holy Spirit in the institutional church.

At first, I decide that I would research the specific parochial reports of specific, ‘notorious’ ‘reasserters’ and ‘reappraisers’ and their congregations in The Episcopal Church (TEC).

I wondered what specific things anyone could say if they compared, say, my congregation with, say, that of Matt and Ann Kennedy’s. Or what about, say, Liz Zivanov and, oh, I don’t know, Don Pershall?

Or, perhaps, the congregation attended by Louie Crew and that of Sarah Hey? Or, what about the uber-Christian Ould Brothers “down under” and that of Fr. Jonathan, aka “MadPriest” in Northern England?

After a bit of contemplation, I decided to nix that idea as it began to feel a bit too much like ‘a near occasion of sin.’

So, I looked at the 2005 Parochial Reports by Province in The Episcopal Church. You can find these statistics

I decided to compare and contrast the statistical reporting of two dioceses in three Provinces as a snapshot of what is going on (at least statistically) in the church between diocese which proclaim to be Progressive/Liberal vs. Conservative/Evangelical. I hoped to find a window into the particular perspective of the Evangelical obsession with numbers and success.

I looked at the statistics for Province II, Province III and Province VIII. Specifically and admittedly arbitrarily, I looked at the dioceses of Albany and Newark, in Province II, Pittsburgh and Washinington in Province III and El Camino Real and San Joaquin in Province VIII.

The 2005 Parochial reports include statistics in the categories of

Parishes and Missions
Actual Baptized Members
Communicants in Good Standing
Average Sunday Attendance
Church School Pupils
Baptisms: Child and Adult

Just for the sake of argument, or as my friend, Denny used to say, “Just for ‘Ha, ha’s”, let’s look at three statistics: Parishes and Missions, ASA, and Baptism, Child and Adult as measures of growth.

Province II
Albany: Parishes and Missions: 118 ASA 18,894 Baptisms Child: 344 Adult: 76
Newark: Parishes and Missions: 113 ASA: 33,390 Baptisms Child: 618 Adult: 64

Province III
Pittsburgh: Parishes and Missions: 67 ASA: 16,450 Baptisms Child: 123 Adult: 123
Washington: Parishes and Missions: 92 ASA: 31,379 Baptisms: Child: 677 Adult:98

Province VIII
El Camino Real: Parishes and Missions: 50 ASA: 5,309 Baptisms Child: 45 Adult: 115
San Joaquin: Parishes and Missions: 47 ASA: 4,105 Baptisms Child: 70 Adult: 95

Well, if it’s true that “numbers lie and liars use numbers,” what do these figures tell us about the health and welfare of our church in places that are stridently orthodox and unapologetic progressive?

As Jesus might ask, “How do you read?”

I might also note that Jesus says, “Love my sheep.” Not, “Count them.”

(Okay. Don't believe me. That live link can be found at:


MadPriest said...

Rapidly declining numbers in my province and the subsequent loss of revenue both scares me and excites me. It scares me because I cannot see that I will finish my work as a salaried priest. It excites me because the decline will force priests into a place of humility that will make the Church stronger and more authentically Christlike. This is nothing new. The Old Testament prophetic tradition shows that there is a natural (or, if you like, God-given) cycle of boom and bust. In fact, it seems like there has to be for the health of the faith. It's similar to those plants that have to die in a forest fire before their seeds can germinate.

KJ said...

On this matter, as is the case from time-to-time, I believe that the MadOne is absolutely correct. In times of growth, the church seems to focus on measurements that mean success in human terms. In the lean times, we're reminded to rest in God alone -- struggling to follow the way of the cross, and not struggling after things of little import.

Paul (A.) said...

In checking with your source, I found that it would seem that you are reporting Active Baptized Members rather than Average Sunday Attendance. Also, not having back copies of the Red Book available, I referred also to Louie Crew's comparison of limited statistics for 1993 versus 2003, as taken from the Red Book. His table for ASA, combined with the table you cited to, yields the following for Average Sunday Attendance (can't get table formatting to work):

Years: 1993 2003 2005

Albany 8,121 7,745 7,440
Newark 11,867 10,745 10,076

Pittsburgh 8,131 8,281 8,054
Washington 18,354 16,919 16,709

El Camino Real 5,848 6,025 5,309
San Joaquin 4,427 4,425 4,105

The bottom line here is that 2003 (the year of the confirmation of Gene Robinson's election) does not seem to have made a significant difference in church attendance (other than in El Camino Real). Otherwise, the numbers for the most part appear to be largely flat over the twelve-year period. Instructive.

On another point, I share your distaste for Kendall Harmon's labels of "reasserters" and "reappraisers". In light of historical precedent and of the recent meeting in Pittsburgh for those who want to establish a parallel church to TEC, I think better terms for the two groups would be "Revanchists" and "Episcopalians".

Bill said...

MP, not to worry. I picture you with your very own talk show. Possibly "The Daily Heretic", Wot.

Bill said...

Elizabeth writes: "and that of Fr. Jonathan, aka “MadPriest” in Northern England?

After a bit of contemplation, I decided to nix that idea as it began to feel a bit too much like ‘a near occasion of sin.’"

Is it coincidence that the very next sentence after 'Father Jonathan aka MadPriest' talks about the "near occasion of sin."

I think not.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

There are no coincidences, Bill.

Anne Kennedy said...

What is interesting to note is that we did not report our parochial stats for 2006, nor will we for next year since we are in the process of pulling out and yet the statistics office, apparently, listed some stats anyway. I am not certain where they came up with them? In any case. Our 2006 ASA is 81. Not huge. But, when we take into account that it was 47 four years ago, I'll take it. This year we are pushing 90. All this in a diocese that has lost 12% ASA over the last 5 years I believe.

So, while we are not huge, we are certainly growing strong.

Matt Kennedy

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for the information, Matt. I've also looked at your parochial report in terms finances and pledging units.

Clearly, you have your work cut out for you in terms of stewardship.

I will keep you in my prayers.

I have not seen you "play the numbers" but it seems to me that if you aren't going to reveal your statistics, you have no room to criticize anyone else's.

Paul (A.) said...

Matt Kennedy notes that he thinks his diocese has lost 12% average Sunday attendance over the last 5 years.

From the same sources referenced in my earlier post, the Diocese of Central New York had ASA in 1993 of 8,089, in 2003 of 6,621 (an 18.3% decline over 10 years) and in 2005 of 6,190 (6.5% over 2 years).

The decline in Episcopalians in Matt's diocese may have been as much as 12% over the last 5 years, but clearly this is a continuation of a prior population trend and not obviously linked to any 2003 consecration.

SometimesWise said...

I believe that he who lives by statistics dies by statistics, but (and we know everything before the but is, well you know)...
Comparing the Pittsburgh diocese and the Washington DC diocese is like comparing Peoria to New York. The population in metro Pgh is about 2.3 million, and the population in the DC area is over 7 million. As a math geek of old, this skews the stats considerably in favor of 'da Burgh.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ah, Sometimeswise - this would be one of those "times" when you are.