Episcopal Church lost 61K members, faced declining attendance before pandemic in 2020

Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Martin Künzel)

The Episcopal Church lost a little over 61,000 members in 2020 and saw a decline in worship attendance even before the pandemic lockdowns occurred, according to data released by the denomination.

The Episcopal Church's General Convention posted reports this week on the liberal mainline denomination's 2020 statistics and how they compared to previous years.

Baptized Episcopal Church membership declined from approximately 1.798 million in 2019 to approximately 1.736 million in 2020 — a loss of about 61,760 people.

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The total for 2020 is approximately 350,000 less than the 2.096 million members reported in 2011 and is less than half of the 3.6 million members reported in 1966.

Another report shows that the total of "active baptized members" is even lower. In 2020, there were just over 1.5 million active baptized members of the Episcopal Church, compared to over 1.6 million in 2019. 

Unlike past years, the denomination calculated average Sunday attendance by using the numbers reported from Jan. 1 to Mar. 1, 2020, as COVID-19 pandemic-related cancellations of worship began in March.  

Even before government lockdowns compelled Episcopal congregations to suspend worship for months on end, the average Sunday attendance in 2020 dropped considerably compared to past years.

Sunday attendance declined from approximately 547,000 in 2019 to 483,000 in 2020, about 210,000 fewer average Sunday attendees than the roughly 698,000 reported in 2011.

Jeff Walton of the theologically conservative think tank Institute on Religion & Democracy, an expert on Anglican and Episcopal church politics, wrote Wednesday that the Episcopal Church "took a major hit in the year 2020."

"These numbers indicate a doubling in the rate of membership decline and a tripling in the rate of attendance decline over the previous year," wrote Walton.

"From 2019–2020, weddings across the denomination dropped from 6,484 to 3,530, down 46% (an additional 309 weddings were reported conducted online in virtual services). Children's baptisms dropped from 19,716 to 7,286, down 67%. Adult baptisms dropped from 3,866 to 1,649, down 57%."

Multiple factors have often been attributed to the decline in membership and attendance in Episcopal Church, which traces its origins back to the 18th century and is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

These include an aging demographic and the overall decline in religious affiliation in the United States. Additionally, the increasing theologically liberal direction of the Episcopal Church has prompted considerable numbers of conservatives to leave.

In February 2020, Kristine Stache, interim president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-affiliated Wartburg Theological Seminary, told the Episcopal Church's Executive Council that, at the current rate of decline, worship attendance may effectively cease to exist by the year 2050.

"[Data] depicts a church that appears to be dying," said Stache, according to the Episcopal News Service.

Last November, similar thoughts were echoed by Episcopal priest Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an associate professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"The overall picture is dire," Zscheile was quoted as saying, according to ChurchLeaders. "Not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly."

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