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Four markers reveal why the collapse of the Episcopal Church is inevitable

Four markers reveal why the collapse of the Episcopal Church is inevitable

Special Report

By David W. Virtue, DD
Sept. 29, 2017

Recent statistics (2016) on the state of The Episcopal Church offer insights not normally tapped by the media, but looked at more closely, reveal a Church in faster decline than initially thought.

There are four distinct demographic markers and they include: Aging parishioners and clergy, smaller parishes and no new clergy to fill pulpits; lower baptisms and confirmations; higher death rates and lower Average Sunday Attendance.


The average age of an Episcopalian in 2011 was 57 years old. In 2017, it is closer to 64. What this means is that roughly three-fifths of the Church's membership will be dead in the next twelve to sixteen years.

The median average Sunday worship attendance is 57 (and declining), with congregations showing an ASA of 100 or less now totaling 71% of all 6473 domestic parishes and missions. Furthermore, the rate of decline is accelerating and picking up speed with each passing year, as Nones, Millennials, and Generation EXERS show no interest in joining the Episcopal Church. Over the course of the last ten years, ASA has dropped by a startling 25%. Only four percent of all 6473 congregations have an ASA of 300 or more!

It is generally recognized that when a congregation dips below 75, it cannot sustain a full-time paid priest.


According to TEC's figures, the average age of all clergy is 59. This is without doubt one of the most serious demographic numbers as it means thousands of priests will retire over the next twelve years, emptying pulpits at a faster pace than there are clergy to fill them. Fully 67% of all Episcopal clergy are aged 55 and over. Only 15% are under the age of 45. Half of all dioceses have priests aged 60 and over. Some 65% of all priests are male and 35% are women. 55% of all priests are full time (4007); 27% of all priests are part-time (1967) and 15% are non-stipendiary (947).

Mandatory clergy retirement is 72, but hundreds will retire earlier than that based on health issues, disillusionment and boredom with the ministry, with others retiring, having done their 30 years and therefore entitled to a full pension.

Pulpits will be filled by part-time and non-stipendiary priests, who will do little more than open and close parish doors following Sunday worship with little or no inclination to deal with heady issues of evangelism, discipleship and church growth. Talk of the Jesus Movement will be irrelevant. Funeral services will be the central issue as baptisms and confirmations combined continue to drop below replacement and deaths will continue to rise. (More and more churches are building columbariums.)

The Episcopal Church reflects a natural attrition where more Episcopalians are being buried than baptized and confirmed or moving away and not affiliating with the local Episcopal church in their new neighborhoods, leaving fewer people in the pews, writes VOL researcher Mary Ann Mueller.


The Episcopal Church's 11 seminaries (now officially 10) since Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. recently shut down and moved its remnant student body to a liberal Protestant seminary in New York City, are mostly on life support as they depend more and more on collaborations with other church bodies and seminaries, experience fewer students and offer online courses with mostly older second career students.

The ten accredited theological seminaries and schools for ministry unevenly dot the American Episcopal landscape. An independent study of the state of these seminaries reveals that seventy percent of these institutions have fewer than 100 students.

Their decline follows the bell curve of The Episcopal Church as it experiences loss in members, parish closings and an inability to attract a younger generation of Americans. Many believe that issues like the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopacy, the embrace of pansexuality and homosexual marriage now enshrined in canon law, reflect a Church that lacks a distinctive message separate from the prevailing culture.

Only three seminaries are remotely viable at this time. They are; Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, PA (Evangelical); Virginia Theological Seminary, (Liberal) and Nashotah House, WI (Anglo-Catholic). Two of these seminaries, TSM and NH collaborate with other denominations to provide orthodox educations to newer start-up denominations, like the ACNA and smaller Lutheran bodies.


In the area of Plate & Pledge, there were small percentage changes. The domestic plate and pledge figures dropped. In 2016, $1,312,430,692 was dropped into the collection plate, a drop of $1,288,475 over 2015.

Personal pledging rose from $2,707 to $2,776 between 2015 and 2016. The few are giving more, but this will dramatically change as the older (and wealthier boomer and pre-boomer generations) die off. More and more parishes are drawing down on endowments and anecdotal evidence shows that action has a limited future.


The consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 saw an accelerated decline, with more than 100,000 Episcopalians fleeing the Episcopal Church. Those parishes that suffered the most, saw no reversal of fortune from that radical act, nor did homosexuals come rushing into the church to fill pews vacated by evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics fleeing TEC, despite rhetorical promises to the contrary.


The loss of confidence in scripture as authoritative, watered down in seminaries, and then washed out into pulpits and pews has undermined the church's very foundations. This and the dumbing down of morality has been the two hallmarks of recent Episcopal decline.

Revisions of the 1928 Prayer Book and its weakened version in 1979, while no longer a public issue, frustrated and appalled many Episcopalians at the time who did not like or agree with the changes. The ordination of women, another (and continuing) lightening rod issue, first brokered in illegally and then accepted, not on the basis of biblical reflection or historic precedent, but because the culture and women's rights mandated it, pushed the Church into continued decline.

Homosexual practice, the changing of the canons to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of women; issues that have bedeviled the Episcopal Church for four decades, forced the hands of faithful Episcopalians and thus was born the Anglican Church in North America.

As the dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, London, William Inge observed, he who marries the spirit of the times will soon find himself a widower. The Episcopal Church is fulfilling this in spades.


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