Monday, 3 August 2015

Anglican Church Decline in the West – Possible Reasons

In the previous blog, I looked at attendance and membership data of four Anglican churches: Church of England (C of E), the Church in Wales (C in W), the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), and the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA).

It was clear that all four denominations were declining, but that in Wales, Scotland and the USA the Anglican churches were declining much faster than the Church of England. Both the C in W and the SEC had potential extinction dates about 2040, with ECUSA possibly lasting 10-15 years longer. Indeed, although the Church of England is declining, it is only on the margins of extinction if the current pattern remains, thus unlikely to face extinction this century.

Potential Causes of Decline

Rather than just repeat the standard reasons given for church decline, in the light of the contrasts in decline patterns, I would rather look at a different question: What does the Church of England have, that the other three denominations do not, that may have helped reduce the effects of numerical decline?

Here are some suggestions, not exhaustive, and some may be a bit controversial:

(a)     Establishment by law. The Church of England is established by law and is thus seen as the nation’s church. It has more connections with the “Establishment”, has inroads into parliament, appears at state functions and has the monarch as its head. It is so established it was once nicknamed the Conservative Party at prayer! Although in Wales the C in W does have a more limited form of establishment when it comes to marriages and schools, both it, SEC and ECUSA, have no real benefits of the state. They are merely one of many denominations, with some others being larger [7].
(b)    Uniformity. ECUSA, SEC and C in W, are all Episcopal by conviction. It is having bishops and prayer books that set them apart from the other denominations. By contrast the C of E is the national church, which just happens to be Episcopal. It is defined more by being national, and less by being Episcopal, as it is the national and established element that really sets it apart from other denominations. Thus the C of E has more variety between congregations than the other three.  To give an example from Wales, one Church in Wales clergyman described his denomination to me as like a Henry Ford car, “any colour you like as long as it’s black”! Generally speaking I have found in Wales, Scotland and the USA a fairly rigid uniformity when visiting different parishes, more so than I have seen in England. Thus the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are narrower, and thus almost sectarian in their relationship with non-Anglicans, compared with the C of E.
(c)     Establishment by state attachment. All four churches are established in the sense that they reflect national life and trends. By that I mean that they do not want to be sectarian in their relationship with the government, the media or national institutions. Rather, they wish to be seen to be such institutions themselves, perhaps no longer the Conservative Party at prayer, but still the “Establishment at prayer”. However, due to their relative narrowness, the C in W, SEC and ECUSA are also able to change more rapidly in response to changes in society and in the Establishment. All three have changed fast since the 1950s, and very fast in the last 10 years, being more open about their modernism. As such the C in W, SEC and ECUSA have been able to respond more to societal liberalisation, keeping themselves in line with the heartbeat of the land: perhaps being the “liberal progressives at prayer”. Not surprisingly they are much further ahead with adopting same-sex marriage, and gay-affirming beliefs, than the Church of England, where there is more resistance to change [8].
(d)    Theology. All four denominations have a variety of churchmanships, however The C of E, in contrast to the others, has a stronger evangelical wing, making it generally more conservative. Due to theological liberalism many conservatives have left ECUSA, leaving it a predominately liberal denomination. In the Church in Wales evangelicalism was always thin on the ground, especially in the industrial south east, which tends to be “liberal high”. In the Scottish Episcopal church there are a small number of evangelical churches, mainly confined to the big cities. Though some have high attendance, the bulk of parishes in the SEC are not evangelical [9].
(e)     Revival. Of the four denominations the C of E has been influenced more by Charismatic Renewal than the others, despite the “Renewal” starting with a US clergyman [10]. Additionally The C of E’s expression of charismatic renewal has also  been more evangelical, including a revival in expository preaching. Perhaps the C of E has been more open to revival than the others.
(f)     Rural. Both Wales and Scotland are more rural than England, and many of their congregations are in areas of low population. The Church in Wales especially has a difficult job maintaining a parish system over the whole land. In addition rural congregations often have an older age profile. However the USA has many big cities, which should have given ECUSA an advantage over its British cousins. So this reason is less convincing.

Putting the above together I would suggest that the reason for the decline being slower in the Church of England, compared with Anglicans in Wales, Scotland and the USA [11], is primarily due to internal factors, not external ones in society. I would go further and say, it is beliefs, not actions, that are the source of the problem. When congregations ask for my advice on why they decline I first ask them what they believe, not what they do. Actions follow from beliefs. Perhaps the Church of England has, on average, stronger beliefs than the other three; beliefs that encourage growth.

All these churches want to grow to survive, to have healthy congregations and have a positive impact on society. However the C of E perhaps has a proportionally larger group of people, who believe in evangelism because they want to rescue people, save them from their sins for their own sake. This belief in reaching people, regardless of organisational needs, would lead to greater recruitment activity and a stronger sense of purpose that helps retain and motivate members. Church growth comes from a strong identity rooted in a mission that is bigger than the church itself.

It could be that the Anglican churches are all examples of the institutional lifecycle I have talked about previously [12], and that most of the pre-1900 denominations are coming to an end because they have put too many resources into themselves at the expense of mission. The way forward is not to work out how to save the organisation, but let it fade and try saving the lost. Something new will then emerge. Perhaps the Church of England, with its greater diversity, is much further down the road of that reinvention.

Such reinvention, one that restores the fundamental beliefs and spiritual vitality of the church, does not come by organisational management or cultural accommodation. These are spiritual issues and the solution comes through spiritual means. Not by putting motions through synods, but by seeking the face of God. If the above analysis is true, the Anglican Churches of Wales, Scotland and the USA do not have much time left to seek to “humble themselves, and pray, and …..” 2 Chronicles 7:14.


Reference numbering continues from previous blog.

[7] The Church in Wales now is the largest church in Wales as non-conformity has declined much faster than Anglicanism. There is still a general perception that Wales is non-conformist and chapel, even if it is no longer true

[8] ECUSA voted to introduce same sex marriage at its recent convention July 1st 2015-07-02

The Scottish Episcopal Church voted in its synod, June 12 2015, to modify its laws to be “silent on marriage”, thus enabling their ministers to conduct same-sex weddings, probably not until 2017.

The Church in Wales governing body is due to vote on the introduction of same-sex marriage in the middle of September 2015. So far of the 6 dioceses, St David’s has voted firmly against, Llandaff firmly for, Monmouth narrowly against, and St Aspah narrowly for. There are two more dioceses whose results I have not found yet. Normally with 2 dioceses against a proposal, change would not go ahead, however the governing body has the final say.

[9] There are two large Scottish Episcopal Churches in Edinburgh that have 10% of the attendance of the whole denomination of 277 parishes. The two have nearly 30% of the attendance of the 50 parishes in the Edinburgh diocese. It gives some idea how under represented Episcopal Evangelicals are in terms of the number of parishes. It also shows the skewed nature of congregational attendance.

[10] The charismatic movement is often deemed to have started with Episcopal clergyman Dennis Bennett in Van Nuys California in 1960. The reality was a little more complex than that. Hocken, P. Streams of Renewal: Origins and Early Development of the Charismatic Movement in Great Britain, Paternoster Press, 1997.

[11] There are other Anglican churches in the USA, outside of ECUSA, such as the Anglican Church in North America, and the Anglican Church in America. These were excluded from the study. There are at present few Anglican churches outside the “official” ones in the UK, and I think they are all in England, but that may well change in the future.

[12] Institutionalism and Church Decline


  1. Another reason/cause here

    1. Yes I would agree this is an issue that sets ECUSA apart from the UK Anglican experience. in my experience "liberal" Christianity in the USA is of a different degree and nature in terms of what it supports. Far more socially activist than UK. Whether this reflects that smaller state involvement in dealing with poverty and health in the US, with churches picking up the issues I don't know. I found both liberal and conservative churches in the USA far more political than in the UK, with a resulting lack of emphasis on spiritual and eternal issues. Thanks for your comment.

  2. John - it is helpful to set out the institutional and 'church cultural' differences as you have done and i am sure they are factors. i have doubts about your assertion that belief leads to action and not the other way round. having worked in all those churches (only outside England as a temporary visitor i would add) i think the action that the C of E has taken in seeking to do at least some cross-cultural mission was ahead of that now being taken in those other Episcopalian/Anglican churches. this has lead to the substantial growth in fresh expressions that is in many C of E diocese counter acting the decline in some other expressions of church. in other words decline in C of E is over all less because the slower decline is hiding a counter trend fo church growth especially helped by fresh expressions but of course not entirely so.

    1. "Belief leads to action." I agree that the C of E has been way ahead of the other in fresh expressions, cross cultural mission, and also church planting. I live in Wales and although we have had fresh expression courses little in the way of new innovative churches came from this. I would see these as examples of beliefs leading to actions. The belief that people need to be saved is a stronger belief in the Cof E than the others (agree?) and thus there has been greater action in pushing forward forms of church to connect with people. Of course you right in that actions can increase and strengthen beliefs. Causality runs both ways. This is an example of a reinforcing feedback loop, a virtuous circle when things are work. A vicious circle when churches get weaker, thus do less and thus get even weaker. Dean Kelley discusses this ideas back in the 1970s in the book "Why conservative churches are growing". Not sure if that has clarified what I was trying to say. Thanks for your comment

  3. Two factors why the C of E has declined slower than other Anglican Churches, it has strong evangelical theological colleges training the majority of new clergy. Secondly, the near universal popularity of Church Schools, making parents attend church (and participate) for up to five years in urban areas to get their children into Church Schools.

    1. Hi. Thank you for your comments. The C of E's greater size and diversity has helped give a variety of seminaries, where one one churchmanship can dominate, in contrast to Wales and Scotland. The later are uniform in their training. It is possible the English patronage system, CPAS, and the like can help keep congregations in the same churchmanship, which is harder to do in Wales, which does not have this system. Trying to find hard evidence to PROVE this is difficult as the social scientists who specialise in religion do not seem to research issues like this. But I may be wrong, and a trawl through the journals may find some papers that quantify this.

      I, and some others, have argued that the theological college/seminary system is itself part of the cause of the move from theological conservatism to liberalism. The reasons lie in their need to prove academic scholarship in order to get accreditation for courses, which in turn attracts funding. To prove academic scholarship you ned to show you are doing new things, have new interpretations/perspectives etc. You can't just repeat what was done and believed in 16th Cent, 4th cent or 1st, even if it was more "true". I have been involved with such accreditations and there is real conflict of interest between academia and the belief system. This does not just affect evangelicals either!

      Wales also has some church schools, and church attendance in those areas does seem to be higher as a result. Again I know of no quantifiable evidence to prove it.

      Great comments - thank you


  4. "Due to theological liberalism many conservatives have left ECUSA"

    Can we see actual EVIDENCE of this, instead of just allegations? As in, survey of those who have left? People leave for all kinds of reasons (inc some, you may be shocked to learn, for whom "ECUSA"---we prefer TEC as the abbreviation, as some of our dioceses are not in the USA---is too conservative, esp in their time/place).

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi JCF

      ECUSA versus TEC. Because the Scottish Episcopal Church was referred to in the blog, to avoid confusion I kept to the abbreviation ECUSA. I lived in Scotland for 10 years the "The Episcopal Church" always meant the Scottish version, not the USA one, sorry! Historically the US church took its original orders from the Scottish one in the days when I think it was called the Protestant Episcopal Church - not sure if that name is used now. Thus there is a bit of fondness for the USA church among Scottish Episcopalians. Why did the USA not take their orders from the Church of England? Long story, politics, divisions, etc. Sounds like today.

      Hard evidence? I was referring to the many theological conservatives in ECUSA who have publicly left, taken new episcopal orders from African churches and setting up new congregations. I visit the USA quite a bit and talk with such people. Quantitative evidence? I have seen papers presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion that have addressed this issue in the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches. I have not seen any in print yet and I could not quote their data until that happens. It is a very difficult area to research accurately, and they may have trouble getting in print.

      I agree "liberals" do leave churches because they are too "conservative", probably far more than is realised. I can think of many personal examples, but I am not sure I have seen this researched. I used inverted commas as I think the liberal/conservative division may be too simplistic as people's beliefs and practices are multi-valued. Conservative in some things, liberal in others etc. Also theology, conservatives can be high church, or evangelical. Liberals can be high church catholic, and also low and evangelical in many beliefs. I have blogged on the liberal conservative issue in the past - search it out and see if you agree or not. I will write on this again and try and suggest better names and avoid the political overtones of those words, which mean different things in the UK from the USA.

      Thank you again, and if you have any evidence of the of the dynamics of church leaving due to liberal conservative issues please do share it. It is far more complex than meets the eye


    3. *Raising hand* - yes, I left the Episcopal "church" last year after getting fed up with far left politics being shoved down my throat from the national leadership, including missives about supporting gun control laws, insane anti-Israel propaganda by an Episcopal social justice group, and the final kicker for me, Islamic prayers in the National Cathedral where the crosses were covered up so as not to "offend."

      At least half of my new conservative Anglican church also left the Episcopalian tent because of the increasing leftist insanity permeating what once was a beautiful, respectable church denomination.

      What, you think the Anglican Church in North America sprang up out of nowhere?

    4. I am very aware of the origins of the Anglican Church in North America. I attended one such church in Boone North Carolina back in 2011 while on a visit to the USA. Many there explained their reasons for ending up in this church, which were not unlike your reasons. Some at that time were still in both churches as they were only in North Carolina for the summer and returned to their ECUSA church when going home as there was no ACNA near. I would love to see the attendance and membership data for these separated Anglican churches and see what their growth looks like.

  5. Er.....the Scottish Episcopal Church gave the American Church its orders ( Samuel Seabury etc)...not the other way around.

    1. you are correct of course - I will change my comment - thank you!

  6. Thank you for an interesting blog.

    Liberalism is a difficult term to nail down. If it means denial of essential Christian truths then as an Anglo-Catholic I could consider some Evangelicals to be Liberal (in terms of sacramental theology) and as a Charismatic I could consider some Non-Charismatics to be Liberal (in terms of pneumatic theology). The particular form of liberalism which I suspect has caused damage in the church is both supernatural and missional – the denial that God works in the world today and that people can meet with him in profound life changing ways. My perspective is that the missional key for growth is an infectious encounter with the living God: in the Word, in the 7 Sacraments, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Locally here both St.Alban’s Abbey (Inclusive Catholic) and Soul Survivor (Charismatic Evangelical) are growing missional congregations – with dynamic missional leaders. In the community life and worship of both there is a profound sense of meeting with the living God, despite different traditions. Both are well resourced of course (although I know from both Andy and Jeffrey that being well resourced does not mean you have piles of cash lying about!)

    In terms of congregations, there are perhaps a number of categories to look at.

    1) There are shrinking congregations with little potential for growth under present forms (much of Rural ministry falls into this category – new monastic patterns are showing fruit in this context).

    2) There are shrinking congregations that are open to growth but lack the resources (and here the HTB model of injecting a plant into an existing context seems to work)

    3) There are shrinking congregations that have the resources for growth but are not (The unhealthy parish church of 60-200)

    4) There are growing congregations that are replacing their natural losses (The healthy parish church of 60-200)

    5) There are growing congregations that are outpacing their natural losses (The missional parish church of 60-200)

    6) There are growing congregations that have far fewer natural losses (Such as new church plants in younger areas).

    7) There are growing congregations that have a particular gathered appeal (Such as Soul Survivor and St. Albans Abbey)

    I was on the round table for Rural Fresh Expressions for a number of years and in the UK fantastic work is being done with type 1 in rural areas. Equally, there is investment in London at least into type 2. I was caretaker for a short while of a new plant that was like type 6 and the CofE is learning how to work with them. Type 7 congregations need to be valued and encouraged, but often look after themselves.

    A particular challenge for the wider CofE is the difference between type 3 and 5 congregations. I serve in a fantastic parish with catholic worship and an openness to the work of the spirit. However even with significant growth in the last two years over the next 10 we will struggle to move from 4 to 5 due to natural causes.

    My questions are

    – how can we/I resource and encourage type 3 churches to become type 4 congregations

    – how can we be resourced to move from 4 to 5

    – or … realistically consider church planting a type 6 congregation

    1. Hi Eddie.

      The first part of your comment does highlight the over simplicity of the labels liberal and conservative when applied to church life. As i have said elsewhere I think more realistic categorisations are needed in terms of the dynamics of the interaction of different church groups with each other, their parent denomination and the prevailing ideologies in society and in government. Thank you for your stories.

      The second part of your comment on types of congregations deserves far more though than I can give here. It does have considerable potential for modelling. System Dynamics, the methodology I use, is ideal for capturing the types of churches and policies you mention. So you have really given me food for thought. If I can express these in models I may then be able to address the questions you raise. It might take a while!

      thank you for great insights


    2. In my observation, political liberalism inevitably leads not to theological "liberalism" - but secular humanism and throwing out Jesus's divinity entirely. Read the statements of the former Presiding Bishop of ECUSA - she wasn't too far off from Spong, who calls God an amorphous "ground of being" and completely denies Jesus performed any miracles. Such "church" leaders are hypocrites who are more interested in tearing down Christianity from within than ministering, IMHO.

    3. That's really interesting Eddie. Do add a comment on these lines on my blog too if you are interested...

  7. John, thanks for these excellent posts. As a theologian who is a former mathematician, I particularly appreciated them!

    I have offered my own reflections on your work (quoting you) on my blog here

    1. Thank you Ian for your review and for correctly noting that the C of E does have some positives in this analysis.

    2. I found it very interesting to agree with your observations from some other experiences I had, which lends credibility to your analysis. The one thing that I hadn't thought about before was your comment on the uniformity of non-established episcopalians, because this is where they found their sense of identity. It is an interesting angle on the diversity of the C of E sometimes being a strength.

      Are you on Facebook?

  8. Perhaps your point 'b' above (causes for decline; uniformity) is supported in part by the work of Stark and others applying economic models to church growth/decline?

    1. There is some similarity with the Stark & Iannaccone rational choice and supply side models. Free markets force competition which will encourage innovation and diversity. But each denomination and congregation have opposing forces to resist diversity because both religious professionals and members can have a vested interest in churches not taking risks. These institutional forces may be stronger than the market ones, the need to survive, because church decline is so slow and its end is "not on their watch". Thank you for your comment

  9. Have you looked at this?
    In TEC (or ECUSA), the growing parishes are the liberal ones, the conservative ones are declining. 30 percent of parishes and dioceses in TEC are growing, like mine in Colorado.

    At this point, it seems that this phenomenon of growth and decline (liberal vs. conservative) seems separate from the schisms from 2004. In fact, plenty of schismatics are returning. The US is an enormous country and each state and region has its own cultures and trends. An aspect of church growth and decline simply has to do with geography and the demographics of regions. Rural churches are not as robust as urban and suburban, suburban is no longer associated exclusively with conservatism, urban centers are growing and they tend to be liberal. Our church, and others in Colorado, have young families, an indicator of growth. Young families in the US tend toward inclusion and rebel against exclusion of gays or women. (That's true even in US evangelical churches, which have the reputation of being rapidly conservative).

    The growth and decline seems completely independent of churchmanship. Mine happens to be Anglo-Catholic, most are "broad church", plenty are "low church" or "messy church."

    I don't think that TEC figures match the decline and extinction here, but I'll let others argue that. We're doing great in Colorado!

    We're going to have to agree to disagree about the assertion that the Kingdom is not going to be furthered by motions at Synod (General Convention, or GC, in TEC). Our processes tend to include a wide range of voices, all prayerful, highly learned, and deeply informed by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, while working to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. We certainly don't believe that Salvation is going to come from a hierarchy of old, straight and/or closeted, white men. As holy as they may be, they are only one small voice in God's Creation, a voice that got amplified out of proportion via empire.

    1. Hi Cynthia

      Thank you for pointing this out. My response will be long as I think you raise issues that many others would be interested in. In two parts for technical reasons.

      The real health of a church comes from looking at individual congregations, not just the overall figures. In any declining denomination there are always growing congregations and other healthy ones. As far as I can see that is the purpose of this report, to highlight the factors that correlate with growth and thus help those who are declining and plateauing to make changes and return to growth. It explains it very well. If only all denominations would do this.

      Because of this purpose the study excludes all moderately growing and declining churches, with 10% over 4 years as the cut off. That is good for the purpose of the report - as it helps accentuate the characteristics of growing and declining churches. But it makes it harder to relate the figures in the report to the denominational attendance figures the Episcopal churches publishes, which I used. Indeed it is impossible to draw a conclusion about the denominational position from this report because:
      1. The moderately growing and declining congregations were missing
      2. Of the growing and declining congregations we do not know how much they are under or over 10%
      3. The connection between congregational size and growth is not given quantitatively. As growth/decline is given as a percentage the absolute numbers are not know and it is these numbers that affected denominational decline. 10% of a big congregational is much larger than 10% of a small one. The report does state smaller congregations are more likely to be declining, that is probably aging, and larger ones tended to plateau, that is probably one of the many organisational limits to growth.
      4. The plateaued ones were up to 5% and down to -7.4%. As the report says some of the largest congregations were in this category their absolute numbers may make a difference to the denominational change.

      But the report was not dealing with the overall numbers, so it had no need to address these issues.

      Continued in next reply…

    2. Continued from last reply

      Note that 20% of their sample grew by over 10% and 45% declined by 10%. If each congregation increased or decreased by the same amount then that would give a net decline, but as I said, the absolute numbers are not known.

      To give the UK as an example most of the older denominations have been declining for the last 60 years. At any given time many of the congregations plateau, but few have plateaued for the whole 60 years. At any given time there have been many growing congregations, but their growth has not been enough to offset the losses in the declining ones. The growing ones can legitimately say they are doing fine, but they have not been doing that for the whole 60 years. However there many declining churches that have declined for the whole 60 years. That is why there is overall decline. Contrast the 19th century where congregational growth over many decades was the norm and decline uncommon. That is what has changed. Hopefully congregations can learn the lessons of this report and deal with their situation.

      The connection with theology and growth/decline is not as clear as is sometimes made out. The thesis set out by Dean Kelley in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing, was the link between growth and strictness, strength. He felt his book was mis-titled although at that time most of the strict churches were also conservative. However liberal churches can also be strict and strong. There is no apriori reason why strictness cannot be a trait of any theology as it is a organisational property, not a theological one.

      In the case of the Episcopal church there have been people and congregations who describe themselves as conservative who have left the denomination, and joined one of the breakaway Anglicans. Thus all the other Anglican churches should really be included in a study to have a true picture of the relationship between growing churches and theology/churchmanship. The same issue affects Lutherans and Presbyterians, all of who have had conservative breakaways and the need to include these in a study was discussed by researchers in last years Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting. Hard to do as you are dealing with different organisations, perhaps not too friendly with each other.

      I have said to others that I think the labels Liberal and Conservative are not helpful when looking at church growth and decline, as many people and churches are liberal in some things and conservative in others. Beliefs also change over time.

      There are many statements, opinion polls etc connected with the approval or otherwise of the various lifestyle ideologies that are current at present. My suspicion is that most opinions/stats are given in order to further influence opinion rather that to give scientific accuracy. Few reporters, researchers, and especially news agencies are neutral on these issues and that influences their statements. A true picture of what is happening in society and churches on these issues probably will not be accurately understood until well after the events.

      I am glad things are going well for your churches in Colorado. I visited two churches there, neither episcopal as there were none near us. Both the ones I did visit were doing well and really excellent churches. I have written about the one in Colorado Springs on this blog.

      best wishes