Demography and time trends in membership in the Episcopal Church

By John B. Chilton

In 2004 C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research for The Episcopal Church Center published “Is the Episcopal Church Growing (or Declining)?” The title may suggest the report is trivial. It is not. First, it carefully documents membership in the Episcopal Church 1930-2002. Thus, we know we stand (circa 2002 at least). Second, Hadaway uses the report to point to a core fact behind the decline in the growth rate of the church: the demography of its members.

To answer the question posed by the title of the paper, Hadaway had to first develop a consistent time series for membership. (The period covered is 1930 to 2002.) Over several decades there had been changing formats in the annual Parochial Report that the national church administered to gather numbers on membership from parishes, and changing methods of using those reports to calculate total membership in the national church. (Further, non-domestic dioceses have not been included in membership numbers since 1985 so Hadaway’s series excludes them prior to 1986 as well (adding back in Hawaii and Alaska).) Much of the report is an account of how Hadaway identified and corrected for the changing definitions and formats. It makes for rather mind-numbing reading, but the careful documentation is absolutely essential if we are to have confidence in the time series, and whether it tells us anything about the changing state of the church over time.

The corrected membership time series shows that, like other mainline churches, the Episcopal Church grew rapidly during the post-World War II baby boom. But in the late fifties growth slowed and by the mid-sixties had turned negative. Hadaway summarizes (pp. 11-12, describing Figure 6 in the report):

The [growth] trend line for the Episcopal Church has tracked quite closely to other mainline denominations. Growth rates declined precipitously from the mid-1950s [2.5%] to the mid-1970s [negative 1.5% for the mainline as a whole] and then began to moderate. From 1950 to 1974 the only meaningful difference between the pattern for the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations was that the Episcopal decline [negative 2 to 3 percent growth] was more severe during the early-1970s. … After bottoming out in the early 1970s, the Episcopal rate of membership decline began to improve greatly [between 0 and 1% decline annually] and by 1980 the loss rate was consistently better than the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations. So even though the Episcopal Church has not seen consistent membership growth, we are not declining at the same rate as other mainline denominations—a state of affairs that has existed for over two decades.

Thus, over the decades of the eighties and nineties membership in the Episcopal was at virtual plateau. This plateau was obscured by the issues surrounding Parochial Reports and highlights the importance the work Hadaway did in resolving them to establish his time series. The decline over the sixties and seventies did not continue.

In Hadaway’s analysis the reasons for the decline have to do with demography, not theology or church growth strategy. Or, rather, where he would place emphasis in a church growth strategy is in broadening our constituency. The membership of the Episcopal Church has been predominantly white. And the birthrate among whites has declined substantially since the fifties. Hathaway finds (p. 13) “the association between [white birthrate and mainline membership growth] is so strong that it produces a correlation of .94 (0 being no relationship and 1.0 begin a perfect relationship). In statistical terms, 88% of the year to year variation in mainline membership can be explained by the birth rate.” (He finds the correlation .89 between white birthrate growth and member growth in the Episcopal Church.) Further (p. 16),

As noted earlier, all denominations—mainline and conservative—were affected adversely by social changes occurring in the 1960s and 1970s. However, mainline denominations were hit hardest by the changes because declines in the birth rate were much more severe among the more highly educated white population. (Among conservative Protestants and Mormons the birth rate remained much higher than for the mainline, insulating these groups from the full effect of declines in fertility).

and (p. 17)

The Episcopal Church has the highest proportion of members among mainline denominations who are college graduates and in households earning $75,000 or more. As a result, the birth rate among Episcopalians is much lower than the national average—and even lower than the population of non-Hispanic whites. A reasonable estimate, based on education and race, is approximately 1.5 children per woman (compared to the replacement level of 2.1) for Episcopalians.

Hathaway concludes (p. 17), “sustained growth is increasingly unlikely unless we begin to reach out beyond our historic constituency.”

Earlier I reviewed recent academic work on church membership trends in mainline and conservative churches. It echoes what Hadaway concludes about the Episcopal church demography. That work also suggests that mainline churches have lost another source of growth: dropouts from conservative churches. As I wrote,

It’s a great irony that after differential birthrates, the second most important fact in explaining the rise of conservative membership relative to the mainline is that a portion of conservative youth that in the past would have converted to mainline in their adulthood now drop out of Christianity altogether.

This raises an interesting empirical question: is the Episcopal church an exception? How many of its new members come from other Christian denominations?

Next Monday, Part II: an examination of Hadaway’s “FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth.”

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) specializing in applied game theory. In the summers he resides in Orkney Springs, Va., home of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

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