Monday, January 11, 2010

Deciphering TEC's Decline

An interest in the fortunes of The Episcopal Church of the USA (TEC) from Down Under is a fraught exercise. It can be difficult to understand what is going on from so far away but easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. It can be tempting to go with interpretations of the situation from critics of TEC without given due consideration to apologists for TEC. But I think it is worth pursuing the interest for at least two reasons. First, at this stage in the life of the Anglican Communion, a lot hangs on what is happening in North America. Understanding the fortunes of TEC, ACCan, and ACNA helps me to get a feel for where the future of the Communion might be heading. Though right now I am not at all clear whether that will be a Communion-with-TEC, without-TEC, with-ACNA, without-ACNA, etc. Secondly, given the strong ties between my church and TEC, it is at least possible that TEC is a kind of laboratory experiment for my church. If its commitment to progressive theology is numerically successful then the future of our church could be bright; but if it is numerically unsuccessful then that might be reason to pause in our admiration for the direction TEC is taking.

I do not think there is any doubt that TEC is in numerical decline. Neal Michell (from inside TEC) offers this key statistic in an article entitled Royally in Denial.

"Consider this: in 2007-08 our average Sunday attendance declined by 60,000 people. Ponder that reality: 60,000 people who were worshiping in Episcopal churches in 2006 were no longer there two years later. That represents losing the combined dioceses of Atlanta, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Upper South Carolina."

But there is debate about deciphering the decline. Thus one commenter on BabyBlueOnline's post about Neal's article suggests this figure equates to those who have left TEC for ACNA. The implication being that, once the realignment has ceased, all will be well in TEC (i.e. at least as well as it can be these days for Christianity in the West). Then there is the point, touched on in a post two below, that Christianity in the West is in decline, measured not only in TEC but in the C of E, my own church, other Anglican and non-Anglican churches: isolating TEC's numerical decline from this perspective is simply unfair.

However there still remains the question which can asked of any particular church, including my own, Is there something that is being done or being not done which is contributing to people leaving the church, becoming less regular in worship, or which is an identifiable barrier to people joining the church? In the case of TEC there are questions about decisions being taken on a range of matters which might, when all is said and done, yield the answer, 'This way has been unproductive.'

Certainly Neal Michell in his article expresses the conviction that TEC is both complacent about the situation it is in and is making poor decisions:

"During the previous triennium the State of the Church Committee told the truth about the condition of our church. It did an excellent job of reporting the difficulties of an aging, financially challenged denomination. It acknowledged further losses due to conflict in our churches, particularly over sexuality issues that have exacerbated the decline in attendance and membership. The committee made recommendations for addressing these challenges.

"Were their recommendations heeded? No. Our General Convention had no real strategy in its decisions. The cuts in the triennial budget were hailed as “fair” and “across the board.” But they weren’t strategic. Seemingly strategic staff positions of three years ago and even one year ago were eliminated with little dissent. The convention passed all evangelism-related resolutions while at the same time eliminating the church’s evangelism officer.

"So many of our dioceses are in financial difficulties. Some of the financial shortfall in diocesan income is due to the recent recession. But remember, giving to the Episcopal Church by the dioceses is based upon previous years’ income. The most recent financial shortfall for the Episcopal Church is attributable, not to the recent recession, but to decreased income to our collective dioceses in the past three years.

"With ever-increasing decline in attendance and giving and ever-increasing costs of doing business at the congregational level, assessments paid to the Episcopal Church by our dioceses will likely decrease even more within the next six years. In other words, this current financial shortfall was a long time in the making, and it will likewise be a long time in the remedying.

"As a denomination, we need transformational change, not incremental change. Incremental change represents business as usual. Incremental change represents “just trying a little harder.” If we continue doing things as we have done, we will continue our decline, continue bleeding off the endowments of previous generations, continue to congratulate ourselves on the pockets of vitality while we become a church pastored primarily by retired and part-time clergy. One recommendation of the previous State of the Church Committee was that some members be reappointed to provide for some continuity with the previous committee. Was that advice heeded? No. Not one member of the 2006-09 State of the Church Committee was reappointed for 2009-12."

Neal Michell's article could be usefully read in tandem with Anglican Curmudgeon's description of TEC finances.

Neal Michell's criticism may be off target. Evangelism can work well without an Evangelism Officer. Growth can happen without a strategic plan. A wholly new committee may have more wisdom than a committee with continuing membership.

Nevertheless an Anglican Down Under can connect a few dots in the situation and be concerned lest his own church follow a certain pathway: the ordination of Gene Robinson allied with prevarication and ambiguity in response to the entreaties of the Anglican Communion has precipitated the loss of a statistically significant number of members of TEC, subsequent legal battles over property which have incurred significant expenditure which cannot be disconnected from the spending decisions of TEC in other areas of its life (again, see Anglican Curmudgeon for details).

I get the point that it is not for an observer far away to make judgments about whether TEC should or should not have done what has been done, and should or should not continue to litigate over property (with, of course, the associated question of whether ACNA members should or should not be forcing the question of litigation by insisting on taking property with them). But I think it is appropriate for an observer far away to wonder if his own church is right to take continuing care about being precipitate in forcing the dilemma over homosexuality in one direction rather than another.


Margaret said...

I know that the effect of the "Gene Robinson" decision on the TEC weighed quite heavily on many NZ Presbyterian minds when they were voting at their 2004 and 2006 Assemblies.

Peter Carrell said...