The Episcopal Church of the United States (the Anglican Church of America) has predicted its own demise, projecting an overall 2.29% annual decline in members from the 1960s to the year 2050 when there will, the report says, be no-one left. There are variations and exceptions across the country, of course, with some parishes and individual churches doing better than others. The Anglican Church of Canada also projects that there will be no attenders or givers by the year 2040. All voluntary organizations close down well before there are no more members, and morale in the local church is deeply affected by perceptions of the wider church. The report also shows that the fewer people there are, the more they give on average to maintain their churches and support their congregations. At some point, of course, this becomes unsustainable.
There are some things to ponder on receiving sad news like this. First, modelling does not always come to pass, in fact, seldom does it play out as expected. The future is subject to many unforeseen factors... as everyone can attest in 2020! Theology and tradition (eventually!) adapt to meet the challenges of the times, and dramatic reversals are possible. In reality, we don’t go to church because it is a popular activity, or because we are in the habit, or because there’s nothing else to do on Sunday. We go to fill our spiritual longings, to ponder the divine, to soothe the pain of sin and loss, to express our awe at life, to calm our anxiety about mortality, and to be with others, however few, who also feel these needs and recognise their common cause and cure, the eternal God of Creation.
I am not pessimistic about the future of the Church. I see it as going through cycles or waves, with this late great decline due to many factors, among them the rise of secular ‘explanations’ for life, the war-traumas of the 20th century, the great proliferation of addictive distractions, and the protracted exposure of sex-scandals in the Church (along with many other organisations, of course, but all the more disillusioning in the household of God). I even think this near-collapse has had a purifying effect on the Church, forcing great introspection and reform. I am confident that Christianity is on the brink of revival for lots of reasons I can’t lay out here. But I sent the above link to Fr. Brett with brief comments, and he took the line of thought in a very different direction. This was his encouraging and grounding response:
“Worst case scenario, even if the Episcopal denomination died out, or any other denomination for that matter, it's good to remember the church global, let alone the 'church triumphant' to use the old language...
“Relevant historical anecdote - the church was planted in China back in the 7th century, then died out. Planted again in 13th century, then died out. Hasn't had an easy time since in modern era, but 'underground' I hear it is growing...
“Even if the global church was reduced to a dozen or so people locked in a room afraid, God can work with that. Bold words now of course whilst we are in a position of relative privilege and ease, but nevertheless. We are kingdom people, and the kingdom transcends earth even as it is yet to arrive... God sees the full picture, we can't.
“Given all that - [it is] totally right and proper to pray for the ECUSA to be revived and renewed, much like I pray [the] same for our own expression of Christ's Church.”