Gay-Friendly Episcopal Church Drops Below Two Million Members

Episcopalian gay ministers
Pam Frye, right, greets Rev. Canon Timothy Rich, left, following a service at the Church of the Redeemer Episcopalian church, Sunday, June 27, 2004, in Rochester, N.H. Frye was one of three parishoners out of thirty-six who chose not to resign from the parish during a meeting last Wednesday. The parishoners who resigned, did so in opposition of the Right Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopalian Bishop. (AP Images/Tim Boyd)

Once a flagship denomination of American mainline Protestantism, the U.S.-based Episcopal church has for the first time in decades reported membership below 2 million.

The Episcopal church in 2009 affirmed that “gays and lesbians that are in lifelong committed relationships” should be ordained. The church held that “God has called and may call such individuals to any ordained ministry" in the Episcopal church and voted to allow bishops to decide whether or not to bless same-sex marriages. In May 2010, the Episcopal church consecrated its first openly lesbian bishop.

"Despite all its liberal cheer leading about inclusiveness, the Episcopal church is a dwindling, nearly all white, increasingly gray-headed denomination with a grim future, absent divine intervention,” said Jeff Walton, spokesman for IRD's Anglican Action Program.

Indeed, self-reported statistics provided by the denomination this month show that the church has dropped from 2,006,343 members in 2009 to 1,951,907 in 2010, the most recent reporting year.

The loss of 54,436 members increases the annual rate of decline from 2 percent to 3 percent, outpacing the most recently reported declines in most other mainline churches. The church's 10-year change in active members has dropped 16 percent.

"The drop below 2 million members is noteworthy, but the precipitous drop in attendance is even more dramatic, boding poorly for the Episcopal Church's future,” Walton said. “Almost one-quarter of Episcopalians who were in the pews in 2000 have vanished.”

A branch of the otherwise fast-growing 80 million member worldwide Anglican Communion, the third largest family of Christian churches globally, the Episcopal Church had also seen a steady decrease in the number of parishes, losing or closing over 100 in 2010, as well as a drop in attendance from 682,963 in 2009 to 657,831 in 2010, a 4 percent drop. Fifty-four percent of all U.S. Episcopal Churches suffered attendance loss over the prior year. Over the last decade, attendance was down 23 percent.

The denomination, which once claimed over 3.5 million members as recently as the mid-1960s, has lost over 40 percent of membership even while the U.S. population grew by over 50 percent.

"Departures to other churches have fueled Episcopal decline, as have decreasing baptisms and its graying population,” Walton said. “These statistics contrast sharply with more theologically conservative Anglican churches in the global south, many of which are witnessing skyrocketing numbers.”

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