In the previous blog, I looked at attendance and membership data of four Anglican churches: the 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:

  1. 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, it has no real benefits from the state, like the SEC and ECUSA. They are merely one of many denominations, with some others being larger [7].
  2. 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.
  3. 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].
  4. 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 southeast, 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].
  5. 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.
  6. 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 the decline is 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, 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, and 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 the previous blog.  

[7] The Church in Wales is now 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 Asaph narrowly for. There are two more dioceses whose results I have not found yet. Normally with 2 dioceses against a proposal, the 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 of how underrepresented 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


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