Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When Episcopal Church Struggles Hit Your Father's Home Town

Even in small-town New England, Episcopal Church issues are hitting home.

My wife Sharon and I spent an extended Columbus Day weekend in the Northeast, largely in Newburyport, MA. My father was born there over 80 years ago and grew up during the depression. His family attended a Congregational church that now is a member of the United Church of Christ. We were blessed to visit family there, but we found that even in small town New England, Episcopal Church issues were having an impact.

Because when I picked up Saturday's local paper, I couldn't help notice a front-page article detailing the local Episcopal Church's (one town over) struggle to survive after the majority of its congregants left for the Anglican Church of Kenya. Only 10 families remained to keep the original Episcopal Church afloat. In contrast, according to congregational statistics from the Episcopal Church, average worship attendance had been at over 300 in 2006.

That's a huge drop. If we apply the U.S. 2006 average family size of 3.20 persons to the families that remain (and that seems to be close to the mark, given year 2000 census figures for both the town and the county), we're looking at roughly 32 members left in the Episcopal congregation. That means that at most roughly 11 percent of the congregation did not break away to form the new All Saints Anglican Church in a nearby community and remained with the Episcopal Church.

I can't imagine the pain that those who remain with the local congregation must feel to see their congregation shrink by roughly 90 percent. And while the article mentioned that 40 families are now involved with the Episcopal parish, it also noted that "[t]he group of Episcopalians in West Newbury was left with so little money, it will now be recognized as a mission, not a church. ... All Saints West Newbury no longer has the legal status of a church due to its financial state and does not have an ordained priest to lead them."

This congregation provides just one example of the type of pain that Episcopal Church parishes around the country are experiencing due to the denomination's departure from Christian orthodoxy. Long-time friends become strangers and perhaps even enemies to one another as parishes split apart. Financial concerns become an albatross around the neck of parishes. In some locations, priests are unavailable to lead parishes suffering from a split. And as the recent House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans demonstrated, the Episcopal Church continues to downplay the effects of the departures.

All Saints West Newbury says that it does not want to merge with another Episcopal parish. Instead, members are hoping to raise enough money to get the congregation back to church status within a year. If it is not able to rebuild, will it be able to survive? Or might it end up like my father's church, a United Church of Christ congregation now obviously progressive both theologically and in its social witness, with apparently only a few dozen people in average Sunday attendance? (Sharon and I went there on Sunday.)

Even in very secular New England, neither the possibility of closure nor the prospect of a small remnant can be desirable for the Episcopal Church. But as long as the denomination continues on its present trajectory (and the recent House of Bishops statement did absolutely nothing to suggest that the Episcopal Church is changing direction), it doesn't take rocket science to see the continuing effect: more alienated parishioners and more departures. And when it hits everywhere from small-town New England to Chicago, IL ; from Broomfield, CO, to Savannah, GA -- Houston, the Episcopal Church has a huge problem.


Lavvmac said...

I just read this article today, six months later. I went to services at All Saints Anglican in Amesbury on Sunday. It was a wonderful service. Your article captures the problem with the Episcopal church and its maniacal efforts on insisting there are only a "few" people and parishes leaving the Episcopal Church. We are RUNNING away. A Former Sr. Warden of an Episcopal Church

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