• Ian Sutton

The Sound of Silence

Two years ago I created the following chart to do with membership of the Episcopal Church. The data is based on annual parish reports. I knew that membership was drifting down, but I was startled and surprised at the rate of decline.

The chart shows that there were 800,000 members in the year 2005 but that membership had fallen to 550,000 by the year 2005. (There were 3.4 million members in the 1960s.)


A linear extrapolation of the line shows that there will be no members at all just a generation from now. (In fact, the line will likely reach an asymptote or hockey stick and flatten out before it reaches zero. Or some other factor, such as combining with another church, will come into play. Nevertheless, the trend is gloomy.)


At first, I wondered if I had misunderstood the data in some way, but I found that others are coming to similar conclusions. The Episcopal priest Dwight Zscheile told the Episcopal News Service.

The overall picture is dire – not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly. At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.

Causes

There is no shortage of opinions as to what is causing the decline in membership in the Episcopal church (along with many other denominations). A frequent response is that people have moved away because the church has become too liberal in social matters. Another oft-quoted reason is to do with a perceived lack of biblical foundations. Behind it all lies the increased secularization of society in general.


Regardless of the cause of the decline, everyone who gets involved in these discussions agrees that we need to better engage young people. Which means that we need to listen to their concerns and to organize our theology around those concerns.


In western countries young people are apprehensive about two issues. The first is the lack of solid career opportunities, the second is climate change. Regarding the second of these, it is probably no coincidence that a youth leader who has generated much passion in recent years is Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunberg. Credit Ugo Bardi.

She, and young people like her, recognize that climate change is not just a social/political problem such as health care or trade relations that can be negotiated and/or delayed. The climate could care less about our policy statements and international declarations. We cannot negotiate with the laws of physics, thermodynamics or geology. Nature bats last. These young people also understand that the consequences of climate change are likely to be catastrophic within their lifetimes.


Here is another chart which is matches the Episcopal church membership, except that it heads in the opposite direction. The chart shows the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the year 1960 until now. Like church membership, the trend is clear, and there is very little scatter in the data.

Superimposed on the chart are the dates of the more important international conferences (COP — Conferences of the Parties) and the release dates of key reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


Correlation is not causation. But young people know two certainties. The first is that, if we continue on our present climate change trajectory, we are heading toward catastrophe. The second certainty is that the older generations have not taken the situation seriously. It is fascinating to witness the applause that Greta generates when she speaks words such as the following to leaders of the United Nations and other bodies.

You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say, we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up, and change is coming whether you like it or not.

Silence

The Episcopal New Service letter that has already been referenced was posted on October 2020. It contains the following ominous words.

2019 will now be the last year of this particular iteration of the parochial report, the oldest continuous gathering of data by The Episcopal Church. With some adjustments in methodology and definitions, the report has measured membership since 1880 and Sunday attendance since 1991. . . For 2020, parochial reports will only measure Sunday attendance from Jan. 1 to March 1 and include new narrative questions to help track “opportunities, innovations and challenges".
Church leaders have said that including narrative sections allows parishes to describe the less quantifiable ways in which they are serving God and their communities, and that membership and attendance numbers alone don’t paint a complete picture of the church.

So much for the famous quotation, “In God we trust, all others must bring data”. In an age of highly successful, data-driven organizations such as amazon and Google, the church moves in the other direction. If there is a credo for statisticians it is that decisions should be based on accurate and timely data, not on wishes or hunches or “experience.”


Response

How the church can respond to the situation in which we find ourselves is the topic of other articles and posts at this site. In the context of the above discussion, I put forward the following two thoughts.

What is truth?

First, we should use data as much as possible to provide insights. This is not to say that the “less quantifiable ways” are not also a part of the message, but forsaking a data-driven approach is going in the wrong direction. Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Data provide one important view of the truth.


The second thought is to do with priorities. Climate change is an existential crisis. It does not care what we say or think — it is what it is. The church has an opportunity to work with young people on developing a response that looks facts in the face.

This week’s post at the blog Net Zero by 2050: Technology for a Changing Climate is one in a series to do with renewable energy sources. The post is Renewables: The Paradox. It considers the strange situation in which “green” energy sources such as solar and wind are growing much more rapidly than any other source, yet their share of the overall energy mix is declining.


We have also published a brief post Rebound which shows that the COVID pandemic has not led to a decline in CO2 emissions.

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