The Anglican Church of Canada, once the bastion church of all non-Roman Catholic Christianity north of the American border, was formally warned this month that it is ever more rapidly disappearing, and that unless something drastic is done it will vanish altogether shortly after the mid-century.
The warning came in a report to the church's bishops. It carried an unusual note of authenticity in that it was founded, not on census figures, but on the actual membership roles of parish churches. All its news was bad. Church membership has declined 53 percent over the last 40 years, it said, the sharpest decline of any major Christian denomination.
That is, it fell from 1.3 million in 1961 to 642,000 in 2001. Moreover, the rate of decline is quickening, the drop between 1981 and 2001 being much sharper than that between 1961 and 1981.
Other churches are losing members as well. The United Church of Canada (an 80-year-old union of Methodists, Congregationalists and some Presbyterians) has fallen from 1.04 million to 638,000 over the 40-year period. Presbyterian membership (i.e., those Presbyterian congregations that did not join the United Church) is down 39 percent, Baptist membership is down 7 percent and Lutheran down 4 percent. The membership lists of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada have meanwhile risen 38 percent over the period to 232,000 in 2001. Last year, that number stood at 243,000.
But the Anglicans (known in the U.S. as Episcopalians) lead the decline, a sad fate for the church that in the early 19th century was virtually the state church in English-speaking Canada, and the man who prepared the report did not sound hopeful that anything will be done about it.
He is Keith McKerracher, a retired marketing expert, who volunteered to undertake the study.
"My point to the bishops," he told the media, "was, 'Hey listen, guys, we're declining much faster than any other church. We're losing 12,836 Anglicans a year. That's 2 percent a year. If you draw a line on the graph, there'll only be one person left in the Anglican church by 2061.'"
"The church is in crisis," he said. "They can't carry on like it's business as usual." He doubts, however, his message will be heard. "I don't think the Anglicans will do anything. They talk things to death. My impression is that the bishops are not going to go around telling priests to shape up."
The response of Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Anglican primate of Canada, tended to affirm McKerracher's doleful view. The report, said the archbishop, is "a wake-up call" that will "cause us to refocus our efforts on issues that we haven't been able to address effectively in recent years." Up till now the church has been preoccupied with the "residential schools affair." Now that this has been resolved, it can turn its attention to "church development," he said.
(The "residential schools" were boarding schools for native children, run by the church on behalf of the federal government, in which native children, now adults, complained of "abuse." About 2 percent of the cases involved sexual abuse. Most concerned "physical abuse," (i.e., that the kids were spanked), or "cultural abuse," (that the kids were taught English, rather than native languages.) The government is now paying off most of the claims for $4 billion.)
However, the significance of the archbishop's response lay in what he did not mention, notably the church's consistent departure from traditional Christian teaching, which has been going on throughout the whole 40-year period of decline. It began with the acceptance of serial marriage, progressed to the ordination of women, then to the funding of terrorist groups in Africa, and finally to the acceptance of homosexual practice. The church's latest foray is its tacit approval of homosexual marriage, which has seen it virtually disowned by the Anglican churches of Africa and Asia.
These ventures into "tolerance" began in the '60s when the relatively few cases of sexual abuse of native children occurred. The perpetrators, doubtless persuaded that pedophilia would soon be "tolerated" along with everything else, guessed wrong. It wasn't.
But the fact the archbishop refuses to recognize his church's liberal leaning as a possible explanation for the exodus of more than half its members means he's highly unlikely to begin reasserting Christian teaching.
"By Jove," he seems to be saying, "our churches appear to be getting a little empty. We've never noticed this before. This is a wake-up call. It's time we did something." Not to worry. They won't.
Ted Byfield published a weekly news magazine in western Canada for 30 years and is now general editor of "The Christians," a 12-volume history of Christianity.
Visit the Christian History Project website.
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