The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.
The American branch of the Church of England, founded when the Vatican balked at permitting King Henry VIII to continue annulling marriages to any wife who failed to bear him sons, is in trouble.
Somehow slipping out of the headlines is a harsh reality that the denomination has been deserted in droves by an angry or ambivalent membership. Six prominent bishops are ready to take their large dioceses out of the American church and align with conservative Anglican groups in Africa and South America.
Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies
“An interesting moment came at a press conference on Saturday,” reports convention attendee David Virtue, “when I asked Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, if she saw the irony in that the House of Deputies would like to see the Church Center at 815 2nd Avenue in New York sold (it has a $37.5 million mortgage debt and needs $8.5 million to maintain yearly) while at the same time the national church spent $18 million litigating for properties, many of which will lie fallow at the end of the day.”
New York City's “Church Center,” the national Episcopal headquarters, up for sale.
This is no longer George Washington’s Episcopal Church – in 1776 the largest denomination in the rebellious British colonies. Membership has dropped so dramatically that today there are 20 times more Baptists than Episcopalians.
U.S. Catholics out-number the Episcopal Church 33-to-1. There are more Jews than Episcopalians. Twice as many Mormons as Episcopalians. Even the little African Methodist Episcopal denomination -- founded in in 1787 -- has passed the Episcopalians.
Among the old mainstream denominations reporting to the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church suffered the worst loss of membership from 1992-2002 — plunging from 3.4 million members to 2.3 million for a 32 percent loss. In the NCC’s 2012 yearbook, the Episcopal Church admitted another 2.71 percent annual membership loss.
Convention attendees were told that they had spent $18 million this year suing their own local congregations — those which have protested the denomination’s policies by trying to secede. The New York hierarchy has consistently won in court – asserting that the local members signed over their buildings decades ago. As a result, some of the largest Episcopal congregations in the United States have been forced to vacate their buildings and meet elsewhere.
So now, convention delegates were told, the denomination is the proud owner of scores of empty buildings nationwide – and liable for their upkeep in a depressed real estate market where empty church buildings are less than prime property. It’s the classic “dog in a manger.” The denomination has managed to keep the buildings – for which it has little use. However, they made their point – refusing to
allow the congregations which built the facilities to have any benefit after generations of sacrifice, donations and volunteerism.
“One former Episcopal priest wrote me, ‘The irony is that after all their property suits to get control of empty buildings, they now are losing their main property.’
“But this cost cutting measure may not be enough to salvage the long term solvency of the Episcopal Church. The church is hemorrhaging money like crazy and no one seems to know how to turn off the spigot.”
“The accelerating fragmentation of the strife-torn Episcopal Church USA,” writes Christian author Charlotte Allen. “ in which large parishes and entire dioceses are opting out of the church, isn’t simply about gay bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions or the election of a woman as presiding bishop. It is about the meltdown of liberal Christianity.
“Liberal Christianity has been hailed by its boosters for 40 years as the future of the Christian church. Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, the mainline churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating.”