On Not Caring About Stemming the Tide of Mainline Decline

Tony SigIt appears that Anglicans are really quite talented at creating entire cottage industries around problems of identity. Books about “Anglican Identity” and “What is Anglicanism?” abound in numbers far greater than you may at first imagine. I feel as though, if one is allowed to judge by certain internet circles, we are about to start on a whole new creation when finally – about 30 years too late – we get around to addressing the “problem” of “mainline decline.”

The facts are…

  • We’re getting older
  • We’re getting smaller
  • We’re getting poorer
  • We’re getting less and less important in our social stature


  • Should we eschew hierarchy?
  • Should we come up with THE missional strategy?
  • Should we maybe wear khakis to preach?
  • Should we mess with the liturgies? Make God more feminine; black; expansive; Celtic; relevant?

Now, these are not all merely banal questions (though perhaps some are), but I would like to suggest that so long as the beginning and focal point of the discussion is centered around decline and “stemming the tide,” then we’ve already failed.

This line of reasoning puts us immediately in a reactionary position. “What are we going to do about this threat?  (This too is where the “identity fetish” creeps in. Constantly going in circles trying to fence the boundaries of identity means that less and less do we care to look to Jesus to judge what we think it important about our identity).

It also creates an atmosphere where even practices and beliefs that are very good are swept aside by the well-meaning or self-proclaimed “prophets” and “reformers.”

What often goes overlooked is how deeply institutional this line of reasoning is, and how ironic it is that these questions are often under the guise of being “anti-institutional.” Concern about numbers and colleges and seminaries and ages are all very institutional issues. (Though, far be it from me to be anti-institutional.)

Allow me to suggest that whether numbers are waxing or waning, the primary issue ought to be one of praying, working, longing, to be faithful to our Lord and faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel. I know this might seem just empty and pious word-mixing. The point I’m trying to make, though, isn’t about out-piousing anybody, but about shifting the seat of discernment from one of reactionary concern about structures to a positive freedom to love and worship our Lord and love our neighbor without concern for “maintaining” the Episcopal Church.

Doing otherwise evinces a deep lack of faith. As if somehow Christ isn’t risen and it’s up to us to pick up the Church by her bootstraps and keep her going! (Thus, even now the pelagian shadow of liberal protestantism lurks behind every question and every answer)

I think we could all stand to learn from people like Derek Olsen, who when prodded on the question of a drop in numbers responds not by saying what ought to go in order to stop the bleeding, but by pointing out what ought not be negotiable because they are the things that help to keep us faithful to the Gospel that we’ve received. Or +Rowan Williams who concludes his astounding essay “God” in this way:

“In a church that is in many ways deeply wedded to ‘territorial’ preoccupations, it is unlikely that the gift and promise of the non-territorial God will be clearly discernible. In other words, a church that is concerned about its internal politics will not transform the political in the way that is in fact made possible by Jesus. The desire to secure purity and control in the Church (which can be a preoccupation as much of ‘progressives’ as of ‘traditionalists’) looks to a territory in which believers may see in one another a reassuring sameness; and when believers are looking at one another to test that assurance, they are less likely to be attending to the foundational absence on which the life of the community rests. And if the contemplative life is central in some way to the integrity of the Church at large, it is because of this: not to point to ‘values’ above and beyond the concerns of the world, not to pass judgment on the unspiritual conflicts of the Church or society, but to witness to the way in which a life may be constructed in which all acts are referrable to God and in which the consequent ‘deregionalizing’ of the life of the spirit, life before God, impacts increasingly upon the understanding of prayer. It is to do with the poverty and wealth of the everyday; with the fullness and emptiness of faith.”



  1. Tony, thanks for this post. A couple of thoughts:

    I mostly agree with you that the decline of the mainline ought not concern us for the most part, and I also agree that our major goal as communities of believers must be faithful witness to the God embodied in Jesus Christ. I think that you are largely correct in saying that the awareness that the Episcopal church is in decline has come pretty late in the game.

    That said, though, it seems to me that at least in one way the decline in membership and attendance is linked to a deficiency in our witness. The New Testament is pretty clear that communities that bear faithful witness to Jesus are welcoming to those who are outside of the community in such a compelling manner that those outsiders soon find themselves insiders through a process of conversion, baptism and discipleship. If a church does not help foster serious, life-changing commitments to Jesus by those who have had no such previous commitment, I would think that would be an example of a deficient witness.

    It seems to me that statistics about adult baptisms with TEC and other mainline groups would confirm that we have largely been woefully deficient in that area.


    1. Hey Dave,

      And I mostly agree with you here. The only thing is that I hesitate to look at decline or any sociological statistic really to be the arbiter of judging faithfulness. It might have been that when TEC was booming it was less the result of a straightforward and reliable witness as a consequence of a post-war economic boom and period of relative social hegemony.

      So when the church is “narrow but deep” it might be failing to be “successful” in a worldly sense but it might also be very successful in a spiritual sense.

      I imagine we’re in agreement here. The question of whether TEC has in fact been faithful is an important question, but not one that is answerable, I would suggest, by first asking questions about sociological realities.


  2. Yes, we’re mostly in agreement. I totally agree that prosperity, numerically, financially, or otherwise doesn’t equate to faithfulness, just as the lack of any of those doesn’t equate to unfaithfulness.

    At the same time, if we look down at the end of the year and see “zero” for baptisms in a congregation, I have to wonder whether we’re bearing faithful Christian witness to those outside our community in a way that is as compelling as it ought be.

    Can a church which does not create the space necessary for adults who have not had prior Christian experience to come into relationship with Jesus be bearing that kind of witness? I have my doubts.


  3. This post made me wonder if the Mennonite church is done a disservice in its new found popularity in how it gives us a sense of having a ‘fighting chance’ in turning the tide.
    The longer I am in institutional ministry the more I think not-caring, as a general view of many, many things, is a pretty healthy posture, but of late that may be entering dangerous areas for myself. But that is just it sometimes. We hit ‘fearful’ areas and we don’t handle fear well so we use work, distraction, or tradition rather than sitting with fear because fear only has so much strength when stared at over a long enough period of time.


    1. My prolonged attention to the church’s history and theology makes me take a long view to conflicts. I’m not totally relativistic, but I feel that fear of change is fear of the inevitable and can often be a quenching of the Spirit. But grasping novelty is an opposite reaction (I’m really speaking to the air here. I know you’re not saying this).

      I basically try and argue well and thoroughly for my point understanding that, even in the highly unlikely event that anything I say or do will have any long term effect, the “final word” lies outside of my lifetime.

      Mostly I assume that I’ll have not importance either in my lifetime or in the future. Writing as if I will is a massive act of hubris.


  4. Be Protestant. The Catholics will eat our lunch if we try to be ‘catholic’.

    Protestant, but none of Luther’s exaggerated bombast, nor of Calvin’s 5 heresies. Zwingli whatever, no. That reformation is over, and it was a failure by the end of the 19th Century, in my opinion. The spiritual wealth of the English Church should be celebrated, its independence, piety, theology, and philosophy. The church spent so many years enjoying the cream of Cambridge and Oxford intellect. Go back and find it, dust it off, then show it off. After calling out sinful attitudes, make people think, not necessarily the same things that they used to think, but with the energy that they once had.

    Tell the organist he has GOT TO STOP pumping up the Gradual Hymn immediately after the Second Reading 🙂 . Let the Epistle soak in for a full half-minute. More silence.

    And more silence. Put the noisy Creed somewhere away from the Gospel, so that dreadful rote performance does not chase away the Spirit of the Word (if the sermon has not already done so).

    In fact, there cannot be too much silence, in my opinion. I would love to see a service once a month where the priest just kept his mouth shut after the kiss of peace, until the final blessing. Call it ‘silent communion.’ Precious silence (or non-doctrinal hymns) during the whole Canon and the Communion. Not a priestly word about what’s going on at the altar. Just put supper on and let me come to the rail in my own glad tears.

    But this is the fruitless rant of a man who has been out of church for 3 years now, contemplating joining the Methodists, but still afraid to start over with a whole new ‘thing.’


        1. That’s great news. I thought that Bulgakov in particular, and the fact that for him Pentecost is as universal as the Incarnation, would be to your interest. Which McIntosh did you look at?


          1. I didn’t find a library copy of the McIntosh book you reviewed here (Divine Teaching) until last week – but memory of your review caused me to grab his earlier Mystical Theology off the shelf in the fall, and it produced lots of reflection and notes. I was just enjoying the newer book for the first time this morning.


  5. Dude, where’d this come from all of a sudden? Given the interest you’ve previously shown in “Anglican identity, “this feels like a significant turn in your thinking.

    It’s Age of ADZ isn’t it?


    1. Well I do not throw these ideas out with the notion that they will necessarily grow the church, but if the topic is ambivalence toward shrinkage, I thought it a good time to appeal to an inwardness that will abide any storm – rather than simply gathering the wagons in a circle.

      Do I misunderstand ‘Anglican identity’? I only notice that a majority of my favorite poets, theologians and philosophers are British religious minds from pre-Reformation Catholics to Church of England Protestants.


      1. That seems a bit too illiberal for you, John. Oughtn’t we be open to new articulations? That they should be “in the spirit” of exemplary Anglian thinkers I take to be axiomatic.


        1. Actually Tony, I’m currently reading both E.L. Mascall (Anglican Thomist) and Austin Farrer (Anglican gadfly), both of whom were (IMO) articulating the modern dilemma brilliantly from the religious perspective in the 1940s-60s, but to whom not much attention seems to have been paid as the world marched on with Barth and Tillich, Bultmann and John A.T. Robinson, etc.

          Maybe it’s not ‘new’ articulations we need to absorb so much as to reset the clock about 50 years and check what was missed by the lurching ‘mainstream’ of the Art Deco age – whose miscues then have possibly contributed to the current drying up of the stream.


            1. Did you know also that it was Farrer whom C.S. Lewis asked for when he desired to receive Communion on his death bed?

              I was first attracted to Farrer because I agree with his rejection of the hypothetical “Q” document (he held that Luke depends on Mark and Matthew both). This view was one reason that his name was dropped from consideration for the Regius Professorship at Oxford in 1959.


    2. That’s a complicated question to answer. The primary tendency I’m making a passing swipe at is that which tries to “distill” Anglicanism to an essence. So it’s the “Via Media,” or a “Tolerant church,” or “abides by the three-legged stool,” or whatever. It’s not that these don’t find places in the Anglican tradition, but the tradition isn’t reducible to these, there isn’t a crucible or sine qua non.

      Hence why learning Anglican history and reading historic Anglican authors is where it’s at in my mind, and it’s also an attitude that’s been commended to me. Within it you find streams, characteristics, tendencies, etc… Some are “more authoritative” than others by virtue of being “absorbed” into the wider bloodstream, if you will. So for instance, Hooker’s Laws, or the liturgical and theological effect of the Oxford Movement are particularly strong parts of Anglicanism.

      Now often when there is a distillation taking place, it’s serving some polemical point. Polemics aren’t necessarily bad, I quite like them myself, but when it comes to internal Anglican politics, it usually becomes a sort of meta-key to discerning a way through disputes rather than attending to the complications and particularities.

      When thinking through identity there’s always a dialectic. Testing new ideas both against the Gospel and against instances of how the Gospel has been articulated in the tradition that we are responsible to.

      So for me to be an Anglican theologian or postulant is to be responsible to the actual concrete body of Anglicans, present and historical, as well as to the “foundational event.”

      Keep this going, I feel I have more to say.


      1. I agree about the value of engaging tradition, rather than trying to rely on an abstracted definition of what “Anglican” is supposed to mean. Of course, as soon as you do that you risk falling into the trap of the engagement itself becoming the definition. I’m always afraid that’s gonna happen to Rowan Williams, but then he’ll get all Christological or start talking about the Trinity and everything’s fine.

        Seriously though, being responsible to the past and present Church is something theologians have taken in all kinds of directions. And there’s also the issue of which aspects of you’re being responsible to (no one can pay attention to everything,) and whether those aspects don’t conflict with others (like David Bentley Hart vs Robert Jenson.)

        My own thinking is that the various traditions are all basically consonant, and that most of the disagreements are a matter of emphasis (the different traditions focusing too much on certain things while neglecting others.) My own interest in the Anglican tradition was that it wanted to engage with all the others and damn it I’ve fallen into that trap already.


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