US Episcopal report highlights concerns over church attendance drop

An Episcopal Church committee has released an interim report that reveals positive trends as well as concerns in declining membership and church conflicts.

In a brief assessment of facts and trends in the Episcopal Church, the 'State of the Church' report - issued by the House of Deputies Committee in November - indicated the need for a "plan for action" at all levels of the denomination in response to membership drops.

In 2006, the number of Episcopal churches growing by 10 per cent or more decreased, and the number declining in membership by 10 per cent increased, according to the report. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) also dropped by three per cent in 2006 compared to one per cent the previous year.

An estimated 41 per cent of the attendance drop can be attributed to the departure of congregations from their dioceses.

And almost half of Episcopal parishes and missions have an ASA of 70 or less.

Conservative parishes and Anglicans discontent with the liberal direction of the Episcopal Church have left the American church body and realigned with like-minded churches from overseas.

The Episcopal Church - the US branch of Anglicanism - deepened rifts when it consecrated openly gay bishop V Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in 2003.

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has indicated that those who have left the national Church only account for less than 1 per cent of the total number of US Episcopal parishes.

According to the report, an increased number of congregations reported "serious conflict" from 2001 through 2005. The consecration of Robinson was one of the frequently mentioned sources of conflict in 2005.

Other areas of concern in the national Church include the "failure of some dioceses to fully support the program of The Episcopal Church at the national level", which is in turn negatively impacting its domestic operations and overseas mission work.

Four Episcopal dioceses have already taken steps to split and realign with a conservative Anglican leader. Most recently, the Diocese of Forth Worth in Texas voted to approve constitutional amendments and remove language that states the diocese accedes to the Episcopal Church's constitution and canons.

In December, the Diocese of San Joaquin could be the first Episcopal diocese in the country to take a final vote and leave the national Church. The diocese has been invited to align with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of South America.

Bishop Robert Duncan of the Pittsburgh Diocese is also in the process of forming a separate Anglican structure in North America that would remain faithful to the global Anglican Communion. Bishop Duncan contends that the Episcopal Church has "failed" the communion and rejected "obvious scriptural teaching".

The recently-released interim report also listed areas of encouragement in the Episcopal Church. Support directed to the Church's relief and development organisation increased from less than $9 million to around $40 million and within Episcopal congregations, giving per member continues to increase or remain steady.

Also mentioned was the reorganisation of staff at the Church Center which is underway for better utilisation of resources nationally and locally to support the mission of the Church.

The brief assessment was issued to describe the state of the Episcopal Church "as we see it as this point in time" and to assist and challenge leaders of the Church body.