By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
Any contemporary text in theology, church history, pastoral care, or even liturgy, likely opens with a few paragraphs that attempt to quickly sum up the state of the Church today. Leaving the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ for others to answer, few would disagree with the statement that ‘things have changed’ for the Church in the last few decades.
The most significant marker of this change has been the decline of Canadian Church membership – the fading away of congregations that were seemingly vibrant and hopeful just a decade or two ago. Anglicans in Huron know the story of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ all too well.
Between the years of 2007-2017 Huron witnessed the disappearance of more than fifty congregations. Each of these was a mission light that has gone out in our Diocese. For some Anglicans this has meant having to move from one congregation to another. For others this has meant that Anglican ministry in an entire community or region has altogether ceased.
In my search for growth and vibrancy in our Diocese I had to begin by confronting the difficult truths of our context that we don’t like talking about because they cause us to face our organization’s fears and vulnerabilities. Statistics that show that between the years 2007-2017 Huron’s membership declined by 15,771 baptized members, with 5,037 fewer worshippers on Sunday, seeing 10,846 fewer participants for Easter celebrations and witnessing the disappearance of 2,346 children who had previously been learning God’s story through Sunday ministries. Trends that document that 85% of congregations in Huron were marked by membership decline in that decade, while roughly 10% were holding steady.
(Statistics taken from Huron’s 2007-2017 Annual Statistical returns)
Some in our Church find consolation in these changing times knowing that most Anglican dioceses in Canada are in the same boat together – that widespread membership trends of decline are being experienced across the country. Researchers Brian Clarke and Stuart MacDonald have calculated that the annual decline of national Anglican membership to be roughly 22,700 members per year!
How should Anglicans respond to these rapid changes in our Church? Changes that threaten the future of our ministries, our congregations, our seminaries and perhaps even the future of Anglicanism in Canada?
Well, this is my take on things: perhaps we should start by better understanding the statistics that we aren’t talking about these days! What about the 5-8% of congregations in Huron that are bucking the trend? What are they doing differently and why aren’t we hearing more about them?
In the last decade of membership decline in Huron there have been congregations who have been thriving, experiencing growth in their ministries, an influx of volunteer vitality and, in some cases, membership increases. More often than not their stories have gone untold, drowned out by the many other challenges facing our Church today.
Did you know that in our sister Diocese of Toronto 25% of congregations have been growing in comparison of the same decade? What might they be able to reveal to us about the places where vibrancy and growth are still a reality for Anglicans in our country? Let’s start talking about church growth again! And let’s start with the stories of congregations in our own neighbourhoods.
Next month’s article will continue by digging into the theological reasons why every congregation should be perking up to listen to this important topic. For in order to counter the ‘Anglican lament’ that is shuttering churches every year in this diocese, we need to rediscover the motivation that inspires us to buck the trend.
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains.