In recent years, the Episcopal Church has seen significant declines in membership, from about 2.3 million in 2003 to an estimated 1.9 million today. Like other mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., the Episcopal Church has been struggling to balance calls for inclusive reform with the determination among some to hold true to “the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the church.
Orthodoxy was dealt another blow this month when delegates to the church’s national convention authorized the use of a provisional rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. Bishops opposed to the rite can forbid their priests to use it.
Delegates also voted to modify an existing anti-descrimination canon, which now states: “No person shall be denied access to the discernment process for any ministry, lay or ordained, in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disabilities or age, except as otherwise provided by these Canons.”
Added was the phrase “gender identity and expression.”
These latest changes (the church already ordains gays and lesbians) have prompted conservatives, including leaders of the Diocese of South Carolina, to reiterate their protest. The Diocese of South Carolina’s delegation walked out of the convention after these resolutions passed.
Even as the Episcopal Church moves to break down barriers of exclusion, its more conservative dioceses and parishes appear to be retaining parishioners or growing in numbers.
Last week, the Diocese of South Carolina reported increases in average Sunday attendance, membership and parish giving in 2011 compared with 2010.
Average Sunday attendance jumped nearly 11 percent from 11,086 to 12,286, according to parochial reports received from parishes. Average churchwide Sunday attendance was projected to show an adjusted decline of close to 2 percent, according to a 2011 Parochial Report Estimate released last month.
Total “Plate and Pledge” income in the diocese increased from $25,679,383 in 2010 to $27,873,631 in 2011, an 8.5 percent change. Total Plate and Pledge income for the wider Episcopal Church was projected to have increased nearly 1 percent over the same period.
The total number of diocese communicants (baptized members who have received Holy Communion at least three times during the preceding year and are faithful in corporate worship) rose nearly 23 percent in 2011 to 26,976.
And total baptized membership in the diocese increased slightly in 2011, from 29,196 to 29,443, or 0.8 percent. Churchwide, total baptized membership is expected to decline by 27,000, or 1.4 percent.
“This growth brings glory to our Lord and witnesses to the faithful ministry of the priests, deacons and laity within this diocese as they share the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Mark J. Lawrence said in a statement.
The diocese includes a few parishes that welcome, or at least tolerate, the church’s inclusive policies and have likely contributed in some measure to the diocese’s overall growth.
Also part of the diocese are parishes whose members are so dissatisfied with churchwide developments that they have all but severed ties. One particularly large parish, St. Andrew’s Church-Mount Pleasant, did choose to leave the fold in 2010 and realign with a new Anglican “province-in-formation,” the Anglican Church in North America. It took more than 2,500 worshippers with it.