The Anglican Church of Canada is shrinking faster than it was in the years before a much-discussed 2019 report, recently collected data suggest.
According to the church’s statistics and research officer, Canon Neil Elliot, metrics of church size including electoral rolls and distinct identifiable donation sources show membership dropping by about 10 per cent nationwide during 2020, and prelimary data suggest a similar decrease in 2021.
The findings follow Elliot’s 2019 extrapolation, presented to the Council of General Synod (CoGS) that year, which projected that if the church’s rate of membership loss continued there would be no one left by the year 2040. But the rate of decline during the pandemic years is considerably higher than the membership loss of around 2.5 per cent per year the church experienced in the years leading up to COVID-19, Elliot says. The precise reasons for this accelerated decline are unclear, he adds.
Some church leaders, however, say there’s more to the church than the number of its members—and numeric decline is no reason for despair.
“The church absolutely will be smaller, we absolutely know that … I think it’s too simplistic to simply say we’re dying. I think we’re going through an age of transformation,” says Peter Misiaszek, director of stewardship for the diocese of Toronto. “And that age of transformation will mean fewer parishes, but hopefully healthier parishes.”
Elliot adds that it’s important not to blame the shrinking of the church on anything its clergy or parishioners are doing—or failing to do. Rather, he describes the phenomenon as part of a “spiritual climate change,” which is affecting not just the Anglican church, but religious communities across North America and Europe, too.
Since its peak in 1961, when 1.3 million Anglicans made up about seven per cent of Canada’s population, the Anglican Church of Canada has followed a steady rate of decline, losing about the same number of people every year for much of that time. In the 50 years between 1961 and 2001, its membership dropped by half to about 641,000. Then, in a much shorter 16 years, it roughly halved again to about 282,000 in 2017. Elliot notes that this change reflects, albeit somewhat more dramatically, overall statistics on Canadians’ engagement with organized religion.
Data from Statistics Canada show that in 2021, 34.6 per cent of Canadians reported having no religious affiliation, more than double the 16.5 per cent recorded in 2001. Just over half of Canadians—53.3 per cent—identified as Christian, down from 77.1 per cent in 2001. There have been similarly dramatic drops in the proportion of people who regularly attend group religious activities.
Church membership in other Western countries has been shrinking too. Data released in November by the U.S.-based Episcopal Church (TEC) show average Sunday attendance in 2021 down by 43 per cent from pre-pandemic levels. At November’s meeting of CoGS, Liza Anderson, representative to the council for TEC, said a recent report to the Episcopal Church’s executive council showed that half of those who had stopped coming to church during the pandemic would likely never return.
“Organizationally, we’re in the phase that all organizations go through right before they collapse in on themselves and die,” she said.
However, Anderson added, “that doesn’t mean the Episcopal Church is dying. Because the church is not synonymous with its bureaucratic organizational structures … All of us have work before us that’s given us to do. And whether or not any of these particular organizational instantiations of that work continue, well, that was actually never the point.”
For his part, on the trend of church decline, Elliot says, “There may be things we can do individually to mitigate it, but mostly it happens at a level we can’t directly affect. Mostly what we need to do is to adapt.”
With the pandemic came a sense of uncertainty, he says. While the national church seems to have continued shrinking by about 10 per cent per year, there was a lot of variance from one parish to another. Some shrank even faster. Others seemed to be unexpectedly growing. Many parishes reported rising view counts on their online services, though the relationship between online engagement and actual membership is still unclear. As a result, the exact effect the pandemic has had on the church’s shrinking membership is hard to specify, says Elliot.
“[We saw] what I described as instability—which I see as hopeful,” he says. “In engineering, when those kind of changes happen, it means that the system as a whole is undergoing substantial change and you don’t know where it’s going to end up. Anecdotally, I can say that in my area, I see a lot of willingness to embrace change now that I didn’t see before the pandemic.”
Within the decade, Misiaszek cautions, some dioceses may see a “tipping point,” where multiple parishes have to close at one time, placing strain on the national church’s ability to help other struggling dioceses.
“Over the last 20 years, we [the Diocese of Toronto] have closed or amalgamated four congregations each year. That’s a normalized pattern.” he says. “But what happens if in one year—and it could be five years down the road from us—instead of having four of those parishes closing, you have 20?”
Both Elliot and Misiaszek agree that as the church shrinks, it will need to restructure—not least because as attendance dwindles, donations follow. That means that many parishes may not be able to afford the upkeep on their buildings for one thing, not to mention the salary for a full-time member of the clergy.
“Here’s an exercise that any parish can do: Ask the envelope secretary to estimate the age of their top five donors … because typically, your top five donors are responsible for upwards of 20 to 25 per cent of your parish revenue. And what if they’re all in their 80s?” says Misiaszek. It can feel a little harsh, he adds, but it may also provide an idea of when a parish might face a sharp reduction in donations.
Elliot and Misiaszek have some ideas of what adapting to that change might look like. For one thing, as some parishes begin to face falling donations, they may need to shutter their church buildings and look to one of a few alternative solutions, they say.
The first possibility is simply combining with other parishes, adding congregations together until they reach the mass necessary to make a building and a priest viable. This has the advantage of getting to continue meeting in a physical church space, but it may come with downsides if, for example, the newly incorporated parish’s building is too far for people from neighbouring areas to get to.
Another option, they say, is holding limited in-person services and supplementing them by meeting online, something many parishes were forced to do during the pandemic. Elliot says this necessity actually helped break the church’s inertia, its resistance to change. Online services offer their own advantages, including low costs and accessibility for people who otherwise can’t make their way to an in-person service due to distance or disability. They’re also a low-pressure way for people who have never been to church before to try it out. And many churches that offer online services have found themselves gaining viewers from entirely different parts of the country or the world, he adds.
Misiaszek says he knows of at least one parish in the diocese of Toronto that has left off physical meetings permanently and now meets only over Zoom. He’s not sure this is the right way forward for most parishes, however. While it may work for small groups of people who already know each other in person, he says, a purely online model may not be enough to build a real community.
“To what extent is a virtual experience a genuine sense of connectedness? It’s one thing to be able to view a service online, but are you really connected to that community?” he says. “You’re missing out on the fellowship, you’re missing out on the sense that you’re not alone in this and there are other people on the journey.” It will take more time to assess how moving online affects a church’s community and financial health, he concludes.
What both Misiaszek and Elliot think might work for congregations that are no longer able to afford their buildings is a move to smaller gatherings in parishioners’ homes. These gatherings might stand alone or be satellite groups with a physical church building at the heart of the community. They might be led by clergy or laypeople, or a travelling clergy member could support several congregations.
“Maybe we have 12 people meeting around a kitchen table and making a spaghetti dinner on a Saturday night and doing a Eucharist afterward,” says Misiaszek, comparing this type of small intimate gathering to the early days of the church in Rome, when Christians met in secret in the catacombs under the city. In those days, he says, Christian community thrived even without physical churches.
“What we do know about the church in the catacombs is … how people gathered and shared a meal and they had all things in common—how they recognized the giftedness of each one, and everybody contributed. There was this great sense of hospitality and welcome.”
Canon (lay) Ian Alexander, a member of General Synod’s Strategic Planning Working Group, says the group’s plan could help Anglican parishes, dioceses and the national church maintain a sense of purpose as they go through the difficult process of restructuring.
“Inevitably, at some point through that process they go ‘Why are we doing this?’” he says. When he hears that question, he offers the strategic plan’s five “transformational aspirations” as a guide. They’re a set of mission statements that place the goal of inviting and deepening life in Christ at the centre of a circle of priorities that include racial justice, cooperation with the Indigenous church, climate justice and interfaith relations, he says. One goal of the aspirations is to provide parishes and dioceses with a way to evaluate whether their reorganized structures are continuing to serve the core mission of the church.
“The central story of our church is a story of death and resurrection,” he says. “What the aspirations provide is that even if there have to be certain forms of dying or shrinking, there can be new life and new birth and new growth on the other side.”
The key lesson emerging from the pandemic’s uncertainty, says Elliot, is that identifying opportunities for change, and getting started on them, should be a top priority for the church. Otherwise, the only result from this turbulent time will have been a loss of members.
“My concern is that we try to go back to how it was before COVID, which will put us back to the place where we were in that steady decline—but we will have taken significant steps down the ladder because of those people we have lost during COVID,” he says.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Peter Misiaszek as “the Rev. Peter Misiaszek.