‘Wake-up call’: CoGS hears statistics report on church membership decline

The Rev. Neil Elliot, statistician for the Anglican Church of Canada, presents his statistics report to the Council of General Synod via videoconference Friday, Nov. 8. Also pictured is Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. Photo: Matthew Townsend
Published November 9, 2019

The Anglican Church of Canada’s first reliably-collected set of statistics since 2001 show the church running out of members in little more than two decades if the church continues to decline at its current rate, the Council of General Synod (CoGS) heard Friday, Nov. 9.

“We’ve got simple projections from our data that suggest that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040,” the Rev. Neil Elliot, a priest for the diocese of Kootenay seconded in 2016 by the national church to collect a new set of statistics, told CoGS. Elliot, who reported on 2017 data collected from all of the church’s dioceses, also told the group about ongoing efforts to expand and diversify data collection.

The current projection should be taken especially seriously by Canadian Anglicans, Elliot said, because it is suggested by five different sets of church data, all collected in different ways: older data from 1961 to 2001; Anglican Journal subscriber data from 1991 to 2015; and three sets of data from his own survey of the dioceses as of 2017: the number of people on parish rolls, average Sunday attendance and regular identifiable givers.

“For five different methodologies to give the same result is a very, very powerful statistical confirmation which we really, really have to take seriously and we can’t dismiss lightly,” said Elliot, who gave his presentation remotely with the use of videoconferencing technology.

Two other findings, he added, suggest different outcomes. Data collection on the pastoral offices of baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals show an even faster rate of decline. However, a demographic study of a small number of parishes in the diocese of Kootenay, he said, suggested that—because of the age ranges that Anglicans fall into—the church could lose only 50% of its members by 2040.

In a response to a question on how other Canadian churches were faring, Elliot said data collected by the United Church of Canada also showed 2040 as a “zero-member date.” The Presbyterian Church in Canada, while declining, seems to be losing members somewhat more slowly, he said. For the U.S.-based Episcopal Church, he added, the projected zero-member date was around 2050.

Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of General Synod, told CoGS that senior staff of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada had given him a similar impression about membership decline in that church.

“Though I can’t quote the numbers, the lines look quite similar,” he said.

Introducing Elliot’s presentation, Thompson said he believed the substantial reduction in church membership since 2001 shown by Elliot’s data should not come entirely as a surprise to Canadian Anglicans involved in the church at a local level. The church they have been able to offer to God has been declining in size since the 1960s, he said, but they should not despair. Instead, Thompson said, they should look at this numerical decline in the context of other changes for the better.

The London, Ont., church in which he started worshipping in 1968, Thompson said, “while not filled to the point of discomfort, was full.” On the other hand, he added, “in all of the years that I attended that church…in all of the years I had attended church before then, and in all of the years that I attended church until I was in my 20s, I never once heard a sermon that made reference to God’s justice.”

He continued, “I never once heard anybody tell me about the residential schools. I never heard anything about the responsibility of the people of God to respect the dignity of every human being. It’s not that people didn’t care about those things, but those things were not tip-of-the-tongue discourse in the life of the church in which I was formed. Things are quite different now.”

In his report and in response to questions from CoGS, Elliot said he hoped the church would expand its data collection to be better able to monitor how specific aspects of its life, some of which may hold particular potential—home churches, Fresh Expressions, Messy Church and Book of Common Prayer services, for example—are doing.

Meanwhile, a working group of bishops, to be headed by Mary Irwin-Gibson, bishop of the diocese of Montreal, has been formed, Thompson said, “to say what are the things we should be counting…that will help us understand that, while the church we offer to God is smaller than it has been in the past, that’s not the only thing that’s true of it.”

In table group discussions after Elliot’s presentation, members of CoGS were asked to ponder four questions: whether the data aligned with their own experience; what surprised or stood out for them in the report; what they believed God was telling the church through the data; and where the “Good News” was in it.

Some table spokespeople said the data matched the experience of those at their table; some reported that at least one member of their group came from a growing or stable parish. Some groups expressed doubt that the church would run out of members by 2040.

“We actually don’t think there’s ever going to be a ‘zero person,’” one table spokesperson said. “I think what we will be offering to God in 2040 will be a different church, and a much smaller church, but it will still be a church.”

Another reported of his group, “Between the range of us there were some who found it hard to understand how everybody that they knew would either be dying or becoming apostate at 55, for the church to run out of members.” But he himself, the spokesperson added, was amazed to learn the church hadn’t lost more than Elliot’s report stated.

Some groups spoke to hope that the report would spur the church to change.

“Our group talked about the great hope, and good news, in the idea of taking more risks,” one said. “We see good news in the fact that several of us were noticing that lots of newcomers to the congregation were new Canadians as well…. Now we’re in this time of change, we can start addressing these kinds of trends.” And the emptying of rural congregations might mean more opportunities for ecumenical shared ministries, the spokesperson said.

Some groups were curious about whether data could be collected in other areas—such as how church buildings are being used. At least one group spoke to hope that the collection of the data, and possibly more data in the future, would not only help the church identify areas of growth; it would also help parishes and dioceses in numerical decline know that they’re not alone.

Elliot said one tool he hoped would be very useful for gathering this sort of detailed information is ParishOS—a kind of “electronic vestry book” that he had already used to gather information from some parishes. The national church, his report stated, is providing ParishOS free of charge to dioceses that want to use it.

A version of Elliot’s report had been leaked earlier this fall. In October, a link to it appeared in the Anglican Samizdat independent blog, after which it began to spread through social media. On Monday, Broadview, the former United Church Observer, published a story on the report.

After Elliot’s presentation and the feedback from the table groups, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, noted the interest the report had generated outside the church after it was leaked.

“I have to tell you, there’s lots of interest outside this room in this conversation,” she said. “We had hoped to simply present [the information] here, have a conversation before it went public. Unfortunately, some of our colleagues were not so good at keeping things quiet, and it leaked into some media. And in fact I’ve had at least two or three requests for interviews prior to coming here, and even while I’ve been here in the last two days.”

Nicholls said she hoped that instead of trying to figure out why the church was in numerical decline, or get drawn into a “vortex of negativity” about it, Canadian Anglicans would instead focus on the church’s calling.

“We’re called to do and be God’s people in a particular place, for the purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and the only question is, ‘How do we need to share it, so that it might be heard by those around us?’” she said.

“I think we’re being tested about perseverance, endurance, creativity in the coming years,” she said. “At the end of the day, when we stand before the great judgement seat and have to answer for how we lived our lives as Christians, I think the question that will be asked is, ‘Were you faithful with what you were given?’”

Nicholls also said she was hopeful to see “green shoots” of growth in various areas around the country—some in the church’s traditional ways of being and some in its new ways of expressing itself.

She said Elliot’s report was a “wake-up call” to the church, a mirror showing it unpleasant truths that could act as a spur to action. She noted the excitement she sensed in the church about the potential of detailed statistics-gathering to give it a deeper picture of itself, and said she looked forward to his work continuing together with the newly-formed bishops’ working group.

“It’s my hope that when we leave here, the message we take is not ‘Oh no, the church is dying,’ but ‘Oh, we’ve got a challenge’,” she said. “But we’ve also got a hopeful way of addressing that.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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