Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Things were looking good for the Episcopal Church in 1966, when its membership hit 3.6 million — an all-time high. Then the numbers began to decline, year after year and decade after decade. At the moment, there are 1.6 million or so Episcopalians.

Why is this happening? Episcopal Church leaders have been asked that question many times, because it’s a valid and important question.

No one has ever given a more concise — bold, even — answer than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, when she said down for a “State of the Church” chat with the New York Times Magazine soon after her 2006 election as national presiding bishop. Here is the crucial exchange:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children? 

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

In other words, her critics said, Episcopalians are too smart to have lots of babies (unlike Catholics and Latter-day Saints) and, besides, most members of this flock have theological reasons not to procreate.

What we have here is a classic example of the formula that I keep writing about here at GetReligion, which I state this way, offering a third factor to a familiar equation: Doctrine equals demographics equals destiny.

That brings me to this new headline at the Times:

America’s Biggest Economic Challenge May Be Demographic Decline

Slower growth in the working-age population is a problem in much of the country. Could targeted immigration policy help solve it?

Here is the rather sobering overture:

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What’s the faith background of the Episcopal Church’s new leader?

What’s the faith background of the Episcopal Church’s new leader?

AN EPISCOPALIAN ASKS:

Can you tell us something more about the presiding bishop of our [Episcopal] Church? I’ve heard only upbeat things about him from people who have met and heard him. Will he be a Marco Rubio -- a very effective speaker who can connect with people?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Perhaps so. Here’s some information about the personable Michael Bruce Curry, 62, who was installed this month as the new presiding bishop of America’s troubled Episcopal Church. Some U.S. denominations lack such a solo head while the Episcopalians grant their chief unusually centralized power and, moreover, his term runs till 2024.

The questioner’s pitch for Republican Rubio brings to mind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 hope to become the nation’s first woman president following its first African-American president. The Episcopalians have done the opposite. Curry, the first African-American to head this rather elite and overwhelmingly white church, succeeds its first female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Jefferts Schori was a surprise choice in 2006 because she never led a prominent parish or diocese. She spent only five years as bishop of Nevada (currently with 5,444 souls). By contrast, Curry has 15 years of seasoning as bishop of the Raleigh-based North Carolina diocese, the nation’s sixth largest with 50,218 active members.

Rather like Barack Obama’s notable keynote speech to the Democrats’ 2004 convention that helped win the 2008 nomination, Curry delivered a rousing sermon at the church’s 2012 convention and was elected presiding bishop at the next one.

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On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

On the journalistic usefulness of independent partisans in religion news

Godbeat 101: Reporters who cover the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention are well advised to monitor both the official Baptist Press and Baptist News Global, operated by folks who disagree with the SBC’s staunchly conservative administration. Likewise with the Presbyterian Church (USA); reporters should check out the headquarters Presbyterian News Service but also fare from the conservative www.layman.org.

The usefulness of such independent partisans is also evident with the Episcopal Church’s ongoing struggles. For example, the official Episcopal News Service has been slow to post an article about the 2014 local reports (.pdf found here) compiled in the annual “Table of Statistics." Has anything been published? Keep checking here.

Compare this reluctance with Baptist Press’s prompt recent report on unhappy annual statistics.

Reporters who carefully follow independent sources already knew about the Episcopal numbers because they’re reported -- indeed, trumpeted -- by juicyecumenism.com from the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, which keeps a close skeptical eye on the “mainline” Protestant denominations. I.R.D.’s  polemical headline: “Episcopalians Continue Bleeding Members, Attendance at Alarming Rate.” 

The nub: Episcopal attrition continues.  Compared with the prior year, membership dropped 2.7 percent, to 1,817,004. The decline in average Sunday worship attendance was worse, by 3.7 percent to 600,411. The South Carolina diocese’s walkout is a good chunk of this. Other numbers were also down. Consider that as recently as 2002 average attendance was 846,640 and membership was 2,320,221. Not to mention the 3,285,826 members back in 1970; in the years since, the U.S. population has more than doubled.  

Most “mainline” groups have likewise suffered steady losses since the 1960s but, writer Jeffrey Walton notes, the Episcopal slide mostly leveled off during the 1990s.

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OK, we will ask: Why isn't Baltmore Sun nailing local angles in DUI Episcopal bishop story?

OK, we will ask: Why isn't Baltmore Sun nailing local angles in DUI Episcopal bishop story?

The case of the DUI bishop is, in one sense, over -- in that Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook is no longer a leader in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. In fact, she is no longer an Episcopal bishop at all, nor is she an Episcopal priest or deacon.

That shoe has dropped and has been covered pretty clearly in the newspaper that lands (for several more weeks) in my front yard near the Baltimore Beltway. But what about the rest of the story?

You see, the timeline that looms behind the story of the rise and tragic fall of Cook -- charged with criminal negligent manslaughter, using a texting device while driving, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and three charges of drunken driving -- reveals that this is actually two or three stories unfolding at the same time. There is more to this than the dominoes that began falling in her career after her car struck bicyclist Thomas Palermo.

First of all, there is the issue of her election as bishop, including the "what did they know and when did they know it" facts about her documented struggles with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Then there is the impact of this case -- financial, legal and professional -- on either the leaders of the local diocese, the national church, or both.

However, if you read The Baltimore Sun coverage of Cook's case, it's hard to know what is going on at the diocese and national levels. Meanwhile, The Washington Post coverage has included developments at all levels -- personal, diocesan and national. Remember this scoop when the Post caught details in a newly released Cook timeline document that were missed by the Sun?

So what is going on here? Why isn't the Sun staff interested in crucial LOCAL details about the fallout from this tragedy?

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Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Sometimes a news story drags on bit by bit, piece by piece, over the years and becomes so tedious that reporters miss the dramatic cumulative impact. It also doesn't help that long, slow-developing, nuanced religion stories have been known to turn secular editors into pillars of salt.

So it seems with the lawsuits against conservative congregations and regional dioceses that have been quitting the Episcopal Church, mostly to join the Anglican Church in North America, especially since consecration of the first openly partnered gay bishop in 2003.

The Religion Guy confesses he totally missed the eye-popping claim last year that the denomination has spent more than $40 million on lawsuits to win ownership of the dropouts’ buildings, properties, and liquid assets. If that’s anywhere near accurate it surely sets the all-time record for American schisms. And that doesn’t even count the millions come-outers have spent on lawyers. For more info, click here.

Note immediately that these elaborate data were pieced together by an obviously partisan if qualified source, “Anglican Curmudgeon” blogger A.S. Haley. He’s an attorney who specializes in church property law and represents the departing Diocese of San Joaquin in central California.  No reporter should simply accept Haley’s say-so and recycle his data unchecked. But a full accounting, working through his numbers with Episcopal officials, would make a good piece.

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Strange tea leaves (and silent lighthouse guns) in latest Baltimore Sun story about DUI bishop

Strange tea leaves (and silent lighthouse guns) in latest Baltimore Sun story about DUI bishop

The sad story of the DUI Bishop Heather Cook rolls on here in Charm City, even when appears that there are few if any concrete developments to report. But is the drama continuing behind the scenes at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and in the national Episcopal Church?

Maybe. Thus, it should be noted that The Baltimore Sun published a rather strange, and thus interesting, feature story the other day that focused on the role that may or may not have been played in this story by U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The goal appears to be to place the Cook tragedy in the context of recent Episcopal warfare (while avoiding global angles and, at the same time, cutting the Anglican wars timeline very, very short).

But toward the end of this story there are some interesting moments of silence. I cannot tell if the Sun editors simply do not realize the implications of some of their own reporting.

This brings me, once again, to the parable of the old lighthouse keeper. Remember that one?

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts.
Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire. This rare silence awoke the keeper, who lept from bed shouting, "What was that?"

Yes, readers may substitute the famous Sherlock Holmes image of the dog that didn't bark at this point. Either way, what is the loud silence in this story?

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Say what? Another revelation shreds the timeline in sad case of Bishop Heather Cook of Maryland (updated)

Say what? Another revelation shreds the timeline in sad case of Bishop Heather Cook of Maryland (updated)

First, a confession (as Great Lent approaches): I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian who lives in Maryland, which by definition means that I know many former Episcopalians. So from the beginning of the sad saga of the DUI Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook, I have heard people trying to make sense of the timeline and trying to discern its impact -- spiritual, political and financial -- on the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

The working theory: Cook was a legacy case, the daughter of a powerful local priest (a recovering alcoholic who was a pioneer in ministry to alcoholics). It appears that Cook was an effective parish pastor and then, during a decade as an administrator in the quiet and well-bred Eastern Shore Diocese of Easton, her work load pushed her deep into drink. Thus, the horrible 2010 DUI episode involving burning rubber, vomit, a fifth of whiskey and some marijuana.

But she received treatment and the Diocese of Maryland, without letting all of the voters know about that DUI thing, selected her as a bishop. Then perhaps the stress returned? Thus, the strange sermon on bad habits and safe driving and then the fatal collision with a cyclist. She has been charged with criminal negligent manslaughter, using a texting device while driving, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and three charges of drunken driving. Bail: $2.5 million.

But now there is this timeline shocker, care of The Washington Post and several other sources, including former GetReligionista George Conger, who now writes for The Media Project. The Post story opens with this:

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland suspected that Heather Cook -- now charged in the drunken-driving death of a Baltimore bicyclist -- was drunk during her installation festivities this past fall, a new official timeline shows. ...

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Got news? Shocker in Anglican Communion is news, other than in North America

Got news? Shocker in Anglican Communion is news, other than in North America

There is this old saying that wits have long used to describe life in the modern Anglican Communion: "The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions." Readers will also see variations on that final clause such as, "the British make/set (all) the rules."

But you get the point. Of course, the archbishop of Canterbury is also supposed to be the person -- as the first among equals -- who gets to call the most important meetings (while setting the rules for what goes on).

But what if (a) the Americans were to face an incredible budget crunch, in an age of imploding membership demographics, and (b) the Africans were no longer willing to pray (or more importantly, share the Sacraments) with Western progressives who have an evolving view of key elements of the Creed and centuries of Christian moral theology? 

At that point, there could be a big -- actually, "historic" is the operative word -- story in the world's third largest Christian communion.

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