There are underlying indications of vitality in The Episcopal Church despite signs the church is "swimming against some difficult cultural tides," according to the chair of the House of Deputies State of the Church Committee of The Episcopal Church.
Matilda Kistler of the Diocese of Western North Carolina said statistical information collected by the Church"s research office "indicates the challenges that the Episcopal Church faces, along with other Christian bodies, in pursuing mission and ministry in this society."
"However," she continued, "we believe that the committee"s research will confirm what most of us know instinctively that active, vital and transformative gospel ministry is being done on all levels of the church."
The House of Deputies State of the Church Committee founded in 1808 and the most long-functioning General Convention committee within The Episcopal Church - .held its first meeting of the new triennium November 17-20 in Chicago. The Committee is charged with reporting on the vitality, functioning and overall well-being of the church every three years
Kistler was named chair of the 11-member committee, all appointed by House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson. Committee members and their dioceses are: Anderson, Michigan; Joseph Ferrell, North Carolina; Victoria Garvey, Chicago; Dr. Anita George, Mississippi; Pauline Getz, San Diego; the Rev. David Johnson, Mississippi; the Rev. John Kitagawa, Arizona; the Rev. Canon Dr. Neal Michell, Dallas; Richard Miller, Southeast Florida; the Rev. Dr. Peter Strimer, Olympia.
"Hurdles for the church to clear"
Kistler said that "it is clear there are cultural and internal hurdles for the church to clear."
She continued, "We find ourselves facing a society that is gravitating toward secularism. We also believe that the church-going segment of the public is aging significantly, though the committee will be seeking more definitive data to ascertain if that is so. We hope that our reports will help the church build on what is being done well and to find new focus in other areas."
While the average pledge to local congregations increased to $2,302 in 2008, overall income decreased, according to the statistics. "Church endowments and reserves were greatly impacted by the decline in the market and overall economy," she noted. "We anticipate that our research in the coming months will indicate adjustments in many congregations and dioceses."
Statistics released by the Episcopal Church Center indicate that domestic church membership declined by 2.8 percent in 2008. Overall church membership including 10 non-US dioceses was down 2.6 percent. Average Sunday attendance at worship services declined 3.1 percent within the US, while the attendance dropped 2.7 percent for the entire church.
Of significance, she reported, was the good news on the church"s international fronts. "We are delighted with the significant growth that has occurred in Haiti and the Latin American dioceses. The church"s presence and witness in those areas are being well-received."
"Nearly all Christian bodies are facing challenges from the current cultural and economic conditions," Kistler said. "The internal conflicts within the Episcopal Church have also distracted from the message of hope our clergy and lay leaders seek to share. However, those issues have not clouded our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
She pointed out that previous eras of difficulty in church history have led "to periods of reflection, focus, recommitment to mission and ultimately growth in the community of faith. I think we are on the brink of seeing a transformation within the Body of Christ, in general, and in the Episcopal Church, in particular."
Future reports from the committee
Kistler promised interim reports from the Committee periodically.
"As our work progresses and we gather and analyze more information, we will share our observations with those who lead, attend and support this church"s ministry," she said.
For more complete reports of the new statistical data, see http://www.episcopalchurch.org/research.htm.
The Episcopal Church welcomes all who worship Jesus Christ in 109 dioceses and three regional areas in 16 nations. The Episcopal Church is a member province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org