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. Then simmering conservative disquiet exploded after the November 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as the denomination’s first openly gay bishop with a partner. That led to the departures by four dioceses besides South Carolina, by congregations, and by individuals.

Reporters should also consult insiders for further perspective on what’s happening, especially the denomination’s research director C. Kirk Hadaway. Last March he issued an analysis (.pdf here) of the statistics for 2013 combined with a 2014 survey of 762 congregations:

Obviously, conflict has been harmful. He also finds that the Northeast is especially difficult terrain, and that 31 percent of Episcopalians are age 65 and above,  compared with 14 percent of the over-all U.S. population. “Churches that offer non-typical services, whether imaginative, contemporary, ancient-modern, or in languages other than English, are much more likely to experience growth.”

Hadaway also makes an assertion worth an article in itself: Among evangelical groups, relatively moderate and liberal congregations do better than “very conservative” ones. Likewise in the Episcopal Church, he says. Conservative parishes that remain are generally the least prosperous, “whereas the most liberal churches are the most likely to grow and least likely to decline.” That's worth checking out.

State-of-the-church material is especially timely with the Nov. 1 installation of new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, successor to Katharine Jefferts Schori who led the church the past nine years. Curry is among 38 Anglican Communion leaders who will meet Jan. 11–16 in London with the archbishop of Canterbury for what could be a last-gasp attempt to resolve the worldwide split over gays and other biblical issues. 

Stay tuned.

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