Thursday, February 20, 2014

Relationship b/w Ordination of Women & Declining Episcopal Church Membership

Note: Email me if you would like me to send along the charts and figures:

Donna Welles

Empirical Research Methods

Georgia Tech

Dec 5, 2012


The Ordination of Women and the Episcopal Church’s Declining Membership


Framing the Problem

                The Episcopal Church has served a major social institution in the United States for centuries. As it is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, its role in American society is reminiscent of our ancient relationship with England.  One example of how the Church of England has helped mold America is found in the motivations of the 17th C Puritans who came to the New World to escape the Church of England. Also, an Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC has in its possession a pre-Revolutionary prayer book that once led its parishioners in praying for the King. Today the Anglican Communion remains the third largest Christian denomination world-wide boasting 80 million members. Last year, however, the Episcopal Church made headlines when its nation-wide membership dropped below two million.  

The Episcopal Church Was  

In the context of American ideals such as meritocracy and the American Dream, numerous books have been written which describe Episcopalians as America's ruling class. In addition, the Episcopal Church has traditionally served as a mechanism for promoting public service among the socio-economic elite. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a practicing Episcopalian, as were Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton. Kit and Frederica Konolidge illustrated this phenomenon in their 1978 book, The Power of Their Glory, America's Ruling Class: The Episcopalians: 

"Perhaps the most attractive quality in Episcopalians as a religious domination and Episcocrats as a social elite is their unobtrusive good humor, good-humored way of maintaining their morale -- and their power.
What Episcocrats spend their time doing when they're not making other people comfortable is succeeding. Their great achievement is not merely to succeed, to rise to heights of prestige and influence, but to do that with style, too, without the appearance of nasty, driving--and, above all, obtrusive -- ambition. It is as though success were as much a part of their natural habitat as rolling hills and Ivy campuses -- a quality, like those of nature, to make one relaxed, not nervous. 
That pride of class has been one of the major and probably one of the best factors in American life for a century. It was, perhaps, responsible for discriminatory distribution of vast wealth, for disdain for anything alien. It was also the cause of great opportunity in the United States, the foundation of public service, of a massive tradition of private support of irreplaceable public institutions, the root of much that was best in political thought and practice. At least with those it accepted, that Episcocratic pride produced an urbane, pleasant, humorous social life and an ameliorative, civil-libertarian political life. 

To a large degree it produced, like it or not, America." (Konolige 383-385)


The Episcopal Church Is  

By contrast, a Fall 2011 assessment of the Episcopal Church by Jeff Walton of The Institute for Religion and Democracy's Anglican Action Program read,  

"Despite all its liberal cheerleading about inclusiveness, the once-influential Episcopal Church is a dwindling, nearly all white, increasingly gray-haired denomination with a grim future, absent divine intervention." (McHendry)  

Statistics gathered from a number of periodicals illustrate, if nothing else, a numerical decline in Episcopal Church membership, attendance, and number of parishes. What happened between 1978 when the Episcocrats were still "producing America' and 2011 when the Episcopal Church was described as having a "grim future absent divine intervention"?

What Happened? - The Public Discussion

Changes both inside and outside of the Episcopal Church in the past few decades could have contributed to the Episcopal Church's declining membership. This period has been one of liberalization within the church, in some ways paralleling the Catholic Church Vatican II, although the Episcopalians have taken it a few steps farther. External conditions have changed as well as the United States as seen a sharp rise in non-denominational Evangelical churches in recent decades.  

Inside the Church - Liberalization  

In 1976 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church made two major decisions, including (1) In line with the Catholic Church's Vatican II reforms when masses began to be read in vernacular languages rather than in Latin, the Episcopal Church adopted a new Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal, and (2) The ordination of women was permitted and the first class of female Episcopal priests has come to be known as the Philadelphia 11.

Decades later, in 2006, when Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and became the first women to serve as head of a national church within the Anglican Communion, eight dioceses petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury to assign them a new national leader. In 2003, New Hampshire’s Gene Robinson became the first openly homosexual Episcopal Bishop. Bishop Gene's canonization brought to the forefront other polarizing issues surrounding homosexuality such as gay marriage.  

Outside of the Church – Evangelicalism  

The Episcopal Church is not the only mainstream protestant denomination in the United States to suffer a decline in membership in recent decades.  Rather, across the board mainline Protestant churches including the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church have reported a decrease in membership. By contrast, the past few decades have seen a sharp rise in non-denominational Evangelical Christian churches across America.  Common terms referring to these churches are the religious right, mega-churches, and new line churches. Often new line churches utilize electric guitars and drums where as old line churches rely on more traditional instruments. Today 70 million Americans refer to themselves as Evangelical Christians. 


On the whole, the Episcopal Church has suffered a decline in membership and I've discussed some of the factors that could have contributed to this decline, including (1) the ordination of women, (2) the new Book of Common Prayer, (3) the election of Bishop Gene, and (4) the rise of Evangelicalism. My research will focus on isolating the first of these factors and will attempt to answer the following question: Is there a relationship between the ordination of women and the declining numbers in the Episcopal Church? I believe I will find a relationship between the ordination of women and declining membership numbers.

Isolating the ‘Women’ Variable 

Early 1970’s and the Second Wave of Feminism  

"The dramatic movement of women from kitchen to office in the second half of the twentieth century arguably affected a greater portion of Americans that the move from fields to factories during the Industrial Revolution a century earlier."  (Putnam 234) 


Figure 1.

Religious and Secular Women Enter the Labor Market

(with birth cohort held constant)

% Women in the Labor Market

(Putnam 238)


The ordination of women in the Episcopal Church coincided with what Robert Putnam in his book ‘American Grace’ refers to as the ‘Second Wave of Feminism’ which began in the 1970’s. This section will examine how the Second Wave of Feminism has interacted with organized religion as a whole. Women moved into the work force at roughly the same rate despite any religious affiliation – rising from 40-45% in the early 1970’s to roughly 55-60% in the 2000’s. As women entered the work force, both men and women moved away from subscribing to traditional gender norms.  The following charts investigate the changing view of gender roles over time by church attendance.


Trends in Feminist Views, By Church Attendance
(women only, with birth cohort held constant)
AAA = Almost Always Attend Church
ANA = Almost Never Attend Church
Source: (Putnam 240)

Figure 2.

Married Women Should Not Work


Figure 3.

Better for Man to Achieve, Woman to Tend Home

Figure 4.

Wife Should Help Husband’s Career, Not Own

Figure 5.

Mother Working Hurts Children


Figure 6.

Women Should Take Care of Home, Not Country


Figure 7.

Would Not Vote for Female President


                These charts suggest that both religious and secular members of society have adjusted their views of traditional gender roles in the last third of the 20th Century. Also, people who do attend church are across the board more likely to subscribe to traditional gender roles than their secular counterparts.  

The Extent to Which Churches Have Subscribed to the Second Wave of Feminism

Figure 8.

Increasing Majorities in Most Religious Traditions Favor Allowing Female Clergy

% Favor allowing female clergy in one’s own religion


(Putnam 243)

The chart above illustrates that attitudes have shifted toward accepting female clergy over the past few decades. In 1986, just over 80% of mainline Protestants favored allowing female clergy whereas by 2006 the figure rose above 90%. In fact, every religious group that was surveyed in both 1986 and 2006 displayed an increased interest in ordaining women. The only group that displayed a growing aversion to the concept of female clergy where those who do not identify with any religion.

Research Design

                After illustrating that there are increasing majorities in most religions of those who favor accepting female clergy, the next step is to investigate how the ordination of women has affected membership trends from during the Second Wave of Feminism (1960 – 2005). The ten denominations I studied included two denominations who have accepted the ordination of women within this time period, the Episcopal Church (1789) and the United Methodist Church (1968). The eight faiths I examined who do not ordain women include the Advent Christian Church (1860), the Southern Baptist Convention (1845), the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (1918), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1830), the Church of the Lutheran Confession (1960), the Pentecostal Church of God (1919), the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church - General Synod (1822), and the Roman Catholic Church (1565). Each of these denominations represents the longest continuous denominations still in existence that I could find within each major branch of Christianity in the United States.

United Methodist Church (1968) – A legacy of the Methodist movement founded in 18th C England by John Wesley, the United Methodist Church is the third-largest church in America. In 1968 the Methodist Church merged with the United Evangelical Brethren to form the United Methodist Church. (Melton)

Advent Christian Church (1860) – Although the Advent Christian Church was founded in 1860, it grew out of the Adventist movement initiated by William Miller in the 1840’s. Membership data for this group goes back to at least 1925. (Melton)

Southern Baptist Convention (1845) – Founded in 1845, this group rejected anti-slavery sentiment in the Northern Baptist Convention. While the Southern Baptist Convention has maintained continuity since 1845, the Northern Baptist Convention split into the Conservative Baptist Association of America (1946) and the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (1932). Membership data for the Southern Baptist Convention goes back to at least 1925 whereas data for the Northern Baptist Convention is only available from 1925 – 1947. (Melton)

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (1918) – This group represented the longest continuous denomination within Eastern Orthodoxy in America that had plentiful membership data. It was founded by Greek immigrants who had settled in the US in the 19th C. Although they initially came under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America was established in 1918. Membership data for this group dates back to at least 1925. (Melton) 

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1830) - This is the longest continuing Mormon denomination as it was founded in Fayette, New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith. Membership data for this group goes back to at least 1925. (Melton) 

Church of the Lutheran Confession (1960) – Although the Church of the Lutheran Confession represents a small minority of Lutherans in America, it has existed as a continuous denomination since 1960. By contrast, the American Association of Lutheran Churches dates back to 1987 and the Apostolic Lutheran Church of America has only existed under its present name since 1962. (Melton)

Pentecostal Church of God (1919) – Although the Pentecostal Church of God was founded in 1919 by Reverend John Sinclair, it has only existed under its current name in 1922. Membership data for this group goes back to at least 1936. (Melton) 

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church - General Synod (1822) – This group has its orgins in the Seceder Movement that split with the Church of Scotland in the 1740’s. In 1790 it was organized in the United States and in 1822 the group split into two branches. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is the southern of these branches and his existed as a continuous denomination since 1822. Membership data for this group goes back to at least 1925. (Melton) 

Roman Catholic Church (1565) – The Roman Catholic Church has existed in its present state since this Great Schism of 1054. Although it first came to what would become the United States in 1565, it did not become the largest Christian denomination in America until the late 19th C. (Melton) 


Figure 9.

Membership Data from All Ten Denominations (1960-2005)

                At first glance, it’s clear that both the Roman Catholic Church as well as the Southern Baptist Convention gained in influence during this time period. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest denomination in America as well as the oldest, grew from 42.1 million to 69.1million within the given time frame while the Southern Baptist Convention grew from 9.7 million to 16.2 million. Neither of these groups ordains women.

Figure 10.

Membership Data Less Catholics (1960-2005)


The chart above represents the same data as the previous chart minus the Roman Catholic Church figures. This scale brings into focus the United Methodist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as well as the Episcopal Church. Out of these three, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints grew in membership and only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has declined to accept women clergy. Specifically, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints grew from 1.5 million in 1960 to 5.7 million in 2005. By contrast, the Episcopal Church dropped from 3.2 million to 2.2 million members in the given time frame while the United Methodist Church dropped from 11 million members in 1967 to 8 million in 2005. This chart also makes visible the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America membership figures which have fluctuated only slightly during this time frame.

Figure 11.

Membership Data of Remaining Groups (1960-2005)


            None of the remaining groups have opted to allow female clergy and none of them have experienced rapid growth or decline. The Pentecostal Church of God reported similar figures in the 1960’s as it did after the turn of the millennium at just less than 120,000. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church increased from 27,000 in 1960 to 41,000 in 2004. Throughout the time frame, the Adventist Church ranged between 20,000-40,000 members while the Lutheran Church of the Confession showed remarkable consistency at 10,000 members.


                In conclusion, none of the groups that have dramatically increased in influence between 1960-2005, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have opted to ordain women. Additionally, both groups who have opted to ordain women during this time frame have shown a noticeable drop in membership.

One way to conceptualize these membership trends is to remember that any organized belief system is going to fall along a spectrum between absolute faith and absolute control. When a faith opts to extend ordination eligibility to women, it moves farther from the control side. In “The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy”, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark discuss how declining membership trends are not recent phenomena but rather they date back to the founding of America. New faiths replace the old, they argue, and “[the] less regulated the religious economy, the more rapidly and thoroughly the process will occur”. Arguably, the extension of ordination eligibility in both the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist served as a catalyst for the faiths’ decline.

                 “Since at least 1776 the upstart sects have grown as the mainline American denominations have declined. And this trend continues unabated, as new upstarts continue to push to the fore. Consider that the Assemblies of God (2.6 million members) is larger than the Episcopal Church (2.3 million), or the American Baptist Churches in the USA (1.4 million), or the United Church of Christ (1.4 million). […]

These historical trends are not oddities of recent history. Rather, they reflect basic social forces that first cause successful religious firms to compromise their ‘errand into the wilderness’ and then to lose their organizational vigor, eventually to be replaced by less worldly groups. The less regulated the religious economy, the more rapidly and thoroughly the process will occur. New groups arise with ease and immigrant faiths use local congregations as an institutional free space for organizing the faithful.”  (Finke 235-236)



CBE International. US Denominations and Their Stances on Women in Leadership. Vol. 6, Issue 2. Apr 2007.
Finke, Roger and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776-2005. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Konolige, Kit & Frederica. The Power of Their Glory. New York: Wyden Books, 1978.
McHendry, George. "McHendry: The Episcopal Church sees membership decline nationwide." Broomfield Enterprise. 03 Nov. 2011.  

Putnam, Robert D. and David E. Campbell. American Grace. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
The Association of Religion Data Archives. Melton, J. Gordon. American Denominations: Profiles. Chapman University. <>



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