I was having a conversation today with a friend in which I recalled that, some time ago, I had predicted that the Anglican Church of Canada would be out of business by 2030 and the Episcopal Church by 2050. Now, before people make wrong assumptions about my motivation in saying that, let me hasten to state that I make those predictions with great sadness, and without any trace of smugness or schadenfreude. If I didn't love the Episcopal Church, I wouldn't have joined it, after having ministered in another tradition for nine years. But the Episcopal Church took a hard left turn after I got on board and sailed straight into an iceberg. And though the icy water has yet to hit the boiler room, several decks have already taken on water, and the ship is listing.
What prompted my conversation today was the news that the portion of the Diocese of Quincy that remained in the Episcopal Church after the majority voted to leave, in 2008, is now contemplating merging (being absorbed, more likely) into the Diocese of Chicago.
Being from Southern Illinois and having been ordained in the Diocese of Quincy, I know that the people of Quincy have far more in common with people in the Diocese of Springfield than the Diocese of Chicago. Quincy and Springfield have even shared youth camps and clergy retreats for many years. So the merger with Chicago seems odd to me. What I suspect may be inclining Quincy to look at Chicago is a question about the long term viability of Springfield and a sense that all of Illinois will eventually merge back into one diocese (as it was prior to 1877) anyway.
The situation in Illinois is far from unique. The TEC dioceses of Fort Worth and San Joaquin will have to be merged into their neighbors as soon as the lawsuits against departing Anglicans are settled. Given declines in membership, sooner or later, El Camino Real and Northern California will probably merge back into California. San Diego will merge back into Los Angeles. Northern Michigan and Eastern Oregon should have merged with one of their neighbors a long time ago. Western Kansas and Kansas should have merged as well.
Fond du Lac and Eau Claire thought they had agreed to merge last fall, but a recount showed it failed by one or two votes. I imagine that there are those in Fond du Lac who breathed a collective sigh of relief that they managed to avoid taking on the financial burden that the merger would have most likely entailed. But eventually, just as in Illinois, the three dioceses in Wisconsin may find themselves merging back into one. What appears certain is that the decreasing viability of a number of dioceses across the US means that the likelihood of mergers (or "junctioning," to use the episcopally correct term) will only increase.
A lot of dioceses will wait until it is too late and eat up their endowments before they merge: Delaware, Easton, and Maryland; Long Island and New York; Connecticut and Rhode Island. One could easily make the case that all the dioceses in upstate New York (Western New York, Rochester, Central New York, and Albany) ought to merge. The Episcopal landscape is going to look a lot different in the coming years. But, based on my estimates (taking into account the average age of Episcopalians, no conversion growth, low birthrate, and poor retention of young people), things start imploding at an alarming rate after about 2018--and that's only six years from now.
When I say that the Episcopal Church will be out of business by 2050, I don't mean that every last Episcopal church will close its doors. Trinity, Wall Street, has enough money to operate in some form until the eschaton. All Saints, Pasadena, will continue to survive as long as there are liberals in Los Angeles who need religious validation of their lifestyles and political views. The same can be said for Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, although they will probably never have another dean who will succeed in pulling that off with such an unusual combination of gravitas and panache as Alan Jones.
The Proctor and Gamble endowments in Southern Ohio and the Eli Lilly endowments in Indianapolis, and a number of other examples elsewhere, will insure that Episcopal parishes in various places survive in some form. But, increasingly, the Episcopal Church will be a network of wealthy (but not necessarily well attended) parishes in various metropolises with very little in between. Thanks to the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, these churches already have their network. But what it means for the Episcopal Church to exist as a denomination will change radically; and for people in many parts of the country, the Episcopal Church will simply cease to exist as part of the religious landscape.
Which leads to my question: What will the Episcopal Church look like in 2030? One possible scenario would be for the Episcopal Church to operate on a model that is based around its provincial structure, instead of the current diocesan structures. That map would look something like this:
Each province would have a certain number of bishops and locate them wherever necessary in the province. The president of the province would function as a metropolitan.
Another, more conservative possibility might see the Church merged into, for example, around 30-40 domestic dioceses, instead of the current 100, and look something like this:
Let me make clear, this is just speculation. So if you live in, let's say, Mississippi, please don't write me and say, "But I don't want to be merged with Louisiana." It's just a guess. And it will probably be someone the age of your children who makes the decision in 18 years anyway. (That's six more General Conventions, for those who measure their life that way.)
The only thing certain about any of this is that the Episcopal Church will not have 100 domestic dioceses 18 years from now. What do you think the Episcopal Church will look like in 2030? Ask yourself. Send a comment, if you wish.