By David Larson
David Larson is an editor and/or writer for a number of publications and has a master’s in theological studies from Spring Hill College. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughter.
The Church of England is crumbling so quickly it may barely reach its 500th birthday, in 2034. This is not just my opinion—it’s the opinion of the church itself, which in the United States is known as the Episcopal Church and in Canada and elsewhere is typically known as the Anglican Church.
Here in the U.S., the Episcopal Church’s numbers are rapidly spiraling to zero. Seminary president Kristine Stache reported to the Episcopal hierarchy in 2019 that their 2008-2018 data showed a 24.9% drop in attendance over the decade, and if trends continue, in 30 years they will have no Sunday attendance at all.
“It depicts a church that appears to be dying,” she said.
An Episcopal priest and expert on denominational demographics, Rev. Dwight Zscheile, responded to the same data by saying, “The overall picture is dire—not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly.”
The Anglican Church in Canada received the same prognosis in a 2018 report by Rev. Neil Elliot. He told church leaders, “We’ve got simple projections from our data that suggest that there will be no members, attenders, or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.”
Even the mother church in England is in dire straits, with less than one million weekly attendees. Only 2% of the total population of England are regular worshippers in what had been the majority faith a century ago. Catholics, for comparison, have slightly fewer members at 8% (versus 12%) of the English population, but they are twice as likely to attend services (41% versus 21%). Just imagine Oliver Cromwell hearing the news that the papists and even Mohammedans rival them on their own shores.
In the colonies, the lack of attendees is likely a death sentence. Because of the church’s position as the established religion in England, though, it may stay on its feet a little longer (at least in a “Weekend at Bernie’s” sense), as the shell of the nation’s former faith is gradually transformed into a series of historical sites and museums.
I do not mean to sound triumphalist at all in drawing your attention to the terminal status of this rival church. I was raised in a conservative Episcopalian family, now a laughable contradiction, and before I abandoned it for teenage rebellion, I loved that church. In fact, setting questions of sacrament and doctrine aside, I preferred it to many of the liturgies I attend now as a Catholic. It felt like a full expression of the English-speaking Christian heritage, connecting you to something bigger, older, and firmer—similar to the pull that brings many to the Latin Mass. So, rather than cheap mockery, I point out this death because I think it presents a few great opportunities for Catholics.
The first is maybe the most vital: reestablishing Catholicism as the Church of England (and English speakers), at least in a cultural sense.
The Church of England may have had a detour for the last 500 years, but it had been a Catholic body for the 1,000 years before that. This is a fact the Catholic Church can draw on to re-evangelize the English-speaking peoples and return to its role as the people’s church.
Right now, to be Catholic in the Anglosphere is to owe an explanation. Maybe you’ll respond that you’re Catholic because your family is Irish, or Polish, or Hispanic, but your Catholicism will still be evidence that you are not yet fully assimilated. You are even more of an oddity if you are from a traditionally Protestant ethnicity but decided to buck the greater culture for allegiance with Rome.
With the Protestant Church of England on its death-bed, though, we have an opportunity to resurrect the Anglo-Catholic tradition from the ashes and hold it up as the truly traditional Faith of the English-speaking peoples.
As G.K. Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
To make this resurrection possible, it’ll be necessary to make use of the English patrimony—those treasures of English Christianity—many of which predate the 500-year detour.
As the Anglican Church has been crumbling, the Church has wisely seen this opportunity and begun this process. In 1980, Pope John Paul II allowed entire congregations of Episcopalians, Anglicans, and Methodists to become “Anglican-use” Catholic parishes. And then, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI released Anglicanorum Coetibus, which allowed these Anglican congregations to band together in ordinariates, which have a similar status to a diocese. The Vatican has also approved amended versions of their resources, like the Book of Divine Worship, an adapted version of the Book of Common Prayer.
It’s above my pay grade to know whether it would be best long term to develop this into something similar to the Eastern-rite churches, which are in full communion but operate with their own (approved) liturgies and structures, or whether Catholic parishes in the Anglosphere should just better embrace their English heritage. But in the process, we should make good use of this English patrimony to show how Catholicism is an ancient part of the culture, not a recent interloper.
It could be as simple as leaning on the best of Anglican liturgy to improve our post-Vatican II vernacular Masses since they’ve been doing it for much longer. The triumphant hymns, like “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven,” “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” “Lift High the Cross” and “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” have a nobility and reverence that make me want to tilt my head back and belt out verse after verse in a way that the tuneless 1970s hymns I often encounter in Catholic liturgies do not. To their credit, many parishes have adapted these classics well.
Also, many of the oldest churches in America (often ornate stone chapels with statues, stained glass, and even rood screens in front of the altar) are Episcopal churches, and they are generally more “Catholic” in look and feel than where we worship now. Catholics can buy and restore those old Episcopal chapels so they aren’t simply bulldozed by secular people with no use for sacred spaces.
The last opportunity for Catholics in this is to learn from why this church died and to avoid their mistakes. The Lord promised us that the gates of hell would not prevail against us; but He didn’t promise the Church would survive in all places at all times. It is very possible for the American Church to disappear, and if we don’t take some very specific lessons from the disappearance of churches like the Episcopal Church, it may very well happen. The evidence is clear that our numbers are plummeting too.
The lesson we should take is that the Church of England’s demise was caused by putting the kingship of the individual above that of Christ. This wasn’t a gradual distortion, either, but a poison pill they swallowed at the moment they were founded—even if that poison took 500 years to fully work its way through the body of the church. King Henry VIII broke from the Church with the Act of Supremacy, a decree putting himself and his heirs as the supreme authority of the Church of England, so that he could get divorced and remarried. And a post mortem will show that this dynamic—present in this very founding document—of putting an individual’s whims, or even the honest judgments of their conscience, at the top of the hierarchy was the cause of death.
Maybe they’d say that they still based their doctrines on Scripture and Tradition, but it was an individual’s interpretation of Scripture and Tradition, not the Deposit of Faith handed to the universal Church through the apostles.
St. Thomas More, one of the rare statesmen who opted to have his throat cut rather than have it swallow this pill, told the jury who was about to have him put to death, that his “indictment is grounded upon an act of Parliament directly oppugnant to the laws of God and his holy church, the supreme government of which, or of any part thereof, may no temporal prince presume by any law to take upon him, as rightfully belonging to the See of Rome, a spiritual preeminence by the mouth of our Savior himself, personally present upon the earth, to Saint Peter and his successors, bishops of the same see, by special prerogative granted.”
That “temporal prince” that took upon himself “spiritual preeminence” was at first Henry and his royal descendants, but as Enlightenment individualism convinced the masses they had no need of princes, and were each their own ruler, they also took upon themselves the spiritual preeminence that came along with the new royal role.
At first, the changes came in a slow trickle, but once the dam burst, they flooded through—and there was no definitive tradition of doctrines or even an official interpretation of Scripture that was above the individual’s preeminence to decide on matters great and small. The individual’s authority to judge issues of sexuality and gender specifically had no logical limiting principle in a church which started by eliminating it.
For American Episcopalians, birth control was approved in 1930. In 1967, they announced their opposition to all abortion restrictions. In 1976, they approved female clergy. And since then, every wind that blows in the sexual and gender realms leads to another monumental change, to the point where the only real doctrine on sexuality is “thou shalt not disagree with the latest sexual fad.”
Leaders of the Northern Virginia church I grew up in wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post explaining why they were leaving the Episcopal Church for a conservative Anglican alternative, saying, “The ‘sola scriptura’ (‘by the scriptures alone’) doctrine of the Reformation church has been abandoned for the ‘sola cultura’ (by the culture alone) way of the modern church. No longer under authority, the Episcopal Church today is either its own authority or finds its authority in the shifting winds of intellectual and social fashion—which is to say it has no authority.”
It’s not even clear that one needs to be a Christian anymore, at least in an exclusive way, to be an Episcopalian. I suppose, if we are keeping human intimacy fairly open, why limit divine intimacy to one god? So, when a Seattle priest announced, “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both,” The Seattle Times reported that the area bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, said he “accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting.”
The Church of England became the Church of Me, and services for the latter can easily be held at home.
We’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that the same cultural forces, which accept no greater authority than the self, are also at work in the average modern Catholic. Many of these are even demanding the same changes the Episcopal Church made, even as that sick patient dies from the poison it swallowed 500 years ago. Some of the hierarchy, sadly, feel the same and are listening, as they are in Germany. The death of the Church of England should serve as a warning not to bend to these calls.