The Church is One Generation Away from Extinction February 10, 2010

The Church is One Generation Away from Extinction

The Anglican Church in Canada is disappearing quickly:

According to the report, the diocese -– “like most across Canada” –- is in crisis. The report repeats, without qualification or question, the results of a controversial study presented to Anglican bishops five years ago that said that at the present rate of decline -– a loss of 13,000 members per year -– only one Anglican would be left in Canada by 2061.

It points out that just half a century ago, 40 per cent of Vancouver Island’s population was Anglican; now the figure is 1.2 per cent. Nationally, between 1961 and 2001, the church lost 53 per cent of its membership, declining to 642,000 from 1.36 million. Between 1991 and 2001 alone, it declined by 20 per cent.

A similar problem burdens the Presbyterian Church – offspring of the Church of Scotland – which is losing adherents almost as quickly as the Anglicans.

“The status quo is not an option,” the report says. With a preponderance of Anglicans being 60 or older, the church is “one generation away from extinction,” it says.

So what does this mean for us?

Not too much, unfortunately.

A lot of Canadians may not be Anglican much longer, but religion isn’t going away anytime soon. There’s no evidence that I can see of these people leaving the Anglican Church because they’re becoming atheists. They might leave because they don’t like the Church itself, or because they’re switching to a different denomination… but that’s nothing to gloat over.

Reader Tracy also points out that the Canadian story doesn’t hold much weight when you see what’s happening in America:

… I live in the Bible Belt, and I see some big, new fundamentalist churches thriving here. The Anglican church doesn’t seem so creepy next to these.


You would think the Anglican Church, wanting to recapture younger members, would reconsider their stance on things like gay rights. I’m not holding my breath.

I’m not shedding any tears over their loss. But I’m not throwing a party, either.

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  • Valdyr

    Religion is always one generation away from extinction. It survives by indoctrinating children who don’t yet have the cognitive capacity or life experience to make philosophical decisions for themselves.

  • catherine

    I agree with Tracy’s assessment. I was raised Presbyterian. The churches I was a part of were fairly conservative, but they weren’t fundamentalists, and they didn’t get involved in politics at all.

  • ckitching

    I don’t think it’s that people are being atheists or that they’re defecting to other churches. A lot of people who call themselves Christians are just not interested in belonging or going to church.

  • Deiloh

    On a positive note, the cultish church my husband grew up in is close to extinction because the next generation became atheist or much more liberal. Yeah! The youngest church member lamenting the death nell is 60. As for throwing a party, I’ll reserve that for the day the KKK and WBC fade away due to lack of membership.

  • Quester

    The Anglican Church of Canada has been rethinking its stance on same-sex relationships for fifty years now, and comes firmly down on at least seven sides of the issue. That has almost as much to do with why it’s dying out as any other issue in the church today.

  • The anglican church may “be a generation away from extinction”, but are we ourselves, the secular sorts of the 2000s, going to survive the said extinction ourselves?

  • Siamang

    I personally am one generation away from extinction.

  • They did give us juice and chocolate chip cookies after choir practice and church service…which was nice…until the choir master went to jail for molestation of a minor. There were no more cookies after that.

  • The math is bad. If it loses 13,000 a year until 2061, then it’s not losing members at a constant rate; that would be an increasing rate. That last year would be 100% attrition.

  • Lynaka

    As a former Anglican in BC, what I grew up with was a 1st generation British mother and father who professed to be Anglican but really only socially. It was simply posh to state one was Anglican for the social ranking it gave than for the true religious belief. My christening was all about the little white dress and the spectacular tea after the event rather than the dripping of the water. We never set foot inside a church again. Even so, my mother still insists on calling herself an Anglican. Means nothing. Funny, I was born on Vancouver Island too.

  • Richard P

    But on the brighter side, one less religious institution is a wonderful thing.
    It does give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside doesn’t it??

    It also presents the obvious conclusion that religious dogma is directly correlated to the modem of the times, if those dogmas don’t match the current needs of society the religion loses it’s usefulness. So much for the unchanging word of god.

    Time to bring on buddy jesus…..

  • Kaylya

    While the formal position is currently clear as mud, I should note that there *are* same sex unions blessed by the Anglican Church in Canada (and have been doing so since before there was such a thing as a legal same sex marriage). Some congregations do it, some don’t, and some have split off of the Anglican Church of Canada to form the “Anglican Network in Canada” over the issue.

    There was a vote on the issue at the last Synod which came just shy of approving it; I think it was something like there’s 3 groups who need to each get a majority and it got 2 out of the 3? Lay representatives, priests, and bishops or something?

    While there’s certainly a range of theological views, the Anglican Church in Canada is generally pretty liberal (although there are those who are more “traditional”). I don’t exactly celebrate the decline of the Anglican church if it means people are turning to fundie churches. Their services are boring and repetitive and I’ve been forced to go to way too many over the years but the priests I’ve known have been pretty darn decent people.

    But yeah, last time I was at my mom’s church a couple years ago the crowd definitely tended towards grey hair, and not so many kids.

  • littlejohn

    Here in the US, the Anglicans are actually pretty good on gay rights. The Episcopal Church (same thing) I attended was blessing gay unions in the 1970s. And that was in West Virginia. They have an openly gay bishop or something, don’t they?
    The loss of relatively liberal sects, like the Presbyterians and Anglicans may not be a good thing if their congregations join more fundamentalist churches.

  • The hard lines folks tend to draw between “religious” and “atheist” (slash agnostic) make these sorts of surveys a little misleading.

    Certainly a drop in the numbers of those who assert membership in a particular organized religion is a good thing, particularly insofar as the ability (or lack thereof) of the religious right to organize politically is concerned.

    While those who cease to identify as Anglican, Catholic, or any other brand name faith may not immediately become “God is not” secularists, it certainly bodes well for the advancement of humanist ideals that they are no longer dragging their children off to sermons every week.

    There will always be those for whom the idea of “something greater” / the prime mover / the numinous, transcendent unknown is a humbling notion and thus, at least conceptually, deserving of some form of acknowledgment if not worship, the end of ritualized religiosity in churches is, in my view, a very positive trend. It would please me to find deism replacing theism.

    As Zola said (accuracy notwithstanding), “Man will not be truly free until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.”

    @ littlejohn: If ten leave the church but two of them join some snake handling freak show, we still gain eight. The overall trend is, I think, favourable.

  • Steve

    The header image accompanying the gay rights link in your post rotates through a series of pictures. One of them caught my attention and I saved a copy here. Aside from the goofy and alarmingly monstrous cross, notice what’s surrounding the church building: grave stones. This is a common sight all across the world: only the dead regularly attend church. Given the premise in your post here, the irony is simply delicious.

  • Tim Keller argues that:
    * Disbelief in God takes as much faith as belief in God.
    * It takes MORE of a leap of faith to disbelieve in God than to believe in God.
    * you can reason to a point of probability, it takes personal committment to come to certainty

  • People have been predicting the demise of religion since the Enlightenment. While a particular branch of it might wither away, there is always a new one sprouting. Personally, I think there are way worse sects, in terms of ill societal effects, than Anglicans/Episcopalians. I’d be much happier if it was Southern Baptists who would disappear. And of course, in a much wider area than just Canada.

  • SmilingAtheist

    Talking as a Canadian I would say that this article is misleading. For the most part I would say that most Canadians don’t participate in religion but still consider themselves as religious. If that makes any sense. Sure they don’t attend church but ask anyone they’ll tell you their denomination.

  • OT, but how do you get an avatar for commenting on this site?

  • Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, whatever, they still believe in gods. When they stop that silliness then we can celebrate.

  • Amy G

    I do think it’d be sad for the Anglican church to disappear. It’s a much more progressive religion than most, and since I know that religion will never go away, I can only wish that the religions that do exist are the less fundamental, extreme ones. The Anglican church pushes women’s rights, gay rights, and a general feeling of acceptance.

  • We will probably now see more evangelicals moving to Canada to do missionary work with the newly “un-churched” heathens.

  • I wouldn’t count us Canuck atheists out yet. A year ago a national mag (MacLeans) did a religious survey of Canadian teens – and found that 32% proclaimed to have no faith at all. That’s up from the 10-20% of adults who claim the same.

    Good news, but I doubt victory will be achieved over the non-believers until well after 2061.

    The (abridged?) article, for anyone who is interested:

  • Steven

    As smilingatheist notes many Canadians don’t actually go to church but still consider themselves “Christian” – my mother, sister, and mother-in-law are good examples. I think there is a certain social pressure to identify yourself as a member of particular denomination. It establishes a level of commonality and reassures others that you’re not one one of those – gasp – atheists. After all, not believing in God is just plain rude and Canadians are known for their politeness. Well, most of us anyway.

  • joe agnost

    I agree with Steven and smilingatheist. As a Canadian I can say that most of my “religious” friends don’t go to church or practice the religion at all. They’ll still say they’re catholic or whatever – but realistically it’s in name only.

  • Ron in Houston

    I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve threatened to emigrate to Canada. I sure wish the US would try to model itself more after our northern neighbor.

  • Richard P

    NO! NO! NO!.. you do not want to immigrate here. We all live in igloo’s, put up electric fences to keep the polar bears away from our kids and live on dried berries and seal fat all winter…… 10 months..long.
    You fine Americans are doing a great job, It would be much better for you to stay there…
    BRRRR it’s cold here…..

  • NO! NO! NO!.. you do not want to immigrate here. We all live in igloo’s…

    But what about all the beautiful topless girls I hear about that flock to the nice freshwater beaches on the north shores of the Great Lakes?

  • Richard P

    “the beautiful topless girls I hear about that flock to the nice freshwater beaches on the north shores of the Great Lakes?”

    Those are really seals. Chubby seals. It’s all exaggerated.

  • Steven

    Jeff P wrote:

    “But what about all the beautiful topless girls I hear about that flock to the nice freshwater beaches on the north shores of the Great Lakes?”

    I see our ministry of tourism is getting really creative – the Canadian dollar must be up again. It’s true that in Ontario it is perfectly legal for a woman to go topless – apparently one of our judges decreed that the female breast is not a sex object (no, I don’t know his age or orientation). Curiously, most ladies choose to cover up and not exercise their hard-won personal freedom. Relatives who live near the beaches in question have reported disturbing sights – apparently there is such a thing as too much freedom.

  • Richard P

    “Relatives who live near the beaches in question have reported disturbing sights”

    See…Seals….Sometimes their hairless… makes me shudder….

  • Katy

    I just wanted to agree with littlejohn. I don’t know what the pattern is in Canada, but I know in the US a lot of the declining memberships in the mainline denominations is due to people moving to non-denominational churches and megachurches, which in my experience tend to have a more contemporary feel, but definitely more conservatvie both theologically and politically. I’d like to see numbers about the growth or decline of those churches in Canada.

  • SmilingAtheist

    Don’t get me wrong we do have those megachurch types (though of smaller scale)and we do have fundamentalist in some areas. However when it comes to the main stream you’ll find many who don’t go to church but still identify with them. It’s like having an ID badge you put on occasionally when it’s useful. I have tonnes of friends who do not attend church and still call themselves whatever. My family is of the same stripe. They’re all pretenders when you get down to it.
    To them religion is more like saying, “I believe there’s a god and that’s good enough”. They find church too boring to bother with it and only go on during religious holidays, if they feel like it. This is the reality.

  • Canadians club their seals…just sayin’.

  • Wayne Dunlap

    I was raised Presbyterian, but eventually switched to the United Church of Christ before becoming Agnostic. However, I liked the philosophy of the United Church of Christ. They believed in things like rights for gays and they also felt that those churches, like the right wing evangelical churches, getting involved in politics should lose their tax exemption since they were violating the separation of Church and State. I love it!!!

  • muggle

    Religion is dying. The question is how fast? We should be so lucky that fast. Keep a good thought but, as we’re seeing, it doesn’t go down without a fight.

  • Wayne Dunlap

    Muggle, I doubt that religion is dying. I think it is just one form of it. I am willing to bet that while one sect, the Catholic Church may be losing members, some other sect will take its place.

  • Loren Petrich

    The extrapolation of the end of the Canadian Anglican Church is based on a linear curve, which IMO is implausible. A more plausible model is that church membership declines by some fraction each year, which yields an exponential curve.

    That makes the church’s membership in 2061 about 1/3 of its membership now, instead of none.

    But if most of the church’s active members are relatively old with hardly any younger replacements coming in, then the churches will gradually empty as they die off, meaning that the church will drastically shrink before 2061.

    What’s really hurting them is female deserters:

    Churches come tumbling down

    reported by PZ Myers in O Canada ! O Women!

    some years back. In good part it’s due to many women getting to have careers other than be ‘chaste, submissive “angels in the house” with all of the social and moral responsibility for community and family but none of the authority.’

    Something like that is happening to nuns, who are dwindling and aging, gradually becoming “none”.

    PZ Myers finds that analysis plausible, so let’s celebrate notable female atheists.

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