That final echo of doubt hints to a broader drift. Until the middle of the last century, there were several foundations like Filsell’s across New York, choir schools where boys were sculpted into singers. The Saint Thomas Choir School is the sole survivor, making it the last church-affiliated choir boarding school in North America.
For some, conservatives particularly, American Episcopalianism is vanishing too. A denomination that once enjoyed the favour of tycoons and presidents is now seen as a faith in decline, statistically and spiritually; a church too busy asking “if you want it” about marriage or sex to follow God’s truth.
The figures are stark. Only 12,000 people were confirmed into the Episcopal Church in 2022. For some the response is one of evangelising with ambition and verve, translating sermons, communing with nature, and ultimately building new communities of faith. Meanwhile, a growing number of Episcopalians are reflecting on what their faith should ultimately involve, and if a secular America even has room for their church in the old established mould.
“Episcopalians?” the writer and critic Cleveland Amory once mused. “Well, this much I know: God is an Episcopalian. From Boston.” His quip speaks elegantly to the church’s deep heritage. With New World roots dating from the Jamestown settlement in 1607, it was for almost two centuries simply the Church of England in America.
Although it struggled after the American War of Independence — many Anglican loyalists fled to Canada — and its status was reduced to just one faith amongst many in a secular republic, its adherents never really forgot that they once represented the religious establishment. As Dr Robert Pritchard, a theologian and historian of the church puts it, “Episcopalians have deeply lodged the idea that they’re responsible for the whole population, that everybody is basically a parishioner.”
Their early setback was temporary. In 1850, the Episcopalian church may have had as few as 89,000 members, but by the 1960s it had 3.5 million — amongst whom could be counted a disproportionate number of the country’s elite. The Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Morgans were all Episcopalians, whilst others embraced the faith aspirationally.
Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank, explains the process in his own family. His great-grandfather, previously a nominal Christian, felt drawn to Episcopalianism after working at the Mayo Clinic. “What,” Walton imagines his ancestor asking, “are the other physicians doing?”
Why would the new American elite not be beguiled by the successor of the old established faith — especially one whose bicameral form of governance felt so reassuringly republican? Simultaneously, history gifted the church with a deeply moving prayer book, and elaborate rites stretching back centuries. Dr Robert Tobin, a scholar and Anglican chaplain, argues that the church appealed to a cultured and “aesthetically sensitive” lay audience, a patrimony that’s apparent even now. Beyond Evensong at Saint Thomas, consider the building itself (above), erected in 1914 and soaring over Fifth Avenue in a paroxysm of limestone. Other Episcopal churches, like the Church of the Advent in Boston, are equally impressive, as is the National Cathedral in Washington DC.
Indeed, the Episcopalian ascendancy should be traced not just in Gothic Revival grandeur but in influence. Thanks partly to boarding schools — earnest, muscular places like Groton — the denomination felt at home in the republic’s halls of power. Starting with George Washington and ending with George H.W. Bush (George W. Bush opted instead for Methodism) eleven presidents have been Episcopalian, more than any other denomination. As late as 1981, one in seven Congressmen and women were, too, whilst the church has been disproportionately represented amongst Supreme Court justices and Nobel Prize winners.
The church has also impacted the country in more practical ways. Prichard highlights Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a lifelong Episcopalian whose sense of social justice carried him from Groton to the New Deal. Roosevelt’s faith also informed his soaring rhetoric, appropriate for a man once described by his son as a frustrated clergyman. The evening of D-Day, his speech echoed the cadence of the Book of Common Prayer. “Some will never return,” the president intoned of America’s fighting men abroad. “Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”
When she recalls visiting her Episcopal church as a child, the Rev. Canon Susan Russell thinks of hats. In those days, she says, women and girls were always expected to wear one “by custom” if not canon. The clergy were all male, and female participation was limited elsewhere. “When we got to be a certain age,” the assisting priest at Pasadena’s All Saints Church explains, “boys went to be acolytes — and the girls went to do nursery duty.”
Such recollections are not unique. For whilst history’s trumpet naturally calls to Episcopalians, progressives such as Russell tend to hear more discordant tones. The Rev. Canon Lydia Bucklin, an evangelist in Michigan, speaks of the importance of engaging with Native Americans, particularly given the legacy of forced assimilation via residential schools. The Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, the African-American who directs evangelism for the whole church, makes a related argument around slavery. “We’re the church that had the highest per centage of slaveholders,” she says. “All of that is in our DNA too, and it’s why we have to ask these questions and say: “If that’s who we’ve been, is that who we want to always be?’”
For liberal Episcopalians, the answer is clearly “no” — evidenced by a cascade of recent reforms. What was once nicknamed the “Republican party at prayer” is now amongst the most progressive churches in the world. In 1976, it explicitly allowed the ordination of women. By 2003, Gene Robinson had become the first openly gay bishop in any major Christian denomination. Transgender ordination was permitted in 2012. Three years on, Michael Curry was elected the church’s first black presiding bishop. Same-sex marriage is another area of flux: the church’s current stance, formalised in Resolution B012, states that bishops can reject unions in their own dioceses, but must point couples towards more amenable colleagues.
What drove this progressivism? Social change is one common refrain. The post-war influence of radical seminaries is a second, even as progressives such as Spellers stress “a genuine desire to love our neighbours”. Another factor is undoubtedly the tenacity of reformers themselves. An ex-president of Integrity USA, a now-defunct LGBT advocacy group within the church, Russell says the battle for acceptance encompassed nothing so much as “hard work”. Even critics offer grudging praise here. Walton, now an ex-Episcopalian, describes Integrity USA as part of a “well-organised movement” to elect allies across diocesan bodies.
Amidst these upheavals is a wider debate about their impact: specifically for the vigour of the church. As those confirmation figures imply, the statistics are far from rosy. In 2022, there were 1.6 million baptised Episcopalians, down 21 per cent from 2013. Attendance collapsed by 43 per cent over the same period, with almost 285,000 fewer churchgoers each Sunday — roughly equivalent to a city the size of St Louis.
There is some solace in the details: Walton notes that only a quarter of Episcopalians attend churches that are suffering multi-year declines. But that is small comfort. A progressive vicar near Austin, Fr David Peters, quotes a conservative colleague who says the church risks disappearing anywhere without a Whole Foods.
Given that the plunge from the church’s 1960s peak roughly coincides with the surge in social liberalism, traditionalists are sometimes keen to connect the two. The Rt. Rev. William Love was the Episcopal Bishop of Albany, but left the church in 2021, after refusing to follow Resolution B012. Now an assisting bishop at the breakaway Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), he laments, “God has removed his blessing from the Episcopal Church” — with decline an inevitable consequence.
There is some truth to these claims, practically if not theologically. Quarrels over homosexuality have seen dozens of parishes leave the church, with Bishop Love chronicling the “horrendous” property disputes that often follow. In June 2023, the South Carolina Supreme Court decreed that two church buildings, including the oldest in the state, could be retained by the ACNA. The Rt. Rev. William Franklin, the retired Bishop of Western New York, adds that other innovations, notably the 1979 prayer book, helped provoke their own departures.
Yet as progressives point out, there is a wider context here, something Love himself concedes. In 2021, the Pew Research Center found that only 63 per cent of Americans identify as Christian — a 15 point decrease from 2007 — as fuzzier kinds of spirituality continue to advance. Nor is looming secularisation a challenge for liberals alone. Last year, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention lost 450,000 members, hinting that gay marriage isn’t the only factor at play. As Tobin puts it: “I’m not convinced that the Episcopal Church would have somehow had a fundamentally different experience if it had taken a different view on sexuality.”
Nonetheless, a changing America heaps particular pressure on Episcopalians. Whilst their church once rode the coattails of the old WASP ascendancy — a distinguished African-American tradition notwithstanding, nine-in-ten Episcopalians are white — rising ethnic diversity has turned demography into a millstone. Worse still, educated white Americans are one of the groups least likely to have children, bequeathing the church with fewer cradle Episcopalians at just the wrong time.
Shortly before we spoke, the Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt gave a sermon in Smyrna. Nothing unusual for the Bishop of Tennessee in his own diocese — until he opened his mouth. As Bauerschmidt began his oration at All Saints’ Church, opposite a gas station on the fringes of town, his southern lilt was swiftly translated: into Karen. Mostly native to Burma, its refugee speakers have travelled far to this quiet Nashville suburb. In their coming, Bauerschmidt evokes a “much more diverse” church than stereotypes suggest. All Saints’, with its bilingual sermons and flourishing congregation, is far from unique. In his diocese, Bauerschmidt talks of burgeoning Korean and South Sudanese communities, with immigrants also filling pews in Virginia and Long Island.
This is how many Episcopalians now fight for their faith: through practical measures that make God accessible. Though the pandemic made remote sermons a necessity, Russell explains that her church in Pasadena has retained them. “We’re back to our pre-Covid numbers,” she says, “if you count both our digital numbers and our in-person numbers.”
Meeting people where they are, physically and spiritually, can assist in other ways. In Texas, David Peters recounts the success he has had simply getting to know the locals. From a congregation of zero in 2019, he hopes to welcome dozens of worshippers in the coming years. “We believe in the priesthood of all believers,” Peters stresses. “That means that every Christian in our church is a priest, and their priestly role is to mediate between God and other people.”
Conscious, maybe, that non-denominational spirituality is in vogue, some take these principles further. One striking example is the Wild Church Network, which dispenses with physical churches and often holds relaxed outdoor services. In Michigan, Lydia Bucklin encourages poetry readings, with worshippers asked to reflect on themes like the environmental impact of mining. Even the eucharist is up for debate.
Bucklin sees more young people at Wild Church events than at traditional Sunday services. But with demographic forces as daunting as ever — immigrants and curious youngsters aside, the church could become extinct by mid-century — Episcopalians are forced to reflect on the future of their faith. As the Wild Church Network vividly hints, one option is ecumenism. Bucklin says many people now see denominations as “a bit irrelevant”, suggesting that just as people grow old and die, Episcopalians should embrace a comparable “life cycle” for their church communities. Bucklin isn’t alone: Michael Curry believes attendance numbers are a “second-order” question compared to ensuring people have living relationships with God.
These principles are rippling downstream, with some exploring if roving ministries could replace traditional brick-and-mortar churches. Another strategy involves opening spaces up for temporal use; a Michigan church building could soon host a hydroponic farm in its basement. “We have not gone out and really dwelled with people, and loved them in their own communities,” Spellers says. “Instead we’ve said: ‘You need to come in here because we have answers.’ And that’s just not going to work anymore.”
For the moment, the church’s old foundations remain. Groton is still one of America’s elite schools, though Protestant students now rub shoulders with Buddhists and Muslims. Whatever problems it faces, at least the church is rich. Remarkably, donations have risen recently, presumably due to a substrate of prosperous WASPs.
This has allowed it to keep projecting some influence across US society. Worth around $1bn, the Episcopal Health Foundation was launched in 2013 after the sale of various hospital sites in Houston. Amongst other things, it donates generously to liberal causes: Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas received $915,000 in 2023.
The Rt. Rev. William Franklin is doubtful if this largesse is enough to fill America’s growing Godless void. As he puts it: “There is internet culture, streaming, Trumpism, all of these things filling the hole.” Other Christian denominations also seem more assertive. Those Houston hospitals were snatched up by a Catholic health system, for instance, whilst evangelical pastors like Joel Osteen continue to enjoy national prominence. That’s echoed by the rise of new secular philanthropists: Elon Musk donated almost $6bn to charity in 2021. Even so, it’s hard to disagree with Robert Tobin when he says modern billionaires can’t be seen as “moral leaders”.
For all their faults — complacency, condescension, self-interest — the Episcopal elite believed they were responsible for society as a whole. “This assumption was undoubtedly born of privilege,” Tobin concedes, “but it also helped give American life a spiritual and material shape that seems gone now.”
And then there’s Evensong. Jeremy Filsell is unsure even that will suffice to bolster Episcopalianism in the decades ahead. “Maybe we’re on the Titanic,” he says. Certainly, the pews at Saint Thomas were pretty lonely whenever I visited. But just as clerical colleagues hope their faith can transcend institutional Episcopalianism, Filsell seems to view the church’s musical legacy in similar terms.
“Do I believe every word of the creed?” he asks. “No. Do I believe every word of the general confession? No. Do I believe every word that is uttered vocally by the choir? No. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And I think the aspiration to spirituality — the aspiration to God, to the divine, within us — is a noble and important aspect of our human psyche.” If only the shoppers on Fifth Avenue would venture in and try.
Preaching to a dwindling choir
Once the default denomination of tycoons and the WASP elite, America’s Episcopal Church is struggling
By Andrea Valentino
February 11, 2024
Several times a week, past the shoppers and peanut-hawkers of Fifth Avenue, Dr Jeremy Filsell accompanies a choir into the heart of Saint Thomas Church. Dressed in white and scarlet robes, they process past the pews and file into a pair of matching wooden choirs. Then, with Filsell conducting, they start to sing.
The musical programme of Evensong always changes — sometimes Parry, sometimes Byrd — but for Dr Filsell, the organist and director of music, the ancient rhythms of the Episcopal service offer a “timeless beauty” as the New York subway grumbles underfoot. “Evensong,” he says, “is a great gateway to a more powerful spiritual life. If you want it.”
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