Episcopal Church losing members as it strives for inclusion

Some conservatives say the Episcopal Church is losing members because it has gone too far left on political and social issues, such as same-sex unions. But the Church’s highest ranking lay leader Bonnie Anderson (in photo) said the church isn’t too liberal and regardless, won’t shift its views because people are leaving.

July 7, 2012, Detroit Free Press


By Niraj Warikoo

Free Press Staff Writer

As the highest ranking lay leader in the Episcopal Church for the past six years, Bonnie Anderson has had a hectic schedule, traveling across the U.S. to be a voice for the Protestant denomination’s 2 million members.

But, despite her long days, the Bingham Farms woman sets aside time for “prayer and meditation every day … or I could get out of whack.”

It’s a daily routine that has helped guide Anderson, who plans to step down next week at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, held every three years. Along with Presiding Bishop Katharine Schori, Anderson is one of the two top leaders in the church. As president of the Church’s House of Deputies, Anderson, 69, said she has accomplished her goals of promoting democracy, diversity and social justice.

Anderson said she is stepping down to spend more time with her family, especially her 42-year-old son, who became physically challenged 20 years ago after a car accident.

“He’s like living with a miracle,” Anderson said at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac.

Anderson’s leaving comes at a time of challenges for the Episcopal Church, a denomination rooted in the Church of England. Traditionally part of the Anglo upper class, members of the Episcopal Church have the highest incomes and percentage of those with a college degree among all Christian denominations, according to Pew surveys.¬†

But average Sunday attendance in Episcopal churches has plunged 23% in the past decade to 657,831. In the Michigan diocese — which includes southeast Michigan, Lansing and Jackson — attendance has dropped 31% from 2000 to 2010. During the same time period, the number of baptized Episcopal members in the diocese dropped 30% to 20,825; nationally, it dropped 16% to 1,951,907.

Some say the drop is because the Episcopal Church has drifted too much to the left on social and political issues. But Anderson notes that other mainline Protestant denominations have also seen declines in membership; regardless, the church won’t shift its views because people are leaving, she said.

“We’re prayerful, we’re careful, and we pay attention to what we believe the Holy Spirit is calling us to do. And if we lose members because of that, it’s still the right thing to do.”

In Indianapolis at the convention, which started Thursday and runs until next Thursday, Episcopal leaders are to vote on a resolution calling for pastors to bless same-sex unions. Anderson strongly supports it and backs same-sex marriages at Episcopal churches.

Anderson, who was raised Catholic but became an Episcopalian in her 20s, has been involved with her church for decades, working with youths, environmental issues and community organizing. She was executive director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and director of the Friends of the Rouge.

Jim Naughton, who lives in Maryland and worked with Anderson on a church advisory council, praised her for her “ability to meld diverse people into a cohesive team.”

Anderson has pushed to make sure that the voices of laypeople are heard. And shehas increased the number of racial minorities and women in leadership positions in the church.

“That’s the hallmark of her ministry — the inclusion of all the baptized,” said Jo Ann Hardy, 55, of Detroit, an administrator in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. “She’s been a voice for so many people who haven’t been empowered … laypeople, women, minorities.”

Though some want to centralize power in the church, Anderson wants to keep it democratic, saying: “The best way to address the decline in membership is to open it up even more.”

Anderson also keeps the faith on a more personal level. Every day before she goes to sleep, she asks herself three questions: “What did I do to reconcile the world? What could I have done differently? Did I respect the dignity of every human being that I came across?”


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