The so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations – the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Methodist Church, and a few others – reached a high-water mark in membership in the mid-1960s. The Episcopal Church, for example, stood at 3.6 million members in 1966; today, the membership is 1.8 million. The decline of the traditionally major denominations is even starker in countries like Britain and Canada.
Yet, individual church success stories persist. Not all individual churches have declined. Caswell Cooke, a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church (and seven-term city councilman) in Westerly, Rhode Island, took a look at the decline and asked some questions. Why have some Episcopal churches continued to grow and flourish, and others have dwindled? And what, if anything, can be done about it?
The Death and Resurrection of the Episcopal Church: How to Serve a Church in Decline is the result of that look. Cooke is an informed layman in the church. He served in the choir of his church during childhood. He’s a junior warden and acolyte warden in the parish. He’s a delegate to the Diocesan Convention. He leads the church’s communication committee. Cooke has also been a television and radio show host and a documentary producer and director.
He’s also passionate about the Episcopal Church. And he’s willing to face facts and urges clergy, vestry, and the faithful core of parishioners to do the same. Ignoring the national decline in membership, he suggests, will only guarantee more decline.
He begins with basic tactics, like signage that doesn’t mystify, an internet presence that is current and inviting, and using communication technologies to their best effect. Capitalize on a great location. Even update those visitor cards on the backs of pews.
He moves on to the national church’s policies and says it’s time to tell the church’s story instead of focusing almost exclusively on whatever the latest social justice cause is at the moment (he cites a few). He also asks what the ongoing revision of the prayer book has achieved, other than no growth and membership decline. And, he says, what if the church focused its energies and resources on proclaiming the gospel?
Cooke packs even more suggestions in this barely-100-page book. It’s not difficult to see the enthusiasm and the love he has for his church and denomination, and that enthusiasm and love frame both his criticisms and his proposals for a path forward.
My own church is a member of a conservative Presbyterian denomination. We’re celebrating our 175th year of existence, and the church has weathered the Civil War, plagues and pandemics, world wars, social upheaval, and economic depressions to continue to grow. It does exactly the things Cooke describes in The Death and Resurrection of the Episcopal Church, with the primary focus being the proclamation of the gospel. What he urges on his fellow Episcopalians really works.