Monday, July 20, 2009

VGR and the Numbers

Courtesy of GetReligion we have a NYT interview with V. Gene Robinson (breathlessly described as "Episcopalians’ First Openly Gay Bishop", as if he has never before given an interview) in which Robinson, well, not to put to fine a point on it, essentially lies through his teeth about the statistics of his diocese. Now, mostly he doesn't say anything that can't be absolutely pinned down as a lie, but when you look at the official statistics, they paint a completely different picture from the one he presents.

Let's start with the statement that "Our diocese grew by 3 percent last year." I don't know where he got that number, but it didn't come from Kirk Hadaway. Official church numbers for 2008 aren't out yet; 2007, according to the church, showed a 1.3% decline. Lest you think that is an abberation, let's review the numbers:
  • 2002: 16,698 members
  • 2003: 15,621 members
  • 2004: 15,531 members
  • 2005: 14,725 members
  • 2006: 14,347 members
  • 2007: 14,160 members
or if you prefer it in percentages:
  • 2003: 6.4% decline
  • 2004: 0.6% decline
  • 2005: 5.2% decline
  • 2006: 2.6% decline
  • 2007: 1.3% decline
Even if you believe VGR's 2008 numbers, there is a cumulative loss of 2100 members since 2002, or about 12.7% of membership; using the 2007 numbers gives a loss of 2500 members, or about 15% decline. Oh and when VGR said, "There are 15,000 people in the diocese of New Hampshire," he was not telling the truth either. Membership in the diocese hasn't been that high since 2004.

But on to the spin:
Q: Who are you pulling in?

A: We have received so many Roman Catholics and young families, particularly families who are saying, “We don’t want to raise our daughters in a church that doesn’t value young people in our church.”
Again, not to put to fine a point on it, but this isn't what the numbers say. Robinson's earlier statement in the interview that there was only one parish he had to close down may be true, but it's also misleading: 49 parishes and missions amounts to a loss of 280 members per parish from 2002 to 2007, or about nine whole parishes. He may not have rebellious priests and vestries, but he has plenty of departing laymen, far more than enough to offset the supposed RC influx. The fantasy that disaffected Catholics are going to pour into our more inclusive church is simple wishful thinking; four decades past Humanae Vitae, and it still hasn't materialized. Looking at that, and John Kerry, and Catholic Europe, I'm inclined to postulate that at this late date, Catholics have become adept at combining papal allegiance with routine disobedience. Perhaps having to sing all four verses of a hymn is a big turnoff. But the fact is that nobody really knows, that I can tell. Statistics on these conversions simply do not seem to exist.

What is real, by contrast, is the steady decline, year after year; the last year in which the church grew was in 2000, and since then the domestic dioceses have lost 213,000 members, or 9.2% of the 2000 total. And the 2007 membership of the four seceding dioceses amounts to about 2% of the domestic total, so it seems likely that 2008's numbers, when they are released, will show continuing losses.

Addendum: I don't mean to imply here that Robinson, with malice aforethought, stated what he knew to be false. There is nothing here that could not be attributed sloppy math on the one hand or unreasonably rosy thinking on the other. The important point in the end is that the bishop's demographic statements cannot be trusted, whether he is lying to us, lying to himself, or he just can't do math.


Well, the real numbers are out, and diocesan numbers can be found here. There is some fudge/smudge between Robinson's numbers and the official tallies. Membership grew by 2.4%, not 3%; there's a little lily-gilding in that, though at least the basic fact of growth panned out. The five year loss is 7.2%. A bit more disquieting is that ASA continued to decline, with a loss of 1.1% from 2007. Calling 14,501 members "15 thousand" is really pushing the limits of rounding up, but not technically inaccurate.

So my doubt on Robinson's expression of vigor must be tempered. He does have more members, though not quite so many (either by percentage or in toto) as his round numbers would lead one to believe. On the other hand, the drop in attendance is as discouraging as ever.

I'll have reactions to the 2008 numbers in a later post.

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