Given the reality of decline, the forces of tradition naturally want to attribute it to the church's deviancy. And again, on some level this is inarguable: one can match up much of the decline over the past few years to departures of dioceses and parishes over theological issues. This of course doesn't immediately imply that the issues should have been resolved the other way, nor does it imply that this is the sole source, or that sticking to traditional teachings on the issues at hand would have avoided declines.
On the other side there is a certain perverse pride in driving off the troglodytes, and a certain stiff upper lip about dealing with the losses. But that brings us to the point: the losses DO have to be dealt with. To take an example close to home: Back twenty-some years ago, around the time we married, our parish was nearly literally bursting at the seams. We would have to open the windows so that the people standing outside the building could see and hear the service. And this happened at Easter, and then when the bishop visited; but when we had people standing outside on an ordinary fall Sunday, we knew we would have to build. And while being stuck in a school lunchroom for nearly a year was pretty annoying, the idea that we were growing was energizing and helped carry us through. Twenty years later, we are in the throes of our third rector change, and attendance in 2010 was down to the point where we probably could fit into the old, unexpanded church, and my guess is that 2011 will prove to have been worse, and this year is looking worse still. There is a constant drumbeat about making budget, and anyone who watches can see that we have gone from spiritually prosperous to living under a constant level of strain.
It is easy enough to say that numbers are not of themselves a sign of spiritual health. But the church is a spiritual institution, and the numbers are surely a key measure of institutional health. They do not show that the institution is in some sort of healthy, controlled contraction: they show a church which is being forced to retrench at the mercy of demographics and as a reaction to its dogmatic changes. In context, the dismissal of the numbers' relevance isn't confidence; it's denial. Parishes (and now cathedrals, for two were closed and one was sold off in the past year) are forced to close, and few on the progressive side are willing to face up to the obvious truth that the institution cannot keep going like this.