What’s the word for…?

Self-cannibalism is the practice of eating oneself, also called autocannibalism, or autosarcophagy.

I recently heard about a Christian Science branch church that received a large bequest from a recently deceased member. Back in the day, when I was on the Board of Directors at my own branch church, we also received a bequest from a deceased member. The tiny Christian Science Society in the community where I live now is mainly sustained by a large amount of money they have in savings that’s been built up over the years by, you guessed it, bequests. Do you see a pattern?

This is the case with many Christian Science branch churches, societies, and affiliated organizations; and on a more macro scale, by The Mother Church itself. When I was working at The Mother Church in Boston, a close friend of mine worked in the real estate division. The main function of her department was the liquidation of the property of closed branch churches throughout the United States. It is often the case that when branch churches close (which happens frequently), that they turn over their real estate and other holdings to The Mother Church, which liquidates those assets and keeps most or all of the proceeds. This activity brings in a lot of revenue for The Mother Church. The other huge sources of revenue for The Mother Church are bequests from dead Christian Scientists (no surprise there), and rental income from properties they own in Boston (click here to learn about changes at the Christian Science Plaza).

I’ve touched on this idea in several other posts, where I see the Christian Science Church as a largely dying corpse that is feeding on itself to stay alive. Overall, even though they do admit new members every year (nobody outside the Church employees who oversee this activity and the Board of Directors know how many), from all evidence I’ve seen new members do not off-set the hemhorraging of members who either die or leave. The vast majority of people who grow up in Christian Science also end up leaving it at some point in their adult lives. At its peak, the Church likely never counted more than 1 million members worldwide, and that’s a generous estimate. Although hard evidence is not available, I do not believe that the Christian Science Church is bringing in enough new members each year to off-set yearly losses. Anecdotal evidence is available that supports the observations of a rapid decline in the Christian Science Church.

Some evidence…

While nobody (outside of a small circle) knows how many members there are in The Mother Church, the decline in the overall Christian Science Church can be tracked through information that is easily available in the Directory of Christian Science in the Christian Science Journal. The decline in the number of branch churches has yet to abate, and the number of Christian Science practitioners continues to decline.

One yearly measure is a required (by US Postal Service regulation) statement of circulation for Christian Science periodicals. In the years from 1996 – 2009 (a 13 year period), circulation for the Christian Science Sentinel (a weekly publication) dropped from 52,599 to 24,130. It’s worth noting that around 2009, they did start moving to digital subscriptions, but even if you stop say at 2004, you see the drop going to 37,778. That’s a drop of 14,821 or about 28% of the 1996 level in just eight years.

There’s another measure that requires a bit more effort to reveal, but a dissident Christian Science publication, The Banner, packages the information up quite well. It is a summary of branch church closures. They track this information using the church listings found in The Christian Science Journal. Since they started keeping track of this information in 1987, 987 churches have closed and 81 have opened in the United States alone. This represents a net loss of 906 churches between 1987 and 2016–that’s just in the United States.

So, the Christian Science Church, by all appearances, is a dying organism that is feeding upon itself to sustain its continuing existence. It’s not sustainable, and eventually, there will be nothing left. The value of their property holdings in Boston will sustain them for many years, and there are many more dying branch churches yet to be sold off, so I’d say that the ultimate demise of the Christian Science Church, as an entity, is probably many decades away. But, it’s not going to last forever. Unless there’s growth, it will ultimately autocannibalize itself to death. What growth there is, does not even come close to balancing, let alone cancelling, the rapid decline.


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