WASHINGTON -- From the window of her new office, Washington's arriving Episcopal bishop Mariann Budde sees the National Cathedral, its soaring Gothic towers covered in scaffolding and rappelling repairmen fixing damage from a summer earthquake.
She also sees a metaphor: a faith whose foundations are crumbling.
As Budde on Saturday became the first woman installed as Washington's top bishop, the cathedral -- Episcopalianism's mother church -- has half the staff and budget it had three years ago. It began applying last year for federal aid as a national landmark. Data released last week show the number of American Episcopalians dipping below 2 million for the first time in modern history, a situation far better than in Canada, where church leaders say it could be one generation from extinction.
But it has been on the decline, caught in a period of religious experimentation. The Episcopal Church is losing conservatives who say it's too secular and too accepting of gay men and lesbians, and it is losing liberals looking for spirituality not based on a theology from centuries ago.
Others say the most important factor is that generations of Episcopalians have had small families, which leads to fewer opportunities to bond to one's church through Sunday school classes and weddings.
Amid the slide, many church members and leaders have not wanted to look squarely at the threat of cultural irrelevance.
Budde, on the other hand, who just spent a decade saving a Minneapolis church from the threat of closure, loves the topic.
Episcopalians, she said this summer while competing for the bishop job, have lost focus of the core missions of a church, such as worship and evangelizing. Their spiritual foundations are weak. Their churches don't demand enough commitment from members. She compared the denomination to the interstate bridge that collapsed in her home town of Minneapolis in 2007.
Far from turned off, clergy and lay leaders quickly picked the 51-year-old priest, saying they were wowed by her frankness, her optimism and the approach she used to grow St. John's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis from 100 to 400 parishioners. She added children's programs and provided more education and development for lay ministers.
Budde thinks it's a blueprint that can build up her liberal brand of Christianity so it can engage on equal footing with conservative evangelicalism.
She is more forthright than many bishops about the issue of decline, more explicitly liberal, more charismatic, and more focused on local congregations and less on global concerns.
Budde is among a growing group of Christian leaders who call themselves progressive and think their approach is a better match for an increasingly diverse America. They define progressive Christianity as accepting a range of theological ideas. They work to fix local problems such as poverty and affordable housing, and they look skeptically at powerful institutions, such as Wall Street and major political parties.
" I want to build up the liberal church again so we can be a legitimate conversation partner in the public arena, because right now it's dominated by . . . what many would call the Christian right," Budde said this week at the diocese's offices. " It's legitimate for them to be there, but they're drowning us out. They're better at organizing churches than we are, and I'm going to change that!"
Budde is scheduled to be consecrated this weekend in a cathedral marred by cracks that it doesn't have the cash to repair. Budde remains resolute in her hope.
" What we have to offer in the Episcopal Church is so precious and so important and could be so helpful to the world, especially right now," she says. " I wouldn't be here if I didn't think the Episcopal Church had a really significant place in that landscape."