As Budde on Saturday becomes 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.
The image of the Episcopal Church as a federal aid recipient is particularly striking because for nearly two centuries it was the faith of America’s elite. Despite never having huge numbers, the American wing of Anglicanism dominated institutions from the Supreme Court to Congress to the local pool club; its churches were built in the grandest, most prominent spot in many a town square.
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. Some church leaders say a stranger might be ignored at an Episcopal coffee hour while the evangelical church down the road would already have the visitor assigned to a prayer group.
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.
Tackling the issue head-on
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.