Mariann Budde, who on Saturday will become the first woman installed as Washington’s top bishop, spoke with The Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein this week:
Q: What’s the framework for an outsider understanding your election and what it says about the Episcopal Church in 2011?
A: I’d start by talking about the renewing and rebuilding of the core structures of mainline religion. . . . These are potential channels for people in this country to connect to transcendence and the spiritual basis of life we call God . . . in a way that our forebears, and certainly the generations just before us, took for granted and assumed would always be there . . .
I was elected because I’ve spent most of my time in one context: a church that needed to be rebuilt . . . What do you keep? What do you throw away? Those are really challenging questions.
Q: Why was it so compelling for Washington area Episcopalians to hear you speak frankly and optimistically about this? Is there a hesitance among people to deal with this?
A: It’s a generational thing. My generation of people coming into the bishop’s role are much more blunt than our immediate predecessors . . .
People are working really hard, and they care passionately about being engaged in every public arena. They want to change the world, and so do I. But what about when the foundation you’re standing on is crumbling and can’t hold all the things you want it to?
There needs to be things like children’s ministries, strong pastoral care and a life of the community [that] people can be welcomed into. Buildings need to be beautiful and in good shape, welcoming . . .
In Minneapolis in 2007, when the bridge collapsed, it became a core metaphor for us. Bridges aren’t supposed to fall down. It made us all look at core institutions in a different way.
Q: What shape is the Washington Diocese in?
A: A much better place than the rest of the country. This is a very vibrant diocese, but the trends of decline are here in a muted way. . . . It’s years of steady decline. It’s like when school departments say they’ve trimmed back all the fat and are moving to the muscle.
Q: What are your goals here in Washington?
A: The role of churches in immigration reform and creating paths to legitimacy . . .
The role of spirituality in the lives of young adults, because of my own personal history — I’m the mother of two young adults — and because this is the young-adult capital of the country. There are more here in that idealistic, vocation-searching, relationship-searching stage. What better time to be engaged with a spiritual foundation undergirding all that?
Q: You have said your “first conscious experience of Christ” was as a teen in a fundamentalist community. Can you describe that experience?
A: They had a clear, ‘This is how you accept Jesus, this is how you become baptized, this is how you invite him to be your Lord and savior’ thing. I didn’t know what all that meant, but I wanted that. . . .
My heart was a lonely place. And the idea that Jesus would want to come into my heart — that was life-changing for me. . . . At the same time, I could not make sense of what they were saying: that there was one narrow path to salvation, and if you didn’t take it, you’d be denied.
Q: The Washington diocese has grown in the past decade from three to seven Latino congregations. You are a Spanish speaker. How will this community change the Episcopal Church?
A: Spanish-speaking people [are] drawn to the Episcopal Church. We are similar in manner of praying as Catholics, but we have a very different, democratic organizational structure, with local autonomy. Decisions like the ordination of women, priests can be married — they like these things. . . .
The thing I’m happiest about is the lay Latino leaders are much clearer about their own faith stories and are more comfortable praying together than I experience [with] the stereotypical Episcopalian.
Q: You are open to a range of ideas and have even done a training with the conservative evangelical megapastor Rick Warren.
A: This is a really good pedagogy for how to grow a church. . . .
I want to build up the liberal church again so we can be a legitimate conversation partner in the public arena religiously, because now it’s dominated by evangelical Christians and what many would call the Christian right, and I would agree. 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! What kills me is they learned it from the 1960s!