Charles Waters Gilchrist traded a rising political career as Montgomery county executive for life as a solitary urban priest, epitomizing for many who attended his funeral yesterday at Washington National Cathedral what county government once aspired to be.

He was smart and bighearted with a money-where-your-mouth-is attitude toward helping those who needed it. But the Washington suburb famous for activist good-government has been slowly losing the generation of leaders that gave it that reputation.

The result has been a collective soul-searching in recent years by officeholders who find themselves confronting a more urban, conservative county where tax cuts and economic development compete with social services for money and attention.

"It is fair to say that the issues of a generation ago were big issues--fair housing, civil rights, social justice--major issues that these people were heavily involved in," said freshman County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). "I think we still face challenges; they are just different challenges. We haven't figured out how we want to address them yet."

In March, one of the most powerful Planning Board chairmen in Montgomery history, Norman L. Christeller, 75, died of heart disease. Through a potent mix of brains and bravado, he made the Planning Board a branch of government almost as powerful as the council, and just as committed to racial and economic justice. Admirers remember his drive; he used his bathtub as a repository for piles of planning documents.

Then last month, former state senator Idamae Garrott, 82, died. A gray-haired contrarian, she was an iconic advocate of strict land-use planning, civil rights and a painstaking approach to legislating. She unabashedly reveled in inch-thick planning reports and the sometimes numbing political process, a much-derided quality these days.

All three had been out of office for more than six years, but the current county executive, council president, and novice state and county politicians use the word "mentor" to describe their predecessors. Montgomery today may be a more ethnically diverse, urban county than the tidy suburb it once was, but many of the same issues still dominate public debate.

During his two terms, Gilchrist had development to control, housing discrimination to combat and rising anti-tax sentiment to contend with before he left office in 1986 to attend seminary and minister to the poor in Chicago and in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood.

The difference now is that tax cuts, economic development and the scarcity of public ballfields often overshadow help for the mentally ill and the homeless on the county agenda. A bill that would require companies that receive big county contracts and economic aid packages to pay a "living wage" is getting mixed reviews from some local Democrats.

"All three were very committed to battling poverty, certainly Charlie Gilchrist committed his life to it," said council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), who is sponsoring the living wage bill. "Idamae Garrott always looked out for the underdog. Norman Christeller championed fair housing. They serve as a useful reminder for why officials should take a tough stance and still need to today."

Hundreds turned out yesterday to pay tribute to Gilchrist, who died of pancreatic cancer. In his remarks, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) noted that "we're going to miss his kindness, his warmth, and his heart."

"But," he told the more than 600 congregants who came from Capitol Hill hallways and Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, "the music of his song will live with us all."

Some said Gilchrist and his generation of leaders set a high standard.

"They created the concept of a well-administered government with a social conscience," said County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who was active in Gilchrist's campaigns in the early 1980s. "Clearly, preserving that is the challenge they have laid down for me and whoever succeeds me."

CAPTION: Shown during the funeral for Gilchrist at Washington National Cathedral are Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, his wife and Cherryl C. Holt, the Rev. William H. Harter and Elder C.W. Harris. Behind them are Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, right, and his wife.