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 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.

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. Among the best-known leaders are Brian McLaren, founder of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Md., and Tennessee author Phyllis Tickle.

“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!”

Changing state of religion

These days, it’s risky for any religion to promise growth.

The number of Episcopalians has shrunk by more than 40 percent from about 3.5 million in the mid-1960s, a period in which all religious groups lost members. A study released in 2008 by the Pew Forum showed that 44 percent of Americans had changed religious affiliation, many more than once.

According to the study, the number of Episcopalians who said they had left the church was about the same as those who had joined.

The groups with the highest net gain were nondenominational Protestants — who tend to be conservative evangelical — and people who are unaffiliated. But even major conservative groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention have begun to announce losses in recent years.

Robin Lovin, an expert on American Protestantism at Southern Methodist University, praised Budde’s push to grow her Minneapolis congregation.

But he was wary of the religious demands that Budde places on parishioners, saying her approach could be seen as a kind of liberal fundamentalism. The biggest threat to the church, he said, may be science, which has challenged the credibility of Scripture.

Religious conservatives, on the other hand, think that Budde’s strategy is too limited and too permissive. Tens of thousands have left the denomination since the church ordained an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire about eight years ago.

The Rev. Chris Klukas, spokesman at Trinity School for Ministry, an evangelical divinity school in Pennsylvania within the Episcopal Church, praised Budde’s goal to focus more on evangelizing, but he said that should be the church’s top priority.

“We really feel the future of the Church is in the Gospel and the right proclamation of that Gospel,” he said. “At Trinity, we train our students to be leaders who can plant new churches, renew struggling churches and grow, all with the purpose of creating disciples.”

On her own terms

Budde told the Washington diocese that she wanted the job only if she could reimagine the diocese’s mission to demand more of members and to focus on local and other issues.

Without such an aggressive agenda, “you’re just a caretaking institution going into graceful decline, and I just was not going to do that,” she said. These were welcome words to many in the 40,000-strong Washington diocese, which includes the city and the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s, and which is considered one of the country’s more liberal, united dioceses.

With only half of its congregations losing members in the past decade, Washington is considered relatively strong for an Episcopal diocese.

“She had an understanding of the Church that gave us hope,” said Rev. Stephanie Nagley of St. Luke’s in Bethesda. “When you hear her talk, it’s clear she deeply believes we have something in particular to offer.”

Budde, a priest since she was 24, has a proper, unadorned appearance but a spiritual story with intensely emotional roots.

As a lonely teen coping with her parents’ divorce, she joined a fundamentalist community and was baptized in a preacher’s swimming pool. She said the experience remains “the foundation of my understanding of Christian community.”

“I wanted that, I wanted that kind of connection,” she said. “The idea that Jesus would want to come into my heart — that was life-changing for me.”

Budde envies aspects of conservative Christianity. And she praises workshops she has done with evangelical megapastor Rick Warren, which focused on issues including the importance of deep faith experiences.

A fluent Spanish speaker, the thing she treasures most about the growing Latino presence in the Episcopal Church is the comfort with which people pray.

Budde is scheduled to be consecrated Saturday 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.”