PORTLAND, Maine — The Right Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, the first woman to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, on Saturday handed a shepherd’s staff — the symbol of the office — over to her successor at the seating and investiture of Bishop Stephen Taylor Lane.
Lane, 58, of Portland was elected bishop in October at the annual diocesan convention in Bangor. Ordained in 1978, he served in upstate New York in a number of congregations and diocesan staff roles. Lane was the canon for deployment and ministry development in the Diocese of Rochester when he was elected.
“The installation of a bishop is one of the most dramatic services in our worship,” he said earlier this month. “Beginning with a pounding on the door of the cathedral to be let in, then Bishop Knudsen and I exchanging the crosier — the symbol of our role as chief shepherd — and finally I’ll be seated in the cathedra, or bishop’s chair, located in the cathedral.”
The highly symbolic service was held at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland four months after Lane was consecrated bishop. He spent the summer serving as bishop coadjutor alongside Knudsen, 62, of Bath. The two participated in July and August in the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, with bishops from around the world.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s investiture service, Knudsen attended a series of retirement services and dinners in her honor around the state. The first goodbye party was held on Friday, Sept. 5, at Church of the Good Shepherd in Houlton. More than 80 people from parishes stretching from Bangor to the Canadian border attended. Before the event, Knudsen reflected on her tenure in an interview with the Bangor Daily News.
She was elected the first female Episcopal bishop and one of only eight in United States in November 1997. Knudsen was consecrated the next March. She came into a diocese still reeling from the resignation 18 months earlier of her predecessor, Bishop Edward C. Chalfant, now 71, of Orr’s Island. He left in April 1996 after allegations of an abuse of power were made and after the married man acknowledged an affair with an unmarried woman.
In a 1997 interview with the BDN a month after her election, Knudsen likened the diocese’s recovery from that hurt to that of a person recovering from a heart attack. After a certain amount of time, she said, the patient must ask, “‘How can I be a part of my rehabilitation process?’ The question for Maine’s Episcopalians is, ‘How can I move forward from this experience without forgetting it and make a new life for me?’” she said.
For one member of the search committee that first interviewed Knudsen, electing the woman whose job in Chicago had been to deal with congregations in crisis was the first step toward healing.
Dan Foster, a congregant at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fort Fairfield, said at Knudsen’s retirement party in Houlton that he, like many members of the diocese, was “a little disheartened” as the search for Chalfant’s replacement began. By happenstance, Foster spoke with the only two women who were in the pool of 20 applicants selected to be interviewed over the phone.
“I had one question to ask each of them,” Foster said. “I asked, ‘As a woman coming into what could be called a conservative diocese, how would you handle people who do not want a woman priest let alone a woman bishop?’”
The other woman candidate, whom Foster did not name, told him that that mind-set was the church’s past. She, he recalled, essentially said they should “get over it.” The next call he made was to Knudsen.
“She said, ‘If they will not meet me at the altar, I will meet them in the parish hall. If they will not meet me in the parish hall, then I will meet them on the street. If they will not meet me on the street, then I will meet them where they are.’
“I thought, are we bright enough as a diocese to see what this woman can bring to us in terms of healing and forgiveness,” he said. “It turns out we were.”
After her consecration, Knudsen proceeded to meet her new flock where they were. She said earlier that by continuing to talk with congregations that opposed women serving as their bishop and by “staying in relationship with them,” the vast majority embraced her as their bishop within a couple of years. Woman priests now lead some of those same congregations, she said.
The close relationship Knudsen formed was tested in 2003 when the Rev. Gene V. Robinson, an openly gay man, was elected bishop of New Hampshire. Knudsen participated in his consecration and presided at his investiture service.
She had voiced her support for the ordination of noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy, including as bishops, and the blessing of same-sex union, so members of the diocese were aware of her stand on the denomination’s most controversial issues. Many, she said, were not prepared for her to act on those convictions.
Although congregations have not left the Maine diocese to align themselves with conservative bishops outside the U.S. as churches in other states have, people have left parishes in Maine and not returned, Knudsen said. Some have gone to Anglican congregations in Ellsworth, Portland, Lincolnville, Augusta and Litchfield, Knudsen said. Others have joined Roman Catholic parishes or stopped going.
“It was a very, very hard season,” she said of the time after Robinson became bishop when the denomination appeared ready to split. “I had meetings around diocese. We all spoke from our hearts and stayed in the same room and that’s probably a victory.
“The real invitation of those moments has been learning to live together with all that difference,” she continued. “The people who have stayed in the diocese and continued to serve in their ministries in the Episcopal Church who disagree with me are many, but I think that there’s a profound respect.”
Knudsen said she was most proud of an increased sense of unity, collaboration and cooperation in the diocese. She also successfully launched a capital campaign that exceeded its goal of $3 million and put the diocese on a firmer financial footing for the future.
Under her leadership, the ordained lay deacon program grew from a handful to 42. The bishop said that the close ties to Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor and Portland had played an important role in the education of the 84 people she ordained as deacons and priests while she was bishop.
Knudsen said that despite decreasing population and churchgoing trends regionally, two new congregations in Portland — Grace Church on Munjoy Hill and San Lucas, a Spanish-speaking congregation at St. Luke’s Cathedral — were formed during her tenure. She also established close ties to a sister diocese in Haiti.
At her final retirement party, held Friday night in Portland, Knudsen’s official portrait was unveiled. It will hang in the parish hall of the cathedral alongside portraits of the men who served as bishops before her.
The painting is by Ronald Frontin of South Thomaston, who is known for his portraits of the state’s most influential people. Frontin’s subjects have included former U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, ex-Gov. John McKernan and retired Maine Supreme Court Justice Paul Rudman.
“The backdrop of [my] painting is the cathedral, the spiritual center of our diocese and the place where my ministry began,” Knudsen said last week. “When I was elected, I requested that my crosier be crafted by a member of the Penobscot Nation, one of the native people of Maine. That crosier in the portrait is my tribute to all of our native communities.”
Knudsen has said she plans to focus the next phase of her ministry on Maine’s sister diocese in Haiti after some rest and travel.
“I’m looking forward to doing something I haven’t done in nearly 30 years — not working on Christmas and spending the entire day with my family,” she said.
The Right Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine
1946 – Born Chilton Abbie Richardson to Episcopalian Navy family in Washington state.
1950s – ‘60s – Lived throughout U.S. and overseas.
Late 1960s – Earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology and biochemistry.
1971 – Married Michael J. Knudsen.
1976 – Began ordination process shortly after historic vote opened priesthood to women.
1980 – Earned Master of Divinity from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.
1981 – Ordained Episcopal priest in Diocese of Chicago.
1987 – Named pastoral care officer for the bishop of Chicago.
November 1997 – Elected first female Episcopal bishop of Maine.
March 1998 – Consecrated eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.
July 1998 – First woman bishop to lead prayer at Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.
November 2003 – Participated in consecration of Bishop Gene V. Robinson in New Hampshire.
March 2006 – Inducted into Maine Women’s Hall of Fame.
May 2008 – Participated in consecration of successor, Bishop Stephen Taylor Lane.
July 2008 – Attended second Lambeth Conference.
September 2008 – Retired to devote time to ministry in Haiti.
Episcopal Diocese of Maine
18 summer chapels
14,000 active members
130 active priests
82 retired priests