Bishop Chilton Knudsen Comes Full Circle

New Assisting Bishop Begins Work October 4

When Bishop Chilton Knudsen begins work as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Chicago on October 4, it won’t be like her first day in any of the other dioceses she has served. For one thing, she already knows her way around the cathedral, where she was ordained to the priesthood more than 40 years ago by Bishop Quintin Primo Jr.

“This is a homecoming for me,” Knudsen says. “I’ve come full circle.”

Her longstanding knowledge of the diocese will serve Knudsen well as she begins an active schedule of visitations, confirmations, and “the sacramental things that only a bishop can do.” The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of nearly all in-person events during the last nine months of Bishop Jeffrey Lee’s episcopacy, coupled with the unexpected interim period created when Bishop-elect Paula Clark suffered a cerebral bleed in April, has created what Knudsen calls a sacramental and liturgical backlog. She will visit congregations on the first three Sundays of each month beginning on October 10 and will also preside at regional confirmation services and ordinations.

“Bishop Chilton is absolutely the perfect person to be our assisting bishop at this time,” the Rev. Anne Jolly, standing committee president, says. “Her experience in Chicago and other dioceses, her deep respect for our Bishop-elect Paula, and her tremendous pastoral sensibilities will be a tremendous blessing to us all. The standing committee welcomes her with joy.”

As Knudsen settles into the studio apartment in the Hancock Center that will be her home in Chicago, she is eager to help people understand both what they can expect from her and what isn’t part of her role. Fundraising makes the list, and she looks forward to hosting gatherings with donors to the diocese as pandemic restrictions permit. Presiding at diocesan convention in November? That job belongs to the president of the standing committee when the office of diocesan bishop is vacant, she says.

As assisting bishop, Knudsen will not exercise authority over governance or financial matters in the diocese, although she will be a support to the bishop’s staff and to the standing committee, which continues to be what the canons of the Episcopal Church call the diocese’s “ecclesiastical authority.” “Think of the standing committee in the aggregate as the acting bishop,” she says.

Pastoral care for clergy will be one of her immediate priorities. “Some clergy have lost loved ones to COVID, others are anxious about whether they’ll have a job as their congregations emerge from the pandemic with reduced resources,” she says. A retreat planned for the third week in October will allow her to meet clergy in person and “use that time to care for them.”

The clergy of the diocese, who have gone ten months without a bishop, will find that Knudsen is already familiar with many of the parishes and missions they serve. A graduate of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, she was vicar of St. Benedict’s, Bolingbrook and assistant priest at Church of Our Saviour, Elmhurst before joining Bishop Frank Griswold’s staff in 1987 as pastoral care officer.

Knudsen is also a veteran of conflicts in the diocese’s past. Although she was ordained to the diaconate by Bishop James Montgomery in 1980, the diocese was then deeply divided over General Convention’s 1976 decision to allow the ordination of women to the priesthood, which Montgomery did not support. For several years afterward, the standing committee refused to approve the ordination of female priests, and women in Chicago seeking to become priests had to transfer their canonical residence to another diocese to be approved. Knudsen transferred to the Diocese of Indianapolis, which approved her candidacy. That diocese then delegated her ordination, like those of other women in Chicago, to Primo, who was the diocese’s suffragan bishop from 1972 to 1985. She and three other women were ordained by Primo on February 24, 1981; the group came to be known across the church as the Chicago Four.

In 1997, Knudsen was elected bishop of Maine, where she served from 1998 until 2008. Since then, she has served as assistant or assisting bishop in six other dioceses—most recently the Diocese of Washington, where she worked closely with Bishop-elect Clark. Although she was happily settled in Washington, Knudsen leapt at the opportunity to serve the Diocese of Chicago during Clark’s recovery.

“God has often seemed to call me into the places where there are problems and hurt,” she says. “I never sought this vocation, but it has consistently been where I have been called to be—a bishop in exceptional circumstances.”

Beginning October 4, Bishop Knudsen can be reached at or at 312.751.4217. A list of her upcoming congregational visitations will be posted on the website next week.