Bishop's task to rebuild her people's self-image
She clasps her hands gently after offering me a cup of coffee, trying to make me feel comfortable. Around us is a hive of activity: Conference notices are coming up on the screen and people, mainly media staff and their ``subjects,'' move back and forth. We find our way to a corner of the common room where, hopefully, we can find some quiet. Then she waits for me to set the tone of the interview. An awkward silence follows because, although she is fairly lightly built, there is something overwhelming about meeting a bishop formally for the first time. For Bishop Chilton Knudsen (Maine, United States), one of the most difficult experiences has been meeting the common assumption that the spouse of a bishop is always a wife. ``Many times we have received letters addressed to Bishop and Mrs Knudsen. My first name doesn't really say whether I am male or female. But my husband takes it well.''
She is one of the 11 women making their debut as diocesan bishops at the Lambeth Conference. Ten years ago ordination of women was the one issue that earned both the Conference and the Anglican Communion acres of print in the world's newspapers. Why did it take them so long to be recognised as leaders in the Church even though regular churchgoers in most countries tend to be women?
``Women have not really been visible in public life,'' says the softspoken Bishop Knudsen.They were expected to uphold family values by marrying early, raising children and keeping the household running.'' Elected as bishop in November 1997 and ordained in March this year, she sees her role in Maine as stimulating her parishioners to rebuild their self-image and to feel good about themselves in the presence of God.They had been without a bishop for two years prior to her election and desperately needed someone they could trust.
``Watching things change is stimulating. I love to watch churches and congregations grow. I think how they should be and how God is changing them to become more alive and joyful,'' Bishop Knudsen says. Married 28 years ago to the son of a priest, Bishop Knudsen took her seminary studies as a part-time student. She was away from home only three days a week and therefore had time to look after their son, now 25. Her husband is very supportive, seeing her vocation as he would any other profession. He was unable to come to the Lambeth Conference, however, because he was winding up his duties to move to Maine.
Does she think the Church banished women to the pews for too long, rather than elevating them to the pulpit? ``No! It is all a process of growth. The Church changes slowly, holding on to a sacred tradition, and sees itself as guarding an Episcopal authority that comes from 2000 years ago. It could lose something that is really sacred if it changes too quickly,'' she believes. Born to Episcopal parents serving the United States Navy in the West Pacific, Bishop Knudsen, her sister and two brothers saw the Church as a stabilising factor in their lives. That close tie to religion remains although she is the only one who now keeps the Episcopal tradition. One of her brothers has converted to Judaism after marrying a Jewish woman. ``But we remain very close and engage in long conversation,'' she says.
Her dream for Lambeth is to have people understand, accommodate and tolerate each other and agree to be together as brothers and individuals. The purpose of the Church in the world is to ensure justice. She is glad there is room for discussion of issues in the Church because consensus comes only through discussion.
She encourages women, especially those hoping to be ordained in provinces that don't yet ordain women, to support each other and not get angry. ``Make sure you take time to be spiritual and don't give up,'' she says rather too calmly. Meanwhile, she has to keep the rule given to her by an older bishop: Learn to love people, say your prayers, and have fun.
who is studying theology in Edinburgh, thinks it will be a little longer before women
bishops are universally accepted. She recalls that only this week a steward was giving
book packages to bishops. One of the women bishops stretched out her hand only to
be met with an apology. ``I am sorry but they are for bishops only,'' she was told.
She had to show her name label to prove that she was indeed a Bishop!''