Chilton Knudsen has two training specialties that are rare for a priest but that come in handy in church work: addiction recovery and conflict resolution.
The 69-year-old Episcopal bishop’s unusual expertise feels particularly relevant in her new position in the Diocese of Maryland, where a top bishop, drunk and texting, fatally struck a bicyclist with her car in December before leaving the scene. The pain caused by the death of Thomas Palermo and criticism of the church’s handling of the now defrocked bishop, Heather Cook, led the diocese to hire Knudsen, who arrived last month, as Cook’s replacement.
Knudsen, who was a biologist for a decade before becoming a priest, has written two books about her own journey as a recovering alcoholic, about the nature of addiction and the particular ways it plays out in faith life. She is known as a teacher and speaker on the topic in the Episcopal Church — which, on the one hand, has a drinking culture and can appear to be in denial about the problem of addiction and, on the other, has an abundance of churches that host 12-step meetings in their basements. The late Baltimore priest Sam Shoemaker was a huge figure in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and is honored with an annual feast day on the Episcopal calendar each Jan. 31.
Knudsen represents a complicated challenge to the diocese and her denomination, which were forced by the Cook case to take up the topic of substance abuse and to discuss the way leaders have handled — or mishandled — it.
Although institutional religion has traditionally viewed substance abuse through the lens of sin, seeing it as primarily a moral failing, medical research in recent years has defined addiction as a disease over which people have no control. Knudsen says three decades of work on the topic led her to think that addiction is highly complex and individualized.
“I think alcoholism and addiction have so many complex dimensions,” she said. “They aren’t just psychological, not just physical, not just social phenomenon. I’ve come to learn there are many kinds of alcoholism, and patterns that are different. There are people who try to simplify; they say, ‘It’s just a spiritual-moral issue’ or ‘just physiological.’ ”
At a time when Americans seem to talk constantly about having unhealthy relationships with a broad range of things, such as food, iPhones and sex, Knudsen says we may be talking about “addiction” in an unhelpful way.
“The word ‘addiction’ is at risk of being overused. If everything is an addiction, then nothing is,” she said. “Addiction to your iPhone has some qualities like alcoholism. You can’t make a free choice to stop. It affects your relationships. You’re not listening to people in front of you. But I often say to people: Nobody ever went to the hospital with liver failure and died because they were on their iPhone.”
Cook was sentenced last month to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to charges that included automobile manslaughter. The case was painful for many Episcopalians. That was particularly true in the Diocese of Maryland, which includes northern and central parts of the state, including Baltimore, and has more than 112 congregations. Episcopalians in the D.C. suburbs are part of the Diocese of Washington.
Members learned after Palermo’s death that before Cook’s installation as the diocese’s first female bishop, its top bishop and the denomination’s presiding bishop had discussed whether she was drunk during her pre-consecration dinner. They also learned that she was charged in 2010 in a drunken-driving incident in a nearby diocese. It wasn’t clear what officials knew about the extent of her struggles with alcohol, but they did not tell the group that elected her about the 2010 arrest or press Cook to speak about it, saying they were respecting her privacy and relying upon trust.
Confronting conflict is part of Knudsen’s training. She said she began studying conflict resolution in her early years as a priest, in the 1980s, as a way to cope with all the tension around that first generation of female priests.
“I was very much within a conflict. I was representing a challenge to the status quo,” she said. “As a way of keeping my bearings, I began working with conflict resolution as a way to be present to the conflict I was a cause of. I wanted to know how to keep my head, my faith, my center, not be caught up in a lot of emotional or reactive behaviors.”
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