Rose Hudson-Wilkin: My battle against racism and sexism

The most senior black female cleric in the Church of England tells Katie Stock how she became chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons

There’s always a feeling of admiration when I meet women who were among the first to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. Meeting Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin was no exception. She is a pioneer, trailblazing the way ahead for other women and people of colour who are called by God to serve the Church as leaders.

Growing up in Jamaica, the young Rose Hudson had no ordained women’s examples to follow. Her conservative upbringing told her that women couldn’t serve as church leaders – yet somehow she “never believed any of that stuff”. Despite the lack of female role models, she knew that God had called her “to preach his Good News”.

At 18 years old, and with a calling secure in her heart, she joined the Church Army – an evangelistic society within the Anglican Church – and travelled to England. Rose was ordained deacon in 1991 but, because of the restriction placed on women’s ordination, didn’t have the option to be priested. Rose waited until 1994 and was among the first group of women to be ordained priest in her diocese. But this momentous year didn’t come without a cost. The sexism and racism she experienced in her first post is something many might assume is long in the past. However, judging by her recent statements in the national press about the marked absence of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) clergy in many roles within the established Church, HudsonWilkin clearly believes institutional forms of racism are still present in the Church of England.

Today, Hudson-Wilkin is the chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, the first woman and black person to hold this position. But despite the inevitable criticism of her selection being “politically correct”, she has continued a simple ministry of letting “the Holy Spirit change people’s hearts”. She doesn’t see it as her task to change the mind of the entire Church to accept and encourage her ministry. Although she may not describe it in such terms, Hudson-Wilkin’s presence at the centre of government is a prophetic and pioneering act, which speaks of the humanity we all share with Christ.

While frequently seen officiating at state events (a portcullis symbol on her stole denotes her office) alongside John Bercow (or Mr Speaker, as she refers to him), she’s still involved in the normal life of priestly ministry. Only a few weeks after our interview I happened to bump into her on the street where, in the middle of a heatwave, she was searching for a fan for a poorly parishioner.

Hudson-Wilkin balances many roles: wife, mother, chaplain, priest.

Although she says, “I don’t think that I’m ever likely to be the Bishop of London” (she has been listed among several possible nominations for the currently vacant position), it’s clear that we’ve not seen the end of her pioneering ministry yet.

You were born in Jamaica and you’ve described yourself as a “cradle Anglican”; what was your childhood faith like?

I was baptised at the age of 6 months, by an Anglican ex-pat, Archdeacon Price, and he was there much of my time growing up at that local church. It was a little mission church and we were there every Sunday without fail. I loved it. That’s where I cut my teeth in terms of ministry. Because we didn’t have a priest every week it meant that a very wise elderly church lay reader actually allowed the young people to participate. At a very early age I was reading, leading prayers and then at age 14 I was preaching.

Later on, you joined the Church Army. What made you to want to join?

Unfortunately, there were no women in ordained ministry at that time. Growing up with an overwhelming sense that God was calling you to be a leader in the Church, but where there are no images of what that looks like, you begin to have the little question mark in the back of your head. Did I get it right, or did I imagine that call?

I came across the Church Army because the mission church that I grew up in had always been staffed by a Church Army individual. I thought, “This is the only thing that’s open to me, I’m going to do this.” So, at the age of 18, I made my way to London to be trained.

That’s a big move at 18 years old. How did you feel before you went?

It was a huge move. I was really excited because I was following my heart. It was pretty special but also a little scary!

Eventually you became a deacon and then one of the first women to be ordained priest. Did you receive any hostile reactions from your congregations?

Where I served my curacy as a deacon was a very traditional evangelical church. Very faithful people who really loved the Lord but who were convinced that a woman could not be in a role of leadership. So they asked if they could have my husband instead of me! I went to that church knowing that they didn’t want me. And I was told that the PCC resigned en-bloc because the vicar insisted on having me. But I felt that God had called me there.

I wasn’t going to argue with them. I was simply going to be there and get on with ministry, which I did.

I had surgery [on my knee] shortly after I started. The very next day I got my husband to drive me back to the parish, and I hobbled around on walking sticks because I remember saying to myself, “I am not going to let anyone say, ‘See, it’s a woman, she can’t hack it’ or ‘She’s black, she can’t hack it’.”

But I had a great ministry there. I loved the people. And do you know what? They loved me right back.

Did you see changes in that community as you took that approach?

Yes. As I approached the time of my ordination to the priesthood somebody said, “I want you to know, I was one of those who resigned but I must tell you now that God has called you.” So, here were these people who had changed their minds because they had seen something of a reflection of Christ in what I was doing.

There are times when you’ve got to let the Holy Spirit work. You don’t have to fight for Jesus. The day that I have to fight for Jesus is a day when I have to think, “Hang on a minute, who is this God?” Let the Holy Spirit change people’s hearts.

In 2008, you were appointed chaplain to the Queen. Now you’re chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. How do you see your role in Westminster?

I have always believed that faith should be at the heart of public life. I think faith is who we are as a people. It is not a garment that we put on and off depending on the weather. One of the things that I first noticed when I came to this country was the way in which faith is treated as a very private matter. We don’t talk about faith. We go to the cinema, we go to a restaurant, we come back and we can’t wait to tell our neighbours, our family members and friends about the experience. But we go to church, and ‘mum’s the word’ – we don’t say anything.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current role?

I think perhaps my biggest challenge would be tradition. The British are great on tradition. People don’t want to think outside the box – “because it has always been this way”. I lead the prayers in the chamber. From time to time although there are set prayers, I change them up a bit. From my perspective, I want the prayers to be living. So if something is happening in the community, in the wider society or internationally, I want us to reflect on that.

At first, Mr Speaker had complaints, but Mr Speaker is absolutely wonderful, very supportive, and recognised that “you are the chaplain, so we take our lead from you where this is concerned”. And I’ve had some amazing responses from members, who say, “Your prayers sound so real.” I said, “Of course they are so real, I mean every word of it!”

When you were appointed by John Bercow to be his chaplain, some critics said that your appointment was borne out of political correctness. Your name has also been bandied about for the next Bishop of London. Do you fear the same criticism of political correctness will apply?

I did say at the time that, I think it was [more than] 97 people applied for the role. If you had all that many people applying for a role, and you shortlisted someone who did not have the essential criteria, then it’s telling me something more about you than about me. Every time when we say we need more women in particular roles, or more black people in particular roles, we hear, “But we need the right person, they’ve got to have the right qualification.” I mean, who is going to apply for something that they don’t think that they can do?

You’ve recently spoken out against institutional racism in the Church of England. What practical measures do you think the Church could take?

For [more than] 30 years, the Church has been challenged about its lack of visibility of minority ethnic leadership. So, the Church created a committee, later renamed as the ‘Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglicans Concerns’. That committee has produced lots of reports, they have pointed out many areas that the Church needs to be looking at, and yet very little has been done. It’s just not seen as a priority, and yet, in our inner cities, if it were not for the minority ethnic people, the Church of England would not be represented.

It sounds like it’s not rocket science, the Church just needs to focus?

Get on with it, it’s not rocket science! I have had young people who have approached me. They have been at a church for a very long time, they have served, and yet not once has their priest tapped on the shoulder to say, “Have you thought of ordination?” So the reality is that as black people we are not recognised as being ready for ministry. Potential ministers are not seen as ministers.

Do you feel particular responsibility for fostering vocations among BAME communities?

I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility. I’ve tried to encourage others to take on leadership roles in the Church and so when you are at that level it encourages others. Both my girls have grown up with a mother that is confident, so they are now confident women in their own right. But there are lots of others who are not, and so I feel a huge sense of responsibility. I go to schools, I try to attend services at the cathedral when I know there are going to be children there, because I want them to see another face of the Church of England.

I’m going to be Anglican till the day I die because that’s who I am, even though I may not be happy with the way things are in terms of the measly numbers of black people in leadership roles within the Church.

If you look at the Pentecostal churches, there are young black people who are absolutely engaged because they can see images of themselves. They just don’t see it in the Church of England. But we’re getting one or two coming through and whenever someone calls me up, and says, “I’m thinking about ministry, can I come and see you?” I clear the diary, and I make time for them.

Until his retirement, you’ve been under the Bishop of London, who doesn’t ordain women as priests. In fact he actually doesn’t himself ordain anyone as a way of preserving unity. How have women in the Diocese felt about that?

I don’t want to speak for the other women, I can speak for myself though. I love Bishop Richard [Chartres]. He is my bishop but I have found it painful that he has taken that particular position.

It has always left me asking, “Why it is that we are the ones left to make the sacrifice, the women?” I have found it very painful when the Church says on the one hand “there are no theological reasons why women should not be ordained”. Then it speaks with a forked tongue, because it says, “Ahh, but that group of people over there, they don’t agree for theological reasons.” So, which is it? Are there theological reasons, or are there not?

What would you say to women in churches where female leadership is not recognised but who feel called to lead?

If you believe God has called you then that has to be tested, and not just tested with your local church, but also in the wider Church. So if you are somewhere they don’t believe in the ordination of women, then you’ve got to get yourself to another church and have your vocation tested.

Very often it is the clergy who try to get the congregation to adopt a particular position on this issue, which is quite sad – we shouldn’t be doing that. We’re there to serve God. We’re just simply there to serve God by getting alongside people, not talking to them about women’s rights or about black people’s rights – it’s nothing to do with that. It’s just about the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hear the full interview on Premier Christian Radio, Saturday 5th August at 4pm. Or listen again to 'The Profile' podcast

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