Force For Change Rose Hudson-Wilkin On Becoming Britain’s First Black Female Bishop

On 23 April 1994, approximately a month after it became possible for women to do so, I was ordained as a priest in Lichfield Cathedral. I remember it clearly. It was a bittersweet day. We left the ceremony through the great west doors, and I can still see the image of the other women in attendance, those who had given a lifetime of ministry, but, because of their age, had now missed their own opportunity to join the priesthood. That day, I felt the same emotions that surround giving birth: you’ve gone to the hospital, made it through labour, and there you are in a room with a beautiful baby, overjoyed, and yet very aware that in the next room or cubicle there may be a woman who has lost hers.

Faith is who we are. It’s not a coat or a hat – something that we put on and take off depending on the weather. I was 14 years old and living in Montego Bay, Jamaica, when I first had a sense that I was being called to ministry. For me, the vocation was about leadership, pastorally caring for people and guiding in the liturgy. It was quite strange, given that no women were allowed to occupy such roles then, to feel called to something that didn’t exist.

Nevertheless, in 1979, aged 18, I travelled to the UK to train as an evangelist at the Church Army College in London – women were allowed to do that. I met my husband, Ken, who was from the north-east, at the college. When I finished training, he followed me out to Jamaica and we got married. We both worked with the Church there: me settled into the community I knew so well, training other lay leaders; and Ken sent to look after two churches in the rural parishes of St James and Hanover, getting used to the people and the patois they spoke (sometimes asking for interpretation). In 1985, aged 24, I returned to the UK with Ken and had the first of our three children. By that point, the Church had begun ordaining women as deacons. I was put forward to test my calling to ordained ministry, but the initial response from the Church was that I should really be looking after my husband and daughter. I happily told them that Ken was perfectly capable of looking after himself, and that I wouldn’t have put myself forward had I not thought about how I would manage with my child.

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Eventually, in 1991, I was ordained as a deacon and served my curacy at St Matthew’s Church in Wolverhampton. Then, three years later, I was ordained a priest. I remember saying to a group of lay and ordained people while working as a diocesan officer, “If you had a vacancy and I applied for it, would you consider me?” One woman popped her hand up, and said, “But why would we? We don’t have any black people here…” I laughed. “Oh, my goodness,” I said. “Isn’t it interesting that white priests can go to Africa, Asia, to our inner cities, they can minister to everybody, but somehow black priests are only allowed to minister to black people?” And then left it at that for them to ponder.

Even after I entered the priesthood there were – and still are – those who believe a woman should not have authority over a man. The first church that I went to was from that tradition. They struggled with my arrival, and a number of people resigned from the committee. I went there knowing how they felt, but never once engaged them in conversation about the rightness of women to be ordained, because I didn’t need to prove myself to anyone. I just went there and did my work – served them, in effect.

I am very conscious of the fact that in society and the wider community, young people from a minority-ethnic background rarely see reflections of themselves in leadership roles. That’s a big deal – it certainly was for me. I was lucky because I was born and brought up in Jamaica, where I saw people who looked like me in all walks of life. I knew that I existed and I knew that I could become whatever I wanted to be. That stood me in good stead, and I came to the UK with a confidence that said, “You are.” I had, as Judge Judy would say, already been cooked. And so, negativity didn’t – and doesn’t – imprint on me. When, for example, I was appointed as chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons in 2010, a role I share with another priest, one newspaper described him as an “Oxford graduate” and me as “the girl from Montego Bay”. I just smiled.

© Graham W Lacdao

Sometimes people have asked me why I stay. And I say to them, “I stay because I know who called me.” I would be lying if I said there isn’t a sense of sadness when you recognise that people don’t want to accept your ministry, but I step back and think, “You know what? That is their problem.”

One thing I have always said to my children and other young people is that you cannot legislate for someone else’s behaviour. When people rejected me from doing their funerals because I was black, or because I was a woman – more so because I was black – I would allow myself to feel the pain of that rejection, because that pain is real and there’s no point in pretending it’s not. But I would pull myself together and say, “Rose, you do a damn good funeral, so it’s their loss.” And then I got on with life.

We have laws in this country that would make you think there ought not be any racism or sexism, but the reality of human nature is what it is. You have to decide for yourself how you are going to respond, and respond in a way that is not detrimental to your wellbeing.

Folks in Britain could do well with learning a thing or two from Her Majesty. She is someone who embraces everyone – something I have experienced first-hand as a chaplain to the Queen, a position I was appointed to in 2007. She relates to people with a deep respect, and values them and their culture. When people ask whether I found it strange moving between the Queen’s chapel and my parish in Hackney, east London, where I spent almost 17 years, my answer is “No.” Why? Because I see the person. To me, the Queen is first and foremost a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. The people in Hackney are equally ordinary. They may not have been born with a particular privilege, but what I have learned from a very early age is to treat all people, regardless of title, as human beings. My years in Hackney were the best of my life, and when I left, the tears were unstoppable.

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The royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex brought people together in many ways. It was such a positive moment for the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, the royal family and for Great Britain. And I was deeply privileged to have been invited by them to lead prayers at the service. Several days after the wedding, I was at an iftar – a breaking of the fast during Ramadan – and a Muslim man in his thirties told me how he wasn’t planning to watch the wedding, but he did. “I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I had to see all of it. We were all texting each other saying we wished our imam could preach like that. I felt proud to be British.” That, I thought, was amazing.

And now it is time for new challenges. It was only after I was accepted for the role of Bishop of Dover that people said to me, “Oh, that’s a big job!” I hadn’t seen it like that. I am a one-day-at-a-time girl. And one day at a time is just loving what I do, when I’m doing it. I could never have imagined that this is where life would take me. My mother came to the United Kingdom when I was a baby, and I was raised by my father’s sister in Jamaica. Life was very ordinary and we had very little. That was my reality. But I believe that faith takes us to greater heights. My life was changed and continues to be changed in the presence of God. I know what joy and serenity that has brought me – and I want others to experience that joy in their lives, too.

The Church has come a long way in the past 30 years, and I have conquered many milestones: one of the first women to be ordained, the first black priest to be chaplain to the Queen and to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Now, I’m the first black woman to be a bishop in the Church of England. But if there’s one thing I would like to see change in my lifetime, it would be that all these “firsts” stop; that they become normal.

A few years ago, I saw the journalist who had written the piece about me and the “Oxford graduate”. I told him that he had unwittingly given me the title for my autobiography. When I eventually get around to writing it, it will be called The Girl from Montego Bay.


First published 03.01.20:

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