Rose Hudson-Wilkin was born and raised in Jamaica. She was educated at Birmingham University and, was trained for ordination at Queens Theological College in 1991 and was priested in 1994. For sixteen and a half years she served as a priest in Hackney (Holy Trinity with St Philip, Dalston and All Saints, Haggerston). In 2007 she was appointed as a Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen and in 2010, she became the first female appointed to the position of the 79th Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin is the Bishop of Dover and the Bishop in Canterbury.
Tell us a little about your ‘faith journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now? Did you grow up in a family of faith? If so, how was that faith expressed?
I often speak of myself as a cradle Anglican. I was baptized in the Anglican tradition before I was four months old and so grew up within the life of the Church. When I was fourteen I felt a call to ministry. I had a dream one night and in the dream it was as though I had a revelation from God. And I was so excited by this that I started saying “Thank you God! Praise the Lord! Thank you God!” but I didn’t realise that I wasn’t just saying it in the dream – and I woke myself up. It left me unsettled and I picked up the Bible and it fell open at Luke Chapter 4, where Jesus reads in the synagogue from the scroll, quoting Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…” and I read the passage and I felt comforted by it and went back to sleep. And that morning when I woke up we would normally use a daily bible study and the allocated reading for that day was Isaiah 61 and it was just too much of a coincidence! From that day onwards, I never let go of the fact that God was calling me to serve.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work as a faith leader?
We were lucky that we didn’t always have a priest – because it meant that the wise elderly lay Reader that we had didn’t just hog the show himself. He’d invite the children to get involved in the services. When I was fourteen I preached my first sermon. I loved it, I flourished on it all. What this gentleman did was give me confidence by allowing me to be involved in leadership roles in the life of the church – and this confirmed for me that this was the right thing for me to pursue.
I also grew up in a community of faith. I did not learn my theology at theological college – I learnt my theology amongst the men and women around me in my community who had such an amazing trust in God and dependence on God. It felt as if God was their first or second cousin or friend. Their confidence and ease in addressing God deeply influenced me.
As a woman of African descent, what have been some of your greatest challenges?
My greatest challenge has been to maintain my humanity. There are exchanges that you sometimes have with the world that leave you questioning your humanity. I also need my soul to ‘sing’. If I am involved with something and my soul isn’t singing, then I know that I cannot continue doing it, because I need to be whole. To be involved in the kind of intense ministry that I’m involved in, I need to be whole. And so the challenge is to maintain my humanity and not to have that removed from me. What I say to my children is that you cannot legislate for someone else’s behaviour. Booker T Washington said, “The circumstances that surround a person are not important – what is important is how they respond to their circumstances.” Those are the words that I have lived by. I carry that message which helps me each time I face a challenge. It reminds me that I don’t need to act in a way that is dishonoring to who I am. And, I am constantly reminding myself that I am a child of God and that it behooves me to respond with kindness and compassion even when I am met with the opposite.
In particular, what are some of the “coded” messages of resistance you have encountered, and how did you navigate those challenges?
Let me give you an example. When I was in the Midlands with a group of lay leaders, I was given ten minutes to speak to them about my role and what I was doing in relation to Black Anglican Concerns. They were questioning the value of this work and I said to them, “What if you had a job going and I applied for it? Would you consider me?” No sooner had I finished the question than a hand went up and a lady said, “We have no Black people here, so why would we want to consider you?” And I smiled and said, “Oh, how interesting! So white people can go to Africa, white people can go to Asia, white people can go to inner cities that are very diverse – white people can go anywhere to serve and minister, but Black people are only allowed to go where there are Black people?” And I just left it at that.
And it wasn’t always coded. Sometimes people just said, “You’re Black, we don’t want you.” I navigate this by being self-aware. I’m not afraid to look in the mirror and to claim the fact that I am a child of God. And when people say they don’t want me, I pull myself together and say, “It’s their loss.” Others I have challenged straightforwardly and said “Your behaviour is un-Christlike and has no place in the Church.”
- What does it mean for you to serve in your current post?
I wept when the Archbishop told me that I had been appointed – because I wasn’t expecting that. I am only now knowing that it means to serve in this role, because the pandemic has restricted me for so long – only now am I really getting out and about in our diocese. As I go out, I’m getting some really amazing responses from people. Seeing these responses to my ministry has been overwhelming and made me thank God that I am serving in this role. A man last night said, “I’ve never heard anything like this before!” when I spoke. The feedback from people – old and young – shows that I am in the right place and that I’m serving God. One woman wrote to say that she didn’t know that people that looked like me were in the church and that she had been inspired by seeing me, that it made her want to start going to Church.
In what way(s) do you feel your presence amplifies the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender and religion?
My presence challenges people to examine their own prejudices – to consider what is going on within them. I’ve always said that I want to work in an area that is multicultural, because I want Black children to see images of themselves, so that they know that they can. But I also want white children – who grow up with the prejudices handed down from their parents and grandparents – to see Black people in significant leadership roles.
I grew up not thinking of myself as Black or a woman. I grew up knowing that I was Black and knowing that I was a woman. And once you know and you don’t have to keep thinking about it, you just are. It’s only when I came to this country that I had to think about it. My presence cannot be ignored – and I would like to think that I fulfill my role effectively enough so that if you had another Black woman she, too, would be considered. One of my proudest moments is that a woman succeeded me in parliament. I know that if I hadn’t done a good job, the response would have been “Well, we tried that. Let’s not go there again.” If it was a mediocre white man, no one would say, “Oh we’ve had one of those, let’s not do that again.” Because male and white is still seen as ‘normal’. I cannot help but be who I am – and that carries a weight that I must do my job well.
Are there any texts which have oriented your faith journey – Bible text, song, or another source?
The Negro Spirituals are always with me. If it’s a difficult patch, I’m going to be singing, “Lord, how come me here?” And as one goes through the journey, it’s “Walk with me, Lord, walk with me. I want Jesus to walk with me…” Some are joyful, some are solemn, lots are based on scripture. I learnt John 3:16 at Sunday School as a little girl: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son begotten that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” I was part of that world, God loved me – this was a big deal for me, the thought that God the Creator could be interested enough in me to follow such a course of action, then and now, left a lasting impression on me.