Rose Josephine Hudson-Wilkin, MBE, QHC, is a British Anglican bishop, who has been Bishop of Dover since 2019: she is the first black woman to become a Church of England bishop. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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.
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.
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