Interview: For God, Queen and country
Rose Hudson-Wilkin talks to Charissa King
Rose Hudson-Wilkin was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where she began preaching at the age of 14. Four years later, to pursue her call to ministry, she went to England to study as a Church Army officer, before becoming one of the Church of England’s first female priests in 1994. Mrs Hudson-Wilkin has served in two parish churches in the London borough of Hackney but she is perhaps best known for her appointment in 2007 to the role of Chaplain to the Queen, followed three years later by her becoming Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The night before we met Mrs Hudson-Wilkin, she had been on Newsnight, contributing to a discussion about whether or not people with strong Christian views should be involved in politics. She had recently returned from an ecumenical trip to support the Church in Zimbabwe. Soon, she will be travelling to Jamaica, where, on 4 November, she will be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Technology. Reform met Rose Hudson-Wilkin in the Speaker’s State Rooms in the Palace of Westminster.
There are 33 Queen’s chaplains. How much contact does that give you with the Queen, if any?
I was appointed at the end of 2007, and from that I was invited to Windsor Castle for a sleepover. Dinner and a sleepover with Her Majesty! Annually, we go to a garden party. She has a number of private chapels throughout the country. We take turns preaching, so we’re basically there for her. Worship goes on whether she is at that service or not. More importantly, we pray for her daily, and for her family. Someone remarked to me about her longevity and I remember thinking: ‘Wow, yes!’ And then I heard myself saying: ‘But Rose, why are you surprised? You’re all praying for her every day!’
You’ve described the Queen as ‘anointed by God’. What do you mean by that?
In her coronation service, she was anointed by the archbishops and set apart. In the same way, when we consecrate the priest or the bishops, we set them apart for particular work. She is set apart for service – for her people as it were. This is not just: ‘Oh she was first in line to the throne’. She is chosen, and she recognises that. I’m sure she would love to be an ordinary person without the cameras, lights and all the gloss. But she recognises her role as something she’s been set apart to do. She believes in it, and she carries it out with a great deal of compassion.
You’re also Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. How neutral does that role require you to be?
The role is a historic role. It has been in existence for over 300 years. And I’m the 79th chaplain in that period of time; the first woman and person of colour in that role. I am here to serve Mr Speaker, and members and staff of both houses, so my role is a pastoral one. If an MP has done something wrong, I am not there to get on the foghorn and condemn them out there. I will be behind the scenes, praying for them.
I can recall one particular issue where I probably spoke out of turn. I went out on the Andrew Neil show and spoke about the refugees who were coming over on boats. Hundreds were drowning and I’m afraid it wasn’t government policy to embrace the refugees. I spoke out on that occasion.
Were there repercussions for that?
I was advised that that was not the correct thing to do! But I felt that that was the right thing to do. I wasn’t saying that government was bad or MPs were bad, I was just simply speaking to the nation to say, we need to show compassion. We were once all migrants. Many of us, our parents’ generation or grandparents’ generation, came here, and if the population then had treated them the way we were now treating migrants, then we wouldn’t be here. It pains me, in particular when I see people of African Caribbean stock, which I am from, jumping up and down saying: ‘We don’t want these foreigners.’ It’s what has been referred to as the crab culture. You climb up, and then those who are there grab hold and prevent anybody else – we kick the ladder away. That worries me.
Should the Church be neutral when it comes to politics?
No. The Church ought not to be neutral. There’s nothing neutral about politics. The Church should not be engaged in party politics, but politics is about people’s lives. In the Old Testament, the people are told when you go to gathering, to do the gleaning, don’t take everything, leave the things at the edges so that the foreigners, the aliens, the orphans, can get what is left. Those who are vulnerable in society, we need to respond to their needs. Politics sets itself up as the body that is going to respond to those needs on behalf of the rest of society, so, I think we have to hold them to account and speak into that.
We cannot be silent, and we should not be afraid to say to government of whichever hue: ‘You’re getting this wrong, and this is how this is impacting on those who are vulnerable.’
As well as your chaplain roles, you are Priest in Charge at St Mary-at-Hill It is a church in the city.
We don’t have a congregation as I did in Hackney, so it’s a very fluid group of people who come in. There’s a small core, almost like Jesus’ band of 12, as it were. All the services I do there are 30 minutes, because people are working so they’re just dipping in – they need to have their lunch and get back to work. On the first Thursday of the month we have what is called Thursday conversation. We have an adapted form of Evensong, beautiful music – oh it’s just so moving! And then, at 6.30 we have our conversation. Last night we had Martin Bashir speaking at it. And that’s what I do in the city.
Sounds like a massive contrast to what you do here
Yes it’s different, and I love it too.
You once said that you were struck by how faith in this country is treated as a private matter. How should we address this?
One of the big things we can do to address this is to create confidence in faith. Partly it’s culture – we’re private, I get it. But if you think about football match, or the horse races or rugby and cricket, think of the excitement that you see displayed. I would like to see people of faith being equally as excited about their faith, and they’re not, because they’re not as confident about it. There’s something that we are failing to do as Christian leaders in terms of how we disciple the body of Christ
Discipling ought to be lifelong, and what we tend to do is baptise. In my last parish, where of course I had a congregation, people would phone up or come and see me about baptising their children, and I never refused, but I would say: ‘I have to prepare you, because I want to make sure that you understand what is happening.’ And they’ll say: ‘Oh! But when I had my last child baptised all I did was phone the vicar up and the vicar gave me a date and I turned up!’ I said: ‘That’s not happening under my watch!’ When people come for marriage, the same thing. The Christian faith is about love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy all those things. But those things are not just words, it ought to be a way of life. If Christianity does not inform us when we are driving, when we are at our desk, in meetings, when we are on the playing fields, then there is something wrong.
So should we be evangelising?
We should, but standing on the roadside – that’s not effective. What is going to be much more effective is when you catch what I have; when you see me living out what it means to be a Christian, when you see my joy. I may be poor, I may have nothing, but I am joyful because the spirit of God gives me joy. People need to see faith being lived, and people being comfortable with their faith. And that’s what they’re not seeing, so they’re not catching it.
We go and see a new movie. What do we do? We ring up our friends up: ‘Hey guess what, I saw this movie; it was terrific!’ And yet, we go to church, we hear a brilliant sermon, or there is this amazing song and we’re not catching that excitement. You show your emotions in football; you show your emotions in cricket, you show your emotions at all sorts of things – you ought to show your emotions about faith and Life.
This article was published in the November 2017 edition of Reform