by the Revd Rose Hudson Wilkin, 2008
As a black female priest in the diocese of London, I was privileged to have been born in Jamaica and also to have spent my formative years in a community where it felt as though everyone cared.
When we played out, on the way to school or church, we would be careful how we ‘carried’ ourselves if adults were around. Why? Because we could be told off or worse still, they could report us to our parents and the results would be ‘a strong discipline’.
At six months old I was baptised into what was then called the Church of England in Jamaica. By the time I was confirmed in my early teens, the Church, like the nation, had begun down a road of self-discovery and gained its independence. We were now ‘The Diocese of Jamaica’ – Anglican / Episcopal. The adults in the family went to the early 7.30am service in the main town or city. We, the children, attended the later 9.30 service, followed by Sunday School at 11am.
Our morning prayer was 1662, often led by a Lay Reader, but as we got older, we had the opportunity to take an active role in reading the lessons, leading the prayers of intercession and assisting with Sunday school teaching of the younger ones. My calling to ministry came out of this context at the age of fourteen.
Feminism was not part of my vocabulary. I was simply being obedient to the call of God, as I had experienced it. I took seriously the words of our Lord, when he said that the ‘harvest was ripe, but the labourers were few.’
My faithfulness to that calling led me to England, where I trained as a Church Army Evangelist at the Wilson Carlisle College of Evangelism in Blackheath, south east London. It was there that I met the student who was later to become my husband, Kenneth, a Geordie from the north east of England.
The course was challenging. All that I had held dearly in the form of a basic Christian faith was suddenly being unravelled. I came to the point where I consciously had to ask myself the question: “What is really important about my faith and how am I to form the bedrock of it?” I came to the conclusion that the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ dying for my sins and the sins of the world; a God who raised his son from the dead and sent his life giving Spirit that the world (including me) might have life in abundance – this I believed was non-negotiable.
Having decided on what was going to be fundamental to me, I survived the freezing cold weather and even survived what I regarded as ‘Christians living as if they had no God’. I learnt that people’s racist behaviour was not really about me, but more about the individual expressing that behaviour. They were the ones with the problem.
At the end of my three years of training, I was commissioned by former Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Lord Runcie of Cuddesdon, and, on returning to Jamaica, licensed as an Officer in the Church Army.
I worked there for three years as a Christian Education Officer in the west of the diocese, in the Montego Bay Region. Having experienced church life in Britain with one priest to a church, I began to realise that the challenges of ministry in Jamaica were numerous. One priest often had five or six churches, known as a Cure (the main Parish Church and the rest being mission churches planted by the Jamaican Missionary Society). These congregations were often miles apart, so the priest would do all three morning services. The following week, after the first one, two different mission churches would have their turn at the second and third to receive the sacraments. Some Cures had no resident priest and therefore months would go by before they received the sacraments.
I remember as a teenager meeting other young people from such congregations and asking the question of the hierarchy: ‘if the sacrament is so important, then why are people prevented from receiving it because no priest is available? After all there are lots of committed lay people who keep the church going.’
It was in Jamaica that I learnt the bread and butter of what it means to be in ministry. I can identify some of the practices that I follow today in the way I minister, as being based from a Caribbean perspective. There, the families worshipped, even though some of the men stayed away. As long as you were a younger member of the family, it was not possible to refuse. The position was: ‘We are a Christian family and we worship.’ Today, it is true to say that this is the view reflected in my family, my three children ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-one, and this extends to any house guests!
The latter is the reason why, in the twenty years of ministering in England, I struggle with the response from parishioners who tell me that they had visitors, usually another member of the family, and hence they were not able to attend worship. I look back and recall how at Christmas and Easter in Jamaica, our services were full, even though they began at 6.30am. If you did not get there early, then you were relegated to standing room only. It was not too early either for the babes in arms. They were there too. Yet today in England, even for high festivals, when I enquire about absences, I still hear: “We had family visiting.”
In Jamaica, ministry was built through relationships. Visiting became a bedrock. Both the priest and the people visited. The priest often had a love for the people who were in his care and this most certainly contributed to the growth of their congregation.
This is quite a contrast to my experience in Britain, where I have in the past heard the clergy speak of their parishioners as if they were nothing but a nuisance that they can’t wait to get away from. As I go from diocese to diocese, wherever these attitudes are held, the impact on the life of the church has been visible for all to see. I believe that this attitude has been a contributory factor in our ‘failing churches’.
In 1998, I became the incumbent of two congregations in the Diocese of London. They were neighbouring parishes – one of which was earmarked for closure and had a congregation size of between twelve and fifteen people. I was the first vicar of the United Benefice. A few of those in leadership struggled with having a female and a black priest and made their views known. I challenged their behaviour, always focusing on the fact that it was inconsistent with what it means to be the Body of Christ. I could not convince them that their attitudes were unchristian. After some months, they left the church.
Nine years later, and All Saints Church is making waves. A visit from Mystery Worshippers gave us a high score. In 2006, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined us as we celebrated one hundred and fifty years of Christian witness. The membership has grown to over one hundred and thirty with the potential for further growth. All Saints at Haggerston continues to make steady progress too. If this growth could be multiplied in all our congregations, then what an impact the church would make on the community.
One of my colleagues describes ministry in the church within this inner urban community as “labour intensive”. A parishioner recently told me that her priest had retired. “He came here knowing that this was going to be his winding down post”, she said. The life of the church reflected this state of play. All parishes and most certainly tough inner-city parishes need faithful priests with energy: priests who are going to enable their congregations to grow in the confidence of their faith. Priests coming to work in inner-city parishes must have a genuine love not only of the Word, but of the People. This fundamental love must supersede any interests they may have with regard to ‘topical issues’.
As the debate about women priests raged in the early nineties, it was clear that much energy was being spent on the topic, trying to persuade people to take on board a particular perspective. At the beginning of January 1994, a priest who was in charge of a predominantly black congregation, boasted about his congregation, “They believe what I believe,” he said. I felt that he clearly had no respect for them and that scared me. Today there are other debates raging and we as priests have become embroiled in them. In our obsession with certain issue based subjects, our eyes have been taken off the very people we have been sent to minister to, while we engage in these self-indulgent arguments about the ‘rightness’ of what we believe. We have suddenly got a hotline to God; we claim our right to become a defender of the Church. I smile at a thought we have forgotten: that the Church is not ours, but belongs to God and he does not need us to protect it.
Some well-established middle class churches have planted new cell church groups in inner-city areas: a part of the ‘Being New Church’ agenda. I find it interesting to note, however, that these new groups are not actually engaging with the working class majority. Instead they are targeting likeminded pockets of individuals. The majority of inner-city urban parishes are desperately in need of administrative resources; of the gifts and skills that are often to be found in abundance in these established churches. Yet through their new vision, it is not to those ‘parishes in need’ that energy is given, but to the setting up of a ‘new church’ of a homogenous nature.
Back here in Hackney, I have not stopped ‘being church’. I do not regard it as a mission shaped or new church. I am simply living out the Gospel in the place where I have been called. This has meant engaging with youths on the streets, challenging them about the need to be in education; about not carrying knives; about their vulnerability on the streets.
I bring along the widow of a young man stabbed to death by teenagers on the estate, so that the pain they leave behind can confront them. I want them to understand that even though they themselves may not have used the knife, they are implicated by association and their silence.
I engage with the local police, even challenging them too on behalf of the young people: on the way they conduct themselves when approaching members of the local youth community. If they are not careful, the very community they are trying to protect refuses to speak to them, never mind confide in them. I make contact with various agencies on behalf of parishioners and especially on behalf of those who are vulnerable.
I get involved with my local schools and other community agencies. I facilitate consultations that bring together ordinary members of the community and leaders of various agencies to discuss issues of local concerns. I chair the National Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglicans. I conduct worship for the elderly in a Day Care centre for those who have no way of getting to their local church. There is no ‘New Way of being Church’ for them either. I should also add that fundraising for millions is also part of the task, though not something I enjoy. I do not think that a priest should be spending valuable time doing this!
All these activities are just a part of the responsibility that comes with being a priest in a busy inner-city parish. How did I come to be here (How Come mi here)? It was my husband who was invited to look at the post. I came along as a dutiful wife. On the way home, he said, “I don’t think this is right for me.” I replied, saying, “I think this would make a great challenge.”
Nine years later, the congregation has grown. I still love the people I have been called to minister to and every day brings a new challenge.