From Projects To Parliament, Britain's 'Rev. Rose' Breaks Barriers : Parallels Rose Hudson-Wilkin was the first black woman to be chaplain to the queen of England. Now she is chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons as well. Even while fulfilling these high-profile roles, she continues to run an East London parish that struggles with poverty and gang violence.
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From Projects To Parliament, Britain's 'Rev. Rose' Breaks Barriers

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From Projects To Parliament, Britain's 'Rev. Rose' Breaks Barriers

From Projects To Parliament, Britain's 'Rev. Rose' Breaks Barriers

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Britain's Parliament, when members gather in the House of Commons, the sea of faces is generally wrinkled, white, and male. The chaplain who leads them each day in prayer is emphatically not. NPR's Ari Shapiro has this profile of a woman who is breaking barriers in the Church of England.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin has more titles than you can fit on a business card.

REVEREND ROSE HUDSON-WILKIN: I serve as a vicar to two churches in the northeast of London, and I'm also a chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons. And I'm chaplain to her majesty the Queen.

SHAPIRO: She was the first black woman to hold each of those jobs. Reverend Rose, as parishioners call her, was raised in poverty on the shores of Montego Bay, Jamaica.

HUDSON-WILKIN: I didn't grow up feeling sorry for myself and think, oh gosh, I'm poor and, you know, because that was the life of everyone around you. So when a dice has been thrown and that is your life, you learn to live with your life. You grow from it.

SHAPIRO: Now she tries to impart that message to her congregation. This church is surrounded by housing projects. Gwen Gutzmore remembers interviewing Hudson-Wilkin for the job in 1998, just a few years after the Church of England allowed women priests.

GWEN GUTZMORE: There was members of - within this same congregation who didn't want a woman priest. And it took some time but they came around.

SHAPIRO: Eileen Skarrett first arrived at the church in 2001.

EILEEN SKARRETT: When I got invited to the church, it was a black minister. I was much surprised.


GUTZMORE: I thought it was a white. Then I get to know her and introduce myself, and I come to the church from since until now.

SHAPIRO: There is violence in this community and there are gangs. There is also passionate worship. On this Sunday morning, a Peruvian melody for a traditional Christian prayer.


SHAPIRO: Many of the voices in these pews have the lilting cadence of the Caribbean. Reverend Hudson-Wilkin preached to a very different-looking congregation last year, at the funeral for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.


SHAPIRO: Hudson-Wilkin has been a chaplain to the Queen for 15 years. In 2010, she was appointed chaplain to the House of Commons. Almost no one else in the Church of England straddles these different worlds in such a high-profile way. In each sphere, Hudson-Wilkin tries to pull people out of their bubble. She gives the Queen and members of Parliament a glimpse of those who struggle to get by.

HUDSON-WILKIN: I reflect to them the impact of policies on people in an area like this and also for them to hear firsthand what people are saying and how people are experiencing life.

SHAPIRO: And in minority communities, Rose Hudson-Wilkin delivers messages that she doesn't hear from white clergy. At a funeral for a young man who was stabbed to death, she stared people down and said: You all riot when police kill a black man.

HUDSON-WILKIN: And yet in the last 10 years, we have killed - we have killed in our community - over 300. What are you saying about the value of life?

SHAPIRO: The Church of England's leadership has been slow to reflect its members' diversity, says Michael Ledger-Lomas, who studies Christianity at King's College London.

MICHAEL LEDGER-LOMAS: Only around 2 percent of clergy come from ethnic minorities, when about 20 percent of all worshippers within London, for instance, belong to ethnic minorities. So I think there's no question that there's a demonstration effect.

SHAPIRO: Hudson-Wilkin celebrates her uniqueness. On a popular BBC radio program called Desert Island Discs, she said the songs she would like to be stranded with include Harry Belafonte's "Island in the Sun," and another old Carribbean classic.

HUDSON-WILKIN: I just absolutely love calypso. And this one in particular, wherever I am, if I heard it, then I've just got to dance.


SHAPIRO: Rose Hudson-Wilkin is now actively pushing the Church of England to ordain women bishops. Some say it could happen this year. When asked if she believes it, Hudson-Wilkin replies, I believe in miracles. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.



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