Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin

Commons Speaker John Bercow caused controversy yesterday after refusing to appoint a candidate chosen by the Dean of Westminster Abbey for the role of ­Chaplain to the House of Commons, and choosing instead to appoint Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a black woman from East London and now the first black vicar of Westminster.

Commons Speaker John Bercow rebelled against church authorities when he refused to appoint a candidate chosen by the Dean of Westminster Abbey for the role of Chaplain to the House of Commons.

Bercow chose instead to appoint Rev Hudson-Wilkin, a black woman from East London and now Britain’s first black vicar of Westminster.

Rev Hudson is known for speaking her mind. She called for the Church of England to apologise for its role in the African slave trade and has also accused the clergy of racism.

The reasons behind the row is said to be about the reform of parliament which also includes reforming the traditional and often prejudicial structure of the Church of England.

According to the Mail online report, “The move will be seen by some as the Speaker showing support for those campaigning to force the Church of England to allow women to become bishops, as well for helping ethnic minorities achieve high-profile public posts.” (Walters: Mail Online: June 26, 2010)

Adding to this the Mail report said “…a source close to Mr Bercow maintained: ‘We did not want yet another predictable, middle-aged, white man who is like a mini Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Usually the Speaker confirms the choice by the Dean and critics argue that this will lead to bigger splits within the church. A senior parliamentarian told the Mail, “It is a tragic mistake for the Speaker to cut the ties with the Abbey. He seems to have done it on a whim because other people did not think Mrs Hudson-Wilkin was the best candidate.” No reason was given in the report to why Mrs Hudson-Wilkin was not considered the best candidate.

A Church of England source told the Mail, “It would be better if it was not split in two. Modernising everything is not always a good thing. Sometimes it is the result of someone throwing their weight around.”

Bercow chose to sever the ties between parliament and the Abbey and appoint Rev Hudson-Wilkin as Chaplain for the Commons, the Dean’s preferred choice, Canon Andrew Tremlett will take over the duties of the Abbey and become Rector at St Margaret’s, essentially splitting the traditional role between two people.

The Abbey authorities has responded to this row by refusing to offer Rev Hudson-Wilkin the palatial grace-and-favour apartment in the Abbey cloisters.

Does religion set the moral standards of society?

This row has provoked many important questions regarding the role of religion in modern society. Historically religion has been seen as a moralising force in human affairs and in some respects this cannot be denied. However, what cannot also be denied is that religion has been responsible for some of the most horrific human rights atrocities in human history and continues to prevent the progress of human equality to this very day.

The Church of England refuses to accept women as equals and up until a few years has been resistant to black or Asian members in the highest religious office. It is time for society to be bold enough to question the church’s right to set the moral standards.

The Church of England as well as other religious faiths are prone to error just as anyone else and from this perspective they should not be given special status when it comes to public affairs.

Whether the controversy in this appointment is about gender or race equality in the church, or even both, the controversy alone points to the failures of the church to maintain the very standards and morals which they claim to follow.

The church’s history of racism to this very day is well catalogued (read Black pastor to take on BNP leader in live debate) and its resistance to equal rights for women is well covered in the media.

Some may call it tradition, but one thing is certain, in a modern society it will not work.

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