The Reverend Returns to Bermondsey

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The new Rev on the block

Katie Wilkins was a Leap Year baby born in the nun-run St Theresa’s Hospital, Wimbledon. ‘I’m just about to turn 13, she says chuckling heartily, which became the soundtrack to the interview, writes Michael Holland.

Her father was a mechanic in the motor trade who worked hard into an executive position. Mum was a secretary before children came along but found time in the child-rearing to train as a cordon bleu chef. ‘We ate really well,’ laughs Katie, recalling coming home from school to duck a l’orange. 

Katie’s growing up years were in ‘leafy’ Surrey.‘I went to Linton Preparatory School where we wore boaters – Really eccentric!’ Katie explained a set-up of sisters and brothers-in-laws, living in a big house, who divided up the tasks: ‘One sister was secretary and dinner lady, the other was the headteacher… I was so bossy they made me Head Girl – Twice! I ran their playground with such an iron rod no one else had to provide discipline, so they made me Head Girl again.’ 

Did the bossiness continue into adult life? ‘No, but I am a leader.’ 

Katie enjoyed ‘English, History, Drama, French… I love anything to do with reading.’ She studied Government and Politics at A Level and ‘loved learning how politics work’.

She smiles and shows off scars from roller-skating and rejoices in days spent playing with friends in the woods at the back of their Tadworth home where trees were climbed and bonfires lit.

Oxford University was the next step to study French and Italian. She spent a summer with a family in Italy before the term began, and a year in Rome as part of the studies. ‘That was phenomenal,’ she remembers. ‘I had a whale of a time!’

Katie says she can pretty much hold a conversation in Italian but not French: ‘Here is my pencil case’ is the extent of it these days.

On the French course with Katie was Julian Kelly, her future husband, but with an embarrassed laugh explains that they never really knew each other ‘because neither of us were good at going to lectures…’ Plus, they moved in different circles. Julian was in the Christian Union and Katie came from a non-Christian upbringing – ‘I was quite hostile to religion,’ she admits. 

During Italian studies in Rome, the ‘whale of a time’ led to a low point. She found herself praying and on her return to Oxford asked a Christian friend to take her to church. An inspirational sermon was the catalyst for Katie’s change. ‘But I thought my journey to finding Jesus would be to go out with the Christian Union rep!’ 

And it was. She attended church with the rep and his family and decided that this was the time to make huge changes. Aged 21, Katie read the Bible, became a Christian, joined their union and, once the union rep was history, got to know Julian on better terms. ‘Julian first knew me as “The woman who led the Christian Union rep astray.”’ Cue another joyous laugh.

This was no easy decision after living a life without religion. She had to tell her ‘cool’ friends and her family: ‘It did not go down well,’ she recalls. Katie stresses how supportive her parents have been since the shock: ‘They could not bring themselves to come to my baptism into the church… Although they have since come to all our kids’ baptisms!’ 

Katie’s parents are more comfortable now. ‘I understood their fears. It was a difficult decision to make, but not for one single second have I regretted making it.’

After graduating, Katie joined the NHS Management Scheme in Barnsley then finished it off in London.

By now, Katie and Julian were married, had moved to Bermondsey and had a daughter, Hannah. ‘I took a career break in 1996 and went back in 2012’. In that time three more daughters were born.

The Kellys

The Kellys joined a local church where they were very active. Over time Katie set up a parent-toddler group on Bonamy Estate, became the Sure Start Chair in Peckham and spent many hours doing community work in Bermondsey through the church: helping domestic abuse victims and working with women in prison until realising she wanted to do church work full time now the children had grown. 

Alas, there was a glass ceiling at that church for women, so to be a leader Katie had to leave and find another church where she could achieve her ‘calling’ – the Church of England. Julian supported his wife’s ambitions and the couple left amicably.

Training for the priesthood meant returning to university. On graduating she was assigned to St Edward’s Church in Mottingham as a Pioneer Curate – one that would plan and test new ways of delivering the ‘message’. It is in the middle of a large housing estate on the edge of Elmstead Woods, so it did not take long for Katie and her small team to devise ‘Together Outside’. 

They would arrange picnics and services amongst the trees in fine weather; she had grown up by woods and could relive those halcyon days. She soon led church services, weddings, christenings and funerals; organised litter-picking mornings. Katie became part of the community.

She gave an example of a typical day: Morning prayer, sitting with a dying person, meeting a recently bereaved family, emails about hall hire, heating being left on overnight, organising services and writing sermons. ‘You have to be very good at pivoting from the pastoral to the practical and back again but bringing up a large family was good preparation.’

Now, after three years away, Katie Kelly is returning to her beloved Bermondsey as the new Vicar of St James’s and St Anne’s Church – the first female to take charge there.

‘The post was advertised, and I applied and wrote a very long application and was invited to interview,’ she says. From a strong field of applicants, she got the job.

‘It is a big job, there are two communities with their own characters and their own ideas of what they want from their vicar… It is daunting because I will have the responsibility of the care of souls in a parish of thousands. Anyone taking on a job that big would have concerns.’

And the first female vicar: ‘It’s challenging being in places where some people might think I shouldn’t be there because of what the Bible might say; if that does apply to anyone I hope we can work through it together as I have wrestled with this and believe I have come to a place where I am confident that, actually, there’s another way of reading it.’ Her hopes are that those in the congregation who feel that way will hang on long enough to give her a try.

Katie has already thought of new ideas but will be saving them until she has got to know the people and had a good look at her new parish: ‘It will be an exercise in listening and watching and praying… The question I will be asking is “What are the needs of this community now?”’  

Katie has met the Bermondsey team and says, ‘They’re great, they’ve been there a long time and know the community – They’re faithful folk and have been really welcoming.’

This heartens Katie. ‘They sensed my enthusiasm for Bermondsey.’

I sensed it too. The Reverend Katie Kelly’s special places in Bermondsey are Southwark Park, the river and the Salter Statues, but most of all the Bermondsey people. ‘I want to serve the community for a long as I can,’ she says reverently.

Amen to that.


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