Historians believe that religious services have been held at Westminster from Parliament’s origins. Since Parliaments were not necessarily convened each year, and did not sit continuously as they do today however, it was unlikely that a priest with designated parliamentary duties was appointed.
Records suggest that the practice of holding daily prayers in the Commons became established around 1558. It appears from these same records that the Clerk of the Commons was responsible for reading prayers during this period.
It took another 100 years before the House appointed its first clergyman to attend regularly to conduct the prayers in the Commons. Edward Voyce was the first person to be explicitly named as Chaplain for the Commons in 1660.
From these times until the 1830s, Chaplains usually did not receive direct financial compensation from the House for their services. Instead, the practice was to reward a Chaplain with a promotion to a higher post in the Church hierarchy.
After this, the House accepted a recommendation of a Select Committee to do away with the tradition of preferment and to begin paying the Chaplain a salary.
The first Chaplain appears to have been an appointment made by the House as a whole. After Voyce, however, it became the practice for the Speaker to nominate the Chaplain.
The Chaplain conducts daily prayers in the Commons’ Chamber. Prayers take place immediately after the Speaker’s procession to the Chamber. Only Members are allowed to be present in the Chamber during prayers, and by tradition, they stand up and face the benches rather than the centre of the House while prayers are said.
The origins of this custom are unclear, but it is thought this practice developed due to the difficulty Members would historically have faced of kneeling to pray while wearing a sword.
The Chaplain’s other responsibilities include conducting a weekly Eucharistic service in the chapel, officiating at weddings, marriage blessings and baptisms of Members of Parliament and their immediately families, and providing pastoral care of both Members and staff at Westminster.
The current Chaplain, The Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, is the 79th Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the first female Chaplain.