Most of the prisoners there had committed serious violent crimes, a good number were life sentenced prisoners, some were terrorists, a significant proportion had committed sexually related crimes. Many, if not most, came from socially deprived areas of England. Alcohol and drugs were a common feature in the background of a majority.
There were very challenging, at times harrowing moments, and there were very inspiring times too. My personal faith was challenged intensely, and from being almost broken it changed and was re-moulded.
Elizabeth Fry, the great Quaker prison visitor, write: “Much depends on the spirit in which the visitor enters upon her work. It must be in the spirit, not of judgement but of mercy. She must not say in her heart I am more holy than thou, but must rather keep in perpetual remembrance that ‘all have sinned and come short of the Glory of God.’”
In the prison chaplaincy, outside my office hung a simple poster showing Christ behind bars. Beneath it were the words ‘You visited me.’ (Matthew 25.36). A constant and important reminder that the christian can find, and serve, God in the prisoner -in the marginalised, the sick, the hungry, and the needy.
At times zealous evangelical christians would come into the chaplaincy, with passionate intensity ‘bringing the Lord’ in to prisoners. Their focus was converting sinners. At times one or two of the men would respond to their message.
On a Sunday afternoon I ran a simple gathering in the Chapel called Come and See. Together visitors, staff and prisoners, sitting in a circle, shared their thoughts on their week, and their thoughts on a Bible passage chosen by a participant, prayers were said, we had a cup of tea. Of course in such a setting there was risk in this. We encouraged all to treat each other equally and respectfully, silences during the sharing were encouraged, and we helped one another to listen. In one part of the sharing we asked that contributions be ‘received in silence’ to prevent too quick rejoinders. Being still, learning to listen, led us to look for and find God there among us speaking to us in and from the prison situation. Perhaps because of this, we found this time of sharing developed and grew.
As attendance declines many churches are showing anxiety about the church’s future. Voices from the margins have relevant insights about the nature of church to share with churches, and ecclesiastical authorities.