THE "ministry of welcome" is a thorny subject in some churches.
There is a line between interrogating people about their possible
skills and availability, and ignoring them altogether while we talk
to our friends. It becomes even trickier when the one being
welcomed has a criminal record.
Let us imagine the Revd Jo Smith, of St Nicholas's, in some town
we have never visited. She is delighted one Sunday to see a new
face in her congregation: young (under 50, anyway), male, and
engaging. She is already lining him up as a potential churchwarden,
as she approaches him after the service with a standard: "Hello, I
don't think we've met before." The visitor's name is Tom, and he
asks whether he can see her privately.
It turns out that he has recently been released from prison. He
tells Jo that it was a minor traffic offence, and that he has a
background in finance.
Scenario A: St Nicholas's has been struggling
to find a treasurer; so it seems natural to ask whether Tom is
interested in the post. The position of treasurer has nothing to do
with children; so Jo and her churchwarden decide that there is no
need for a CRB check. Within a year, Tom is managing the budget of
St Nicholas's, receiving and managing all the incoming funds from
the collection, planned giving, and fund-raising.
Within three years, he has stripped the church's finances to the
bone, and run, having had his hand in the collection plate for some
time. When the police arrive, they tell Jo that Tom had been in
prison for fraud.
Scenario B: Jo, as soon she hears that Tom has
been in prison, tells him politely that he is welcome, but that, as
a matter of course, she will inform safeguarding that he is
worshipping at St Nicholas's. The diocesan safeguarding officer
recommends that a CRB check be made before Tom takes on any
position of responsibility.
When Jo asks him whether he will consider being treasurer, she
tells him that he will need to fill in a CRB form, and Tom then
confesses that it was not a traffic offence, but fraud. He
apologises, and says he was ashamed. Instead of becoming treasurer,
Tom joins the PCC - after a CRB check - and Jo ensures that he is
kept away from the church's finances.
Tom becomes a dynamic and imaginative member of the PCC, and
although he takes his turn counting the collection on a Sunday,
this is routinely done in pairs, so he is never tempted to revert
to his old ways.
THEN again, let us imagine the Revd Sam Jones, of St Agnes's. He
is new in post, but his attention is drawn to a young man sitting
at the back.The churchwarden, Claire, tells him that the young man
is new. Claire introduces Sam to the visitor, who says that his
name is John. Again, John asks for a private conversation with the
John says that, under the terms of his licence, he needs to make
it clear that he has recently been in prison for sexual offences.
He tells Sam that he came to faith in prison, and although he is
struggling with the guilt about his offence, he really wants to
Sam politely gets to the end of the conversation, but he wants
nothing more than to leave so that he can think. He is repelled,
but he is also genuinely concerned for the safety of his
congregation. He fears that he should tell John that he cannot come
back, but he is not sure how. Perhaps he should tell him that he
will visit John at home - but is even that wise?
Scenario A: Sam decides to tell John that,
since there are vulnerable adults present, and a flourishing
children's ministry, it would be better if he stayed away. He gives
John the telephone number of the Revd Ann Bloggs in Little
Ruralsham. Perhaps, he says, a smaller church in the country, with
no children present, would be a safer place for him to worship.
But in Little Ruralsham, Ann tells Tom sadly that she does not
feel it wise to include him, because the congregation is so small.
It would be hard, she says, to explain why a man of his youth and
vigour is not helping out more. She is very sorry; perhaps John can
support the congregation in his prayers.
So John is excluded from the one place where he had hoped to
find some measure of acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption. The
Church which, in prison, had told him that he was forgiven and
restored in Christ, outside treats him as a pariah. John's new
"I want to go back to prison, because I want to go to church,"
said one ex-offender (this quotation is not fiction).
Scenario B: Sam phones his local safeguarding
officer for advice. The diocesan officer contacts the probation
service, so that it can assess the risk that John is thought to
pose, and advises Sam to set up a covenant of behaviour with John,
as an ex-offender. This way, John can be safely and discreetly
supported and held accountable by a small group of trusted members
of the congregation.
Sam also searches online, and discovers Caring for Ex-offenders,
a charity that trains congregations to mentor and resettle
ex-offenders. It turns out that the charity knows of a business
locally that specialises in employing ex-offenders. Sam puts John
in touch with them, and he is soon employed.
John's new support group at St Agnes's helps him to put
disciplines in place which keep him from reoffending, and John
flourishes in his new job. His employer has a link with a housing
trust that will provide accommodation.
With these three things in place - accommodation, employment,
and a support network - John's risk of reoffending diminishes
exponentially. He becomes a stable and fruitful member of the
church congregation and of wider society.
IN THE chapel in prison, we find that many previously nominal
Christians suddenly discover what their faith means, in the
context of sin and redemption, but are afraid that the Church
"outside" will reject them. The temptation to hide their history,
and be assured of an easy welcome, is great, but they - and we -
will be far more vulnerable if they do.
All of us have weaknesses: sins we are more likely to
commit than others. For most of us, those sins are not also crimes.
Our best bet is to build one another up; to form a humble community
of sinners, where we can protect the vulnerable and encourage the
weak. To do this, we need to have our eyes and our hearts open.
There is huge amount of charitable support
available, from Caring for Ex-offenders and the St Giles Trust,
which specialises in reintegrating ex-offenders, to websites
such as clinks.org, which lists a host of charities that work with
offenders and ex-offenders.
Then there are the structures built into the system:
every diocese has a safeguarding officer who is available for
support and information. Many probation departments and prison
chaplains are happy to give general advice to churches, or if
applicable - and with the consent of the person concerned - provide
background checks to help assess the risk that an ex-offender
Our ministry of welcome goes far beyond the
after-church coffee. We must engage pastorally and safely with
ex-offenders, while not trusting foolishly, nor turning our backs
in fear. The history of our faith is full of people who have been
transformed in Christ.
We, more than any other community, should be saying:
"Come, and sin no more."
The Revd Lindsay Llewellyn-Macduff is a prison
The opinions expressed here are in no way an
official view of the Prison Service; neither should they be
considered an indication of Prison Service policy.