THE Revd Denis Hartley is believed to be the first Church of England priest to have been ordained inside a prison.
He has served as prison chaplain since 2012. Why be ordained inside the prison walls? “I don’t think it would have happened without the input of the prisoners. They are a great bunch to be with. They can be very challenging, but it’s very rewarding.”
The journey to this point has been a long one for the former merchant seaman and engineer.
He first felt God’s call decades ago when reading St Luke’s Gospel: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?” As he read the passage, he says that it was as though the earth had moved beneath him, and he knew God was directing the same question at him.
After mulling it over, he began the ordination process by speaking to his priest and others about life as a clergyman. “They all talk endlessly about what you do in church, what you’re responsible for, what you say. It was all church, church, church, and yet more church. And I thought, being arrogant, ‘There must be more to ministry than church.’”
He walked away, but the “itch” of God’s call on his life never left him, he says. After a bout of serious ill health, when he thought he could die, he resolved to go back to his earlier calling.
He first began training as a Reader; but before he had finished he knew it was not for him, so switched to train for the diaconate instead. Yet, even as he was ordained deacon at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2007, he still felt as though he was missing something.
Again, Jesus’s words in the Gospels jumped out at him. “I was in prison, and you came to visit me.” This led him to begin volunteering at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, in west London, and after five years as a parish deacon, he became a chaplain at Thameside Prison in south-east London.
Denis Hartley was ordained priest at Her Majesty’s Prison Thameside on 4 July, and will continue serving there as a prison chaplain, and as an assistant curate in the Thamesmead Team Ministry (Southwark).