IT looked like any number of church lunches. Middle-aged men in
clerical collars flitted round, clutching paper plates filled with
sandwiches and crisps. The murmur of occasionally stilted
conversation filled the stuffy and blandly decorated room.
The only clue that this scene, last Friday, was any different
from the norm was the clink of keys on metal chains as anyone
entered or left what was actually the "resettlement area" of
Bedford Prison. The Church Times had been invited to what
was the final part of a tour of the 500-inmate-capacity jail by the
Archbishop of Canterbury.
While Archbishop Welby, with the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan
Smith, and other dignitaries, mingled with prisoners and officers,
the Chaplain, the Revd Sharon Grenham-Thompson, introduced two
offenders - using first names only - to the small group of
Both had been confirmed the previous Sunday by Dr Smith. Craig
said that he wanted to be confirmed to "move further in his faith".
He attended not only Sunday's chapel service, along with 50 or so
others, but also a Thursday-evening Bible study, which he described
as "challenging and enjoyable".
James, who had been on the inside for eight months, and had a
further six left on his sentence, was effusive about the impact
Christianity had inside the prison. Chapel "is always so pleasant.
Everybody is well-behaved, for a prison.
"When I go into the church, I always have a couple of minutes of
peaceful time. You can get a little bit stressed here, [but] I will
never forget it. That peaceful feeling with the Holy Spirit - it's
something I'm really passionate about."
His big battle was to stay off the drugs that had landed him
back in Bedford Prison. But his rediscovered Christian faith would
help him stay clean, he said. Craig agreed, saying that he already
had in mind which church he planned to go to, even though his
release date was more than four years away.
Before he was incarcerated, his children, who attend a Church of
England school, used to ask whether they could pray with him. Now,
Craig said, he was enjoying being able to walk their Christian
journey together with them.
Perhaps surprisingly, he felt that he would be better able to
handle life when he was released than he had done before he was
locked up. "It's going to set me up a hell of a lot better than
when I was on the outside," he said. "I had a lot of street
experience, but I left school with nothing - no GCSEs or
Ms Grenham-Thompson spoke of how proud she was of the work that
her multifaith chaplaincy team was doing. The inmates "are at a
crisis when they arrive. We take our role as steadying them, if you
like," she said. "We are trying to get people to see for themselves
how their life unravelled and, as chaplains, we inevitably bring
faith into that - trying to [help them] rebuild their own
The confirmation service was proof of how receptive the
prisoners at Bedford were. "It's the first confirmation we have had
for quite a while. It's absolutely wonderful - there was a real
sense that this was a new start for them. I see people's lives
changed as they rediscover their faith, or discover it in a new
way. We are at the heart of trying to help prisoners rehabilitate.
This is the frontline of mission. This is where the Church needs to
Shortly before he was ushered out of the prison towards the next
stop on his three-day visit to the diocese of St Albans, Archbishop
Welby echoed Ms Grenham-Thompson's words.
"The more I look round, the more I realise what chaplains are
doing in all kinds of centres," he said. "It's extraordinary. They
are the bits of the Church that we easily forget because they are
the least visible. I find it really exciting coming somewhere [like
The wider Church had not always been good at recognising the
work of its chaplains, he admitted. But their impact at Bedford was
obvious: "I've been speaking to various prisoners and staff: it
felt quite laid-back and chilled. It's an amazing place."