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Welby praises ‘exciting’ jail work at Bedford Prison

26 June 2015

Arun Kataria/Diocese of St Albans

On the way: a large puppet of St Amphibalus, the priest saved by St Alban, formed part of the Alban pilgrimage in St Albans last Saturday (Features, 19 June). Among the clerics present were: left, the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (centre); to his right is the RC Archbishop of Rouen, the Most Revd Jean-Charles Descubes

On the way: a large puppet of St Amphibalus, the priest saved by St Alban, formed part of the Alban pilgrimage in St Albans last Saturday (Features,...

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 reporters.

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 qualifications."

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 life."

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 be."

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 this]."

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."

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