‘Prison offers us a place where we can meet God’

14 October 2016

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“Place of potential”: One of the UK's 150 current prisons, HMP Lincoln

“Place of potential”: One of the UK's 150 current prisons, HMP Lincoln

CHRISTIANS must work in prisons not to “do good” but because they are places where they can find God, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, has said.

Dr Tomlin, who leads the diocese of London’s prisons ministry, said that when Christians visited prisoners, they also visit Jesus himself.

“Again and again people find radical transformation of life precisely at the lowest point when they go into prison,” he said. “And it’s not just prisoners who find God in prison: it is a place where those of us who would never normally darken the doors of a prison can find God as well.”

Dr Tomlin was speaking at an event on Monday evening at All Souls’, Langham Place, in central London, to mark Prisons Week and encourage the Church to renew their commitment to prison ministry.

Because God in the person of Jesus was at one point imprisoned, prisons were special places of “deep conversion” for those incarcerated inside them, prison officers and staff, and anyone from the outside world who spends time inside, he suggested.

“Prison becomes a place of potential redemption and transformation — not just a place where we punish people or lock them away to keep society safe.

“It’s a fatal mistake to approach prison from the moral high ground or a position of superiority.”

The event, Lord Have Mercy, was organised by Capital Mass, a joint venture between the diocese of London and the Church Urban Fund, and featured dozens of Christian charities working both inside prison walls and with ex-offenders or their families.

At the start of the evening, the director of Capital Mass, Andy Burns, led those present in a time of prayer. “This is not the innocent praying for the guilty,” he said, “but people praying for people.”

After Dr Tomlin’s address, the activists and charity workers split into smaller groups to discuss the different challenges for church work inside and outside of prison.

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Staff from one charity, the Prison Advice and Care Trust or PACT, pointed out that often the families of offenders were also victims. The Church had a huge part to play in supporting the children and partners of prisoners, and facilitating close contact with loved ones in prison, which was proved to reduce re-offending.

Ministry of Justice statistics showed that twice as many children were affected each year by a parent’s being imprisoned than by their parents’ divorcing.

Other charities told the workshops that although faith was alive in prisons — 15 per cent of inmates were regularly taking part in some kind of worship — many found it very difficult to join a church upon release.

One charity leader admitted that while he would be happy to give an ex-offender money for a B and B, he might hesitate before fully welcoming him to his church family or inviting him to his mid-week home group.

But even those not sure if they were ready to throw themselves into work with prisoners could help — why not ask your employer if they are happy to employ ex-offenders or if they require job applicants to declare convictions, one activist suggested.

Speaking afterward, Dr Tomlin said that one way to overcome the largely middle-class and comfortable Church’s fear of prisons ministry was to get clergy more involved. The diocese of London now required all curates to spend time involved in chaplaincy alongside their parish work, and many, he hoped, would choose prison chaplaincy.

“Once people grasp that prisons are an opportunity, a place where we might actually meet Jesus, that begins to transform prison ministry from a burden into something which is a genuine invitation,” he said.

The Church also had a vital part to play in offering long-term support, he said. With Justice Ministers coming and going every few years, the Church’s steady, reliable ministry, which thought in terms of decades, not election cycles, was urgently needed.

And while the Church should not be side-tracked into becoming simply a lobbying group, it did need to push the Government continually to broaden its vision for prisons.

“Prison is meant to be a redemptive place, not just a place for locking up people and keeping society safe,” Dr Tomlin said. “We can keep on encouraging governments to take seriously that agenda of rehabilitation and reducing re-offending rates, and doing whatever can be done to make sure prison is a constructive rather than a destructive place.”

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