Jail Bird: The inside story of the Glam Vicar
Church Times Bookshop £9
PRISON ministry — as prison-based work generally — is a hidden ministry. Issues of security, public protection, and confidentiality mean that insights and experiences can be described only with due caution. Within such limits, this book offers a compelling picture of the challenges and rewards of serving as a chaplain behind bars. Covering everything from caring for newly arrived prisoners to the benefits of restorative justice, Sharon Grenham-Thompson sheds light on the lives of those who have been locked away and, in the case of long-term inmates, quite probably been forgotten by the rest of society.
In weaving her own story throughout, the author makes a dramatic point, which lifts Jail Bird from being another (albeit interesting) “book about ministry”: she emphasises repeatedly the narrowness of the margin separating those who end up in prison and those who endure personal catastrophe but manage somehow to keep on track. The chatty narrative style contrasts starkly with what she writes of the anguish of marriage breakdown (not once, but twice), mental illness (including being sectioned), and the threat of losing her children. Similar paths have been walked by a good many of the inmates whom she encounters.
We hear about her broadcasting work for BBC Radio, including taking part in an award-winning programme for World Mental Health Day, when she spoke vulnerably about her breakdown. We are also reminded of the frustrations endured by women who sensed a call to ministry as church law changed in the 1990s, only to face passive — and at times active — opposition.
I found the larky, retro tone of the title — and the idea of being a “glam vicar” — a bit of a distraction from the thought-provoking content of this book. Comments on women clergy’s appearance (“you’re too young/slim/attractive to be a vicar”) are a tiresome reality for many rather than something to be celebrated.
The Revd Naomi Starkey is Assistant Curate in the Ministry Area of Bro Enlli on the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales.