The Church’s silence on prisons
Sir, — Both the Revd Barry Collins (Letters, 7 September), and the Revd Jonathan Aitken (News, 24 August) accentuate the degree to which the national Church’s approach to prisons is unimpressively superficial. The fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent Reimagining Britain lacks any serious or sustained critique of our failing criminal-justice system is symptomatic of this tendency; even though it is immediately evident that the state of our prisons is illustrative of Britain’s wider social dysfunction.
I recently spent just under 12 months in prison after being convicted of a non-violent offence. At one level, I am thankful for the experience, because I would never have believed that such conditions were acceptable in the 21st century unless I had seen them for myself.
The levels of overcrowding, violence, and easy availability of drugs are just the tip of the iceberg. The disproportionately high numbers of people with serious mental-health issues, whose pronounced needs overwhelmed health professionals and chaplains alike — not to mention young people from homes where abuse and neglect are normative, growing up in communities where prison is an inevitability — and the strategic and managerial incompetence that is compounding the serious lack of resourcing, means that most prisons are, literally, hopeless as places of rehabilitation.
Overcrowding is the key to the current crisis, and is the main reason behind the stubbornly high rates of reoffending once a person has been released. The courts continue to send high numbers of people to prison for nonsensically short periods of time — notably women with dependent children, as well as those who have committed non-violent offences for the first time.
This is not only prohibitively expensive; the current levels of imprisonment have rendered it ineffective as a deterrent. Moreover, it denies the majority of those sent to prison any real chance of effective reintegration as positive contributors to society. In effect, it has become a means by which already disadvantaged people are returned to society without effective support and accountability, yet better connected to criminal networks. The impact of this “revolving door” is all too evident in some of our most stressed communities.
Last year, Cardinal Vincent Nichols addressed a conference of prison chaplains. He provided a trenchant analysis of our failed prison system, and told the Government that the Roman Catholic Church was waiting to be invited to become a partner in making a lasting difference to the state of our prisons.
In the coming weeks, many of the Church of England’s cathedrals will host services attended by the people who impose prison sentences. Last year, in Westminster Abbey, the Rt Revd Michael Doe proved, as far as I am aware, to be the only Anglican bishop directly to challenge the judiciary over its blunt sentencing policies.
If we want to see Britain healed of the social disintegration that blights our most deprived areas, we can no longer ignore the clear impact of careless sentencing on such long-suffering communities locked into cycles of crime, deprivation, and despair.
Some robust and wide-ranging theological engagement is needed to challenge the all-pervasive secular, puritanical moralism that too often passes as Christianity in British society. Will any of the bishops and other senior clergy preaching at these services show some leadership by following the example set by Cardinal Nichols and the Rt Revd Doe?
Only when the courts reduce current levels of custodial sentencing can prisons become an effective and humane arena of rehabilitation for those who need it most.
Name and address supplied
The practical and theological dangers of focusing too much on leadership
From the Revd Steve Cook
Sir, — Attentive observers will be aware of what many inside the Roman Catholic Church are describing as a “crisis” in relation to that Church’s handling of allegations of financial irregularity and sexual misconduct that stretch to the highest levels (Leader comment, 24 August).
Further allegations suggest that the operation of networks of mutual defence are operating to obscure the truth and protect individuals.
Parallel allegations have arisen in relation to Willow Creek Church in Chicago, Illinois, relating to the handling of irregularities, and the use of church funds to compensate victims, by its team of elders and founding pastor, Bill Hybels.
Both Churches exemplify a hierarchical approach to leadership, in which one person is seen as the cornerstone. In both, there is a strong focus on the importance of leadership in the life of the Church rather than on the shared dynamic of service, though that leadership takes different forms.
Churches that focus so much on leadership are very likely to experience grave difficulties in dealing with failures, when those failures arise among individuals who are regarded as significant leaders.
The current cultus of leadership in the Church brings with it the danger of a tendency towards Pelagianism, which is the belief that we can ultimately achieve salvation through our human capacities, instead of by the grace of God alone.
The careful study of Acts 15 may be found to be instructive in dealing with such issues. The background to this story is the grave test faced by the Early Church in working out the implications of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood in the context of the Old Covenant, in a newly emergent Church composed mainly of Jewish believers.
Perhaps it is of signal importance that the resolution to these difficulties was found through conciliar consultations rather than by dint of a single leader’s ministry? The council was composed of apostles and elders. And how interesting that the workable solution adopted by the council was put forward by James rather than Peter.
Those with divergent perspectives on the issue were heard by the council before reaching a decision. When it came to communicating the decision, the whole Church was involved in choosing and dispatching emissaries, and a small group with mixed membership was entrusted with this duty.
St Barnabas’s Vicarage
449 Rochester Way
London SE9 6PH
From Elizabeth Baxter
Sir, — I regret I cannot share Bishop Tim Dakin’s enthusiasm for the new policy of training and ordaining older ministers in their sixties or even seventies (News, 7 September).
I don’t blame Bishop Dakin and his colleagues for making the best of things, and no one is going to argue against using all the talents, but this move is of strictly limited value and duration.
Sixty is not the new 40, and it will not be long before ministers in their sixties and seventies find that diminishing energy and health, and mobility problems, and helping with grandchildren get in the way. Elderly ordinands are not easily deployable. This change may help in suburban parishes, but it is unlikely to have much of an impact in urban priority areas — and, once established in a parish, it may prove hard to move them if they become unsatisfactory.
And what is the subliminal message of ordaining elderly ministers in possession of a house and a pension? What the Church of England really should aspire to do is to ordain numbers of young men and women in their twenties, who will devote 40 years to the ministry.
Then there is the question of calibre. The bishops need to ask themselves why the Church is not getting ordinands who, had a vocation to ordination not arisen, might have become surgeons, barristers, artists, writers, senior figures in the City, or armed forces.
Important considerations, I suggest, are the miserable stipends — about the same as an able seaman in the Royal Navy — and depressing pensions, slashed a few years ago from two-thirds stipend to half stipend. There is no chance of buying a house or saving properly for old age — as we are all encouraged to do — on that.
The last time the General Synod reviewed stipends, it recommended that, as well as a vicarage, ministers should be paid the starting salary of the head teacher of a large primary school — rather like Lutheran ministers in Germany. It is high time this was implemented.
The changes announced by Bishop Dakin are a stop-gap that will, at best, buy the Church another five-to-ten years of ministerial help. Instead, I suggest that the Church needs to recruit about 800 well-educated and highly motivated ministers in their twenties (that is only about 20 per diocese), offer them stipends of £60,000 (still not a lot), and properly resource them, so that they can be catalysts.
c/o The Royal Scots Club
30 Abercromby Place
Edinburgh EH3 6QE
Franklin Graham’s mission is not a force for unity
From the Revd Tracy Charnock
Sir, — The Revd Paul Eddy (Letters, 31 August) acclaims the unity that the alleged Festival of Hope (Winter Gardens, Blackpool, 21-23 September) has created. Unity is so far removed from my experience of this whole débâcle.
As a parish priest serving in the town of Blackpool, I encounter — almost daily — those from Blackpool, Lancashire, and further afield who feel condemned, judged, or abandoned by the Church once again.
I don’t deny that Churches of different denominations will have been brought together by the festival planning thus far. But there is a greater number of those who are Christian, of other faiths, or of no faith, who cannot support this “mission” and who perceive little, if any, unity.
Why? Because at the core of the weekend is a platform for the hate preacher Franklin Graham to air his views. It isn’t hard to find Mr Graham’s many derogatory public statements in which he condemns a whole range of people: Hindus, Muslims, those who identify as LGBTQ, and the list goes on.
As a faith leader, in 21st-century Church of England, I seek to affirm diversity, especially in such a vibrant and eclectic town as Blackpool. The gospel that I preach is one that affirms not condemns. It’s a gospel that rejoices in God’s love, in its many and varied manifestations.
This, I believe, is what Christian hope is about, and worth celebrating.
Holy Trinity Church
Dean Street, South Shore
Blackpool FY4 1BP
From Dr Brendan Devitt
Sir, — If somebody like Franklin Graham is banned from entering the UK for “denouncing” (among others) atheists and Barack Obama (Letters, 24 August), what will become of clergy in our own country who teach that unbelievers face judgement and eternal separation from God?
2 Maytrees, Hitchin
Herts SG4 9LR
There are ways to recycle plastics
From Mr Oliver Buckley
Sir, — It was disappointing to read the letter from the Revd David Tyler, but it reminded me of a problem in the recycling system.
Some plastic items have a recycling symbol with a number in the centre that tells you what sort of plastic it is, which is of some help in sorting for disposal. Types of plastics and their numerical equivalents are published by the British Plastics Federation at www.bpf.co.uk/Sustainability/Plastics_Recycling.aspx.
What lets this system down is that:
(a) not all plastic has this information; and
(b) my local authority, at least, does not tell you which numerical types of plastic can be recycled; it only gives examples from which one can extrapolate to some extent.
What is needed is a legal requirement for all plastic to have its type marked in some way (printing, embossing, etc.), and for recycling agencies to state which types can be recycled.
1 Dandy’s Walk
Walsall WS1 3DW
From Andy and Liz Bebington
Sir, — The Revd David Tyler’s letter on waste plastic rightly bemoans the lack of recycling, and asks whether people will be happy to continue sorting waste if it merely ends up in landfill.
GHS Recycling, of Portsmouth, pays for sorted plastic milk-bottle tops for recycling. They make a contribution to your chosen charity on the basis that they are offered only clean milk-bottle tops, because that way they know they have a single grade of plastic — HDPE (type 2 plastic) — and don’t, therefore, need to incur the cost of sorting.
Another firm that recycles plastics is Polyprint, of Norwich, to whom polythene can be sent; doubtless there are others.
GHS want to collect tops only from places near them, on cost grounds. Conveniently, we drive weekly past a lady’s house in Surrey from which they collect. So we act as a “clearing house” here in Croydon for several local churches, Brownie packs, etc., and take three or four large bin-bags every month or so to the Surrey house to await GHS’s lorry.
It is better, obviously, to reduce consumption of plastic in the first place. If only we had enough entrepreneurial spirit to establish similar companies to handle more plastics and to create jobs making the machinery that such companies would use.
79 Shirley Way
Croydon CR0 8PL