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Letters to the Editor

31 May 2019

Prison chaplains, Mother Language Day, Commissioners’ annual report, Churchwardens, and ‘Walk to Church’ Sunday


Offenders and victims: prison chaplains’ perspective

From the Revd Paul A. Newman

Sir, — The Revd Dr David Wheeler (Letters, 17 May) raises salient issues of pastoral theology and praxis, asking “Do we have a single priest [qua prison chaplain] trained in working with victims?” May I offer a personal response based on reflective practice since induction in Her Majesty’s Prison Chaplaincy Service in 1991?

First, pastoral and spiritual integrity demands an appraisal of the brute facts of offenders’ lives and preceding contexts, along with the traumatic or fatal consequences of their offending. These include the multiple ripple-affects/effects for the relatives and friends of victims, and a similar nexus of the offender/perpetrator. The “burden” on them all can be “intolerable”.

There were and, no doubt, continue to be instances of facile naivety surrounding a gospel rhetoric of salvation as forgiveness or cheap grace, deficient relative to the costly energies of mind and heart which authenticate any processes towards reconciling, redemptive, and reintegrative “holistic holiness”. Such deficiencies may deliver short-term hollow shallowness, self-deception, or, arguably, emotional or psycho-spiritual abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Experience and insights informed my conception of a late-modern iteration of the “the cure of souls” as a forensic-therapeutic spirituality, grounding otherwise facile or superficial rhetorics of salvation in person-centered relationality. One could point to or Lord as both (humanity’s rather than God’s) innocent victim and voluntary sin-bearer, where processes of remorse and expiation could endure (in both connotations), or, more simply, an applied atonement theology, ancillary and complementary to the behaviourism of probation and psychology colleagues.

The ideal, of course, is restorative justice between perpetrator and victim, which in some (too few) cases is accommodated in offender management and supervision. The current dire state of our criminal-justice and penal system militates against the delivery and sustainability of many such initiatives, except in the training estate.

During my probation period at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, I was able to organise a chaplaincy evening in St Francis’s Chapel with mainstage (years 1-3) lifers, Kensington and Chelsea Victim Support (VS) volunteers, and regular chaplaincy visitors. VS members described their work before joining syndicates exploring three questions: Who is a victim? What causes a victim? How might a victim be helped? Implicit awarenesses and consciousness-raising affected all parties: Victim Supporters representing victims to perpetrators and vice versa in a non-penal representation or substitution.

The Prison Fellowship’s Sycamore Tree programme has been adapted for violent and serious offenders, and there are Islamic parallels. Particular psychological complexities attend the range of sexual-offender interventions and management, but, across all types of offence, the perpetrator is the primary subject; victims are ever present in memory during recurring offence-related conversations.

5 Cranworth House
Winchester SO22 6EJ


From the Revd Patrick Morrow

Sir, — Thanks are due to the Revd Dr David Wheeler for his call for a “victim-centred” theology. As he notes, in a short space, this can be only suggestive, not fully argued. One suggestion seems unhelpful. He asks: “We have nearly 400 prison chaplains; do we have a single priest even trained in working with victims?” This sets up a contrast that may mislead.

Prison chaplaincy shares the vision of the Prison Service, which focuses on rehabilitation, on helping prisoners live law-abiding lives — that there be fewer victims. If that provokes a hollow laugh, that is a call for more and better work, not less.

Dr Wheeler himself notes that offenders can be victims (in prison as well as before, alas). So, part of prison chaplains’ work is already victim support. I add that a number of prisoners are not offenders, but persons on remand, facing court cases that they will win; and chaplains are very much also there for staff. Prison officers can themselves feel shut away, of low regard, charged to deal with messes that others ignore, and still to blame when anything goes wrong.

The significance of victims is very much part of what prison chaplains hold. I am a prison chaplain of a few months’ standing (writing in a personal capacity). Already, I have facilitated the sacrament of confession, and arranged preaching from an ex-offender who modelled how change can come from facing up to things.

A colleague tells of one incident: an inmate’s faith came to life in prison; he wanted to tell others of the command to love your neighbour; and the chaplain pointed out that victims are neighbours, too. By the look on his face, this thought had not until then occurred to him.

Victims are not only imaginatively present; they are sometimes literally so, through work on restorative justice. Mention must be made of the Prison Fellowship’s excellent Sycamore Tree project, which brings — carefully selected and willing — victims and perpetrators together, for more truth-telling.

Whatever the merits of a “victim-centred” theology, let it not be based on a misreading of prison chaplaincy. It is hard to imagine our Lord saying: “I was in prison, and you visited me — on balance, rather too often.”

Address supplied


C of E should embrace Mother Language Day 

From the Revd Angela Robinson

Sir, — Your recent references to church services in the Farsi language (News, 8 March and 17 May) have reminded me of something that happened each of the 13 years that I spent in Bangladesh, as one to whom the Bishop of Bangladesh gave a stole, as a mission partner who was an ordained Congregationalist minister, in order to pastor his English-speaking congregation and later be Chaplain to the English-speakers. (The roots of this Church are in the Church of North India.)

On 21 February every year, there was a holiday with many different activities to honour the “language martyrs” who had been students from East Pakistan (later called Bangladesh) who had been shot dead in a march of protest in 1952 against the decision of the Parliament of both the eastern and western areas of Pakistan, that Urdu, not Bengali (the main language of East Pakistan but considered by some to be an “inferior” language), should be the official language of the whole of Pakistan. The day of remembrance and celebration was called Ekushey, which is the Bengali word for “21st”.

On 17 November 1999, UNESCO approved Mother Language Day and later the United Nations General Assembly recognised that 2008 should be the International Year of Languages to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and to promote multilingualism and the protection of mother languages. I suspect that some places celebrate it every year — as Bangladesh does.

Should the UK Churches not seriously consider encouraging some places to celebrate International Mother Language Day annually, on the Sunday nearest to 21 February, by arranging well-publicised services in any of the various languages spoken there, thus acknowledging the proper place of all languages in the Christian family (i.e. not seeing them as a “problem”) and recognising the value of focusing this at a special time each year?

It would surely be a special thrill for British Bangladeshi Christians.

32c Lulworth Road
Merseyside PR8 2BQ


The Church Commissioners’ annual report 

From the Revd Mark Bennet

Sir, — I was surprised to see the statement (News, 24 May) that the Church Commissioners’ assets fell for the first time in 25 years.

I have been tracking the Church Commissioners’ funds for some years now. The reporting format changes over time, and it is sometimes hard to be sure whether like is being compared with like, but the total assets figure is relatively stable.

There were falls in 2000 (very small), 2001, and 2002, with funds recovering to 1999 levels in 2005. Then there was a major fall (reflecting global events) in 2008, and a small fall in 2011, with funds recovering to 2007 levels in 2013.

Over the longer term, which is the Commissioners’ investment perspective, their investment returns have been exceptionally good, with the gains exceeding the losses by a significant margin. In fact, on my calculations (not in the spreadsheet), the Commissioners have recovered the losses sustained in the crisis of the 1990s even against their ambitious benchmark for returns.

There are questions that can be asked — concerning, for example, the sustainability of the investment model in the light of climate change and other global threats, as well as the eschatalogical coherence of a long-term investment strategy (though I think the legal framework to which the Commissioners are working excludes eschatalogical considerations); but these are longer-term issues.

I do think the statement about 25 years gives a very misleading sense of the Commissioners’ performance — and, addressed to an audience that may not have the financial facts at its fingertips, is likely also to give a misleading impression of what we can expect the Commissioners to achieve.

The Rectory, 2 Rectory Gardens
Berkshire RG19 3PR


Churchwardens’ aid 

From Mr Anthony Jennings

Sir, — Derek Wellman (Letters, 10 May) takes an optimistic view of the extent to which archdeacons and diocesan secretaries can be of help to churchwardens. The interests of the two are different. The archdeacon represents the diocese, which has by no means the same perspective as the churchwarden, who represents only the interests of his or her parish, and their aims are often in opposition. For example, an archdeacon in Lincolnshire is currently selling a parsonage that used to be at the heart of the local community, much against the wishes of several of the churchwardens in the benefice.

The loyalty of diocesan secretaries is also to the diocese. We have approached many over the years to seek legal advice for our churchwarden members, only to be told they could not act for them because that would constitute a conflict of interest.

Director, Save Our Parsonages
Flat Z, 12-18 Bloomsbury Street
London WC1B 3QA


‘Walk to Church’ Sunday 

From Charlotte Stansfield

Sir, — The Bishop of Salisbury says that “safeguarding the integrity of creation” is “integral to what it means to be a Christian in our day” (News, 10 May).

There is “Back to Church” Sunday. How about “Walk to Church” Sunday? What if, all over the country, Christians were to go to their nearest place of worship, either by walking, or by public transport, or by making the shortest car journey possible? (The needs of the elderly and disabled would need to be accounted for.)

I know that many people in our village have a round trip of anything between three and 17 miles to church; and worshippers here come from elsewhere.

Someone might object, “But my local church is attended by only a few elderly people: there’s nothing for my two children.” On a “Walk to Church” Sunday, he or she could find out who else wasn’t going there for the same reason, and join with them to provide for all their children, locally.

Just imagine: Christians with a wide variety of experiences and with different expectations of worship, all coming together to worship God in the place where we live, challenging and encouraging each other, and our church leaders to do things differently, to have conversations about faith together, and — who knows? — to learn from each other.

What a richness that could bring to us — not to mention the drop in church-attendance-related carbon-dioxide emissions!

12 Rushmoor Grove
Bristol BS48 3BW


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