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Interview: Paul Cowley, Bishops’ adviser for prisons and penal affairs, London

11 September 2020

‘I got down on my knees and said: “God, please take away the gnashing of teeth”’

It’s boring to write the profile of prisoners: abuse, alcoholism, petty theft. . . When the Sunday-school system was at its highest, the prison population was at its lowest. I think that moral teaching can help there, and, if all of our churches were engaged in an active prison ministry, it would have an extraordinary effect.

I’ve seen thousands of men changed by being embraced by their church. Most people in prison are not hardened criminals; they’ve just made mistakes. That’s not to excuse them, but it does explain them.

I’m presently Minister-in-Charge of St Francis (HTB Dalgarno), HTB’s [Holy Trinity, Brompton’s] fifth site. I’m also the pioneer of Alpha Prisons, Alpha Forces, founder of Caring for Ex-Offenders, and founder of various social-transformation projects at HTB, including the debt centre and night shelters for the homeless.

I’m a part-time Chaplain at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs and HM Youth Offender Institution Feltham, and the Bishops’ Adviser for Prisons and Penal Affairs in London.

I love to encourage chaplaincy teams in the prison and the military to run Alpha, and link men and women with their local church. I advise the Ministry of Justice on matters of social justice, reoffending, mental health, addiction, and homelessness.

I still want to completely reform the prison system by making it more about rehabilitation, and make aftercare a priority. It isn’t rocket science; it just costs money, and I don’t think there’s a heart to change things for the 95,000 people who transit through our prison every year and come back into the community. Most reoffend; so it’s bizarre that you wouldn’t want to change that.

Norway’s reoffending rate is almost zero. It’s very expensive, but it works. Training officers takes two years there, not ten weeks, as here.

Our Government isn’t making that investment, but the amount of money it costs to keep a man in prison is astronomical.

Even if you can’t visit prisons, you can pray. You can support chaplains, write letters, give money, invite chaplains to speak — they have amazing stories to tell — and lobby your MP.

In my autobiography, Thief, Prisoner, Soldier, Priest, I describe my childhood as a war zone. My parents were alcoholics. I was bullied at school, and expelled at 15 for truancy. Several menial jobs later, at 16, my father threw me out of the house.

I went to live in a squat, got involved in petty crime, went to prison at 17, and joined the army at 21. I served in Northern Ireland and the Falklands in five different regiments. Before I was 29, I’d married and divorced twice, and abandoned my son.

I understood sin in terms of law, as I’d been to prison. But not a divine law, set up by a creator God. I lived by my rules. I took what I wanted, when I wanted, and I didn’t care who I hurt along the way. It was self-destructive life, but I didn’t know any better.

After I left the army, Sergeant Major Eric Martin sent me a postcard. He was a nightmare. He was a heavy smoker, sexist, and aggressive, and he’d put me through hard times for the year-long physical training. While working with the Gurkhas in Hong Kong, he had a God experience, and decided he wanted to reach out to me.

I went to visit him at the PT School in Aldershot, and all he talked about for three days was God. On my last night in the sergeants’ mess, he gave me a piece of paper and said: “Read this before you go to bed, we can chat tomorrow.” Matthew 22.13: “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” Suddenly, I was terrified. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could be judged by a higher power.

In my mind, I saw the picture of an old Ladybird book, The Lord’s Prayer. On the front were two children kneeling and clasping their hands together in prayer. I got down on my knees and said: “God, please take away the gnashing of teeth.”

Next morning, I told him I’d been terrified. Without looking up from his breakfast, he said, “What did you do?” I told him. He grinned and said: “Welcome into the Kingdom, Paul.” I’m sure there are gentler ways to be introduced to God, but I needed a sergeant-major. Kind words about love and peace and forgiveness would have gone over my head.

It’s taken a long time to make amends with those I have hurt, but God has been gracious, and I found lots of loving scriptures.

In 1993, Amanda and I were encouraged to attend an Alpha course. God and Jesus were just swear words; so Alpha was a bit of a shock to me. It gave faith a structure, and I started to feel I belonged to my church. Sandy Millar set me on a path for ordination, and he and Nicky Gumbel loved and supported me, and constantly encouraged me to try new things. Amanda and I married, and, in 1997, I was invited to develop Alpha for Prisons.

Alpha works in all sorts of environments, from under a tree in Africa to a prison cell in Bogota, and for any denomination, from the Catholic Church to the Salvation Army. Most criticism, strangely enough, has come from Christians, whereas people seeking faith seem to enjoy it, especially those in prison or the military who may not have had the privilege of a secure, loving, Christian family. Alpha shows the gospel as exciting, challenging, and, most importantly, an offer of hope.

Alpha Prisons is running in over 70 per cent of UK prisons, and 70,000 people have done the course. Fifty countries run Alpha Forces, and thousands of UK military have taken the course here and on operational tours.

The ORs — ordinary ranks — like prisoners, often come from limited educational backgrounds, and sometimes a chaotic family, without structure, self-discipline, self-respect. Institutions can bring a lot of positivity to your life. I’ve been institutionalised for most of my life — school, prison, army, and now the Church of England — and I’m still deciding which is most difficult. All of them have helped me to develop my character, look after myself, and given me a family.

I founded Caring for Ex-Offenders in 2005, for prisoners leaving prison. Someone meets them at the gate and introduces them back into society with support and mentoring. If possible, they’re directed to a church who will then disciple them. We all need that help, especially at the beginning of our journey. The same with the military, the homeless, and those suffering with mental-health issues.

I got the idea from William Booth in Darkest England: The way out. Booth founded the Prison-Gate Brigade, which met the men and women at the prison gate with “soup, soap, and salvation”. He said it’s no use talking to someone about the love of God if they are hungry, naked, and freezing: first, fix those practical things for them, then they may listen to how God loves them. Why? Because they’ve seen him in you.

There is definitely a “before Christ” and “after Christ” for me, and I never want to go back. The son I abandoned is 40 now. We speak most days, and he’s also a Christian. I’ve made my peace with my two ex-wives. I have a 22-year-old daughter, Phoebe, beautiful and talented, also a Christian, and I’m a priest working with the marginalised, lost, and poor. God told me when we met that he had a plan for my life. At the time, I wasn’t sure, but he was true to his word.

When I’m feeling close to God, I’m happy; when I feel at peace and not robbed by the world, which I allow far too often; feeling fulfilled in my work and knowing I’m making a difference, even if it’s small.

I haven’t wanted to climb after a tragic accident in Kenya, where my climbing partner died, but I’d like to revisit the mountain again.

Just knowing God gives me hope and security. I’ve witnessed in my own life what he can do, and that’s exciting.

Amanda’s my closest friend; so I’d choose to be locked in a church with her — and my children.


The Revd Paul Cowley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Thief, Prisoner, Soldier, Priest is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).

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