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General Synod digest: Faith and forgiveness considered in prisons motion from Worcester

14 July 2023
Sam Atkins/Church Times

Kashmir Garton (Worcester) opens the debate

Kashmir Garton (Worcester) opens the debate

THE contribution of faith to the rehabilitation of offenders was the subject of a motion from Worcester diocesan synod which was vigorously debated at the General Synod on Saturday afternoon.

The motion commended the value of working with the Probation Service in light of the latter’s decision to recognise faith and belief as a protective factor in reducing reoffending, and its desire to work in partnership with churches, chaplains, and faith communities to support rehabilitation.

The background paper and the Secretary-General’s note describe the UK as having “comfortably the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe”. The prison population has increased by 70 per cent in the past 30 years and is projected to reach about 100,000 by 2026. Of the 41,000 people sent to prison in the year to June 2021, 61 per cent had committed a non-violent offence and 40 per cent were sentenced to serve six months or less.

Ministry of Justice data for September 2022 show that 69 per cent of the England and Wales prison population identified with a faith or belief, of whom 45 per cent were Christian. Prison chaplains provide a multifaith service of pastoral care and spiritual support for all faiths and none, the Worcester paper says.

“At the heart of the Christian message and indeed many world religions, is the belief that human life is not grounded on the retributive logic of an eye for an eye, but on repentance and forgiveness which can promote the rehabilitation of individuals,” it says.

“Forgiveness can be a difficult concept and indeed traumatising for many victims and survivors to consider when their lives have been changed by such crimes. The act of seeking forgiveness and restoration by those who have offended and who wish to change their lives, does not minimise the seriousness of their actions or diminish the experience of victims and survivors.

“However, it can enable positive change to take place that can prevent future victims and can contribute to a safer society.”

The paper suggests that the prison community does not exist in isolation but is an integral part of the wider community, “formed of people who come from the community and return to the community upon release”.

The Probation Service published its National Partnership Framework in 2020. Its work is overseen by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) chaplaincy team, which is managed by the Chaplain General and includes an Anglican adviser.

Introducing the debate, Kashmir Garton (Worcester) said that the issue went to the heart of the Church’s mission to bring hope, healing, and justice to all, without underestimating the seriousness of crime and its effects on victims.

Thirty years in the Probation Service had reinforced her belief in a person’s capacity to change, Ms Garton said. Prisoners’ experiences and the factors prevalent in many of their lives could make change a very difficult process.

“Often they can only see helplessness and despair. . . I see them as more than the worst things they’ve done,” she said.

Each week, churches opened their doors, yet many of the people leaving prison each week failed to find one that would welcome them. “As Christians, we believe we are all made in the image of God,” she said, urging the churches to work together to help individuals become the persons God intended them to be.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesBishop Treweek, the lead bishop for prisons, addresses the Synod

The Synod was then shown a short video testimony on the value of prisons’ working with faith communities, from, among others, Amy Rees, the director general and chief executive of HMPPS.

Continuing the debate, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, the lead bishop for prisons, said that short-term policies were not serving offenders and victims well. She said that 17,000 children a year had been separated from their mothers, 60 per cent of whom had experienced abuse. Levels of illiteracy were four times as high in prison, she said.

“But, as a Church, we can be good news. Love, hope, reconciliation, and transformation are at the heart of the gospel message.”

The need was to reduce the drivers of offending and to offer overt support for those at risk of offending. It should be a holistic approach, in which chaplains played a key part in passing on the baton after prisoners left.

“The motion challenges us to be more connected with the Probation Service,” she said. “May we commit to taking up our responsibilities.”

Catherine Stephenson (Leeds) recalled a visit to a women’s prison, New Hall, in the rural Holme Valley. Supporters of prisoners faced challenges in visiting because of long-distance travel, which often resulted in grandparents’ bringing their grandchildren, she said. “The team here offers warm hospitality and unjudgemental love, week by week.” The support at New Hall was part of a Mothers’ Union project initiated in 2004 after a request for help in a mother-and-baby unit. “The volunteers are bridge-builders, faith in action,” she said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury welcomed the motion, particularly as it related to prison chaplains. “It needs a whole system change, and a change of mind and heart,” he said. “We need more prison chaplains, more widely spread. . . We need our dioceses to encourage chaplains to be part of [their] daily life.”

He wanted the Ministry Division to encourage chaplaincy as a vocation, but recognised that prison chaplains did not get tied housing. “If you’re going to develop it as a ministry of expertise, they need to be able to move around the country.” He suggested that the Church Commissioners might invest in chaplaincy housing so that prison chaplains had the same freedom of movement as other clergy.

The Chaplain General of Prisons, the Ven. James Ridge (ex officio), told the Synod: “It would be easy to dismiss this matter as having nothing to do with you, but it speaks to the heart of what we should be as a Church.” He described chaplaincy in prison as “a form of first Aid: pastoral care carried on in cells and on landings. . . life-changing, life-saving work, proudly rooted in our own faith tradition. What we do in prison and probation directly affects you.”

The motion confidently asserted that faith made the difference to “those whose past is not their future. . . These young people hold the key to our hopes and dreams of becoming simpler and humbler and bolder.”

He referred to a list of faith communities that were prepared to welcome ex-offenders, and challenged Synod members: “Is your church registered? I urge you to engage as far as you can in this work.”

The Revd Matthew Beer (Lichfield) moved an amendment calling on prison governors and chaplains to “promote and facilitate the provision of courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored in all penal establishments”.

The amendment was lost. Speakers expressed discomfort at the nature of the two courses named, which were seen as coming from particular parts of the Church. The Revd Robert Thompson (London) said that it should be remembered that “we are guests in a secular environment.”

Canon Andrew Cornes (Chichester) spoke to and moved his amendment, which called on dioceses to “enable a swift welcome of offenders after release into an appropriate church community, subject to agreed and clear safeguarding boundaries; and to make this part of the brief for their Diocesan Safeguarding Team”.

He recounted the experiences of “John”, who had come to faith before a long prison sentence for sex offending. All efforts to find a suitable church for him to attend on release had resulted in nothing, and in one instance, “all the excuses under the sun”. “John” had wanted to go to church to pray, immediately on release from prison, but, 11 months later, still had been unable to find a church that would welcome him.

In the debate on the amendment that followed, the Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham) said: “We’re not meant just to be welcoming those who look like us and fall within our narrow remit. We need to each, as church leaders, be willing to address the problem of Nimby attitudes in parishes. If we don’t give grace a chance, what are we doing it for?”

The Revd Claire Lording (Worcester) spoke of the “powerful, life-affirming experience” of being nurtured by the Church. “It is beholden on those who know the circumstance of a prisoner’s situation to create a welcoming environment for those who will spend their lives on the sex-offenders register,” she said. “All those who leave prison are vulnerable, and we’re asked to travel well with them.”

The amendment was carried.

The Chaplain-General requested a counted vote on the motion as amended. This was carried by 331-2, three recorded abstentions.

 

That this Synod, recognising that faith and belief can have a positive impact on an offender’s behaviour:

  1. note with pleasure the decision made by the Probation Service to recognise faith and belief as a protective factor in reducing reoffending, and its desire to work in partnership with churches, prison and community chaplains and faith communities to support rehabilitation;
  2. commend the value of partnership working with the Probation Service as an important additional support in churches’ welcome of people leaving prison, including training of clergy and authorised lay ministers;
  3. call on dioceses to nominate a contact person or office to link the Probation Service locally to clergy, parishes and chaplaincies;
  4. call on dioceses to enable a swift welcome of offenders after release into an appropriate church community, subject to agreed and clear safeguarding boundaries; and to make this part of the brief for their Diocesan Safeguarding Team.

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