Why have all the pleasures of slowness disappeared? Where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear, dreamers, idlers and wonderers? I am currently on a train in India looking up at God’s windows. I am spending time away before starting my next job as Chaplain at Rochester Prison.
When I return my first concern will be where I am going to live. A bishop has a palace; a vicar has a vicarage, but a prison chaplain has nowhere to lay his head. In the space of a few weeks I have gone from a five-bedroomed vicarage and a leaving service with 450 people to the top floor of my mother’s home, furniture in storage and the prospect of a two-hour commute to my new post as Chaplain at Rochester Prison.Difficult logistics haven’t dampened my enthusiasm for my new role.
The role of chaplain is gaining increased traction within the Church as a vehicle for mission and outreach. St John’s, Nottingham, have launched a Centre for Chaplaincy with Children and Young People. I have been an inner-city youth worker and it took me too far out of the church. I have been a vicar and it took me too far into the church. The role of a chaplain leaves me on the cusp of church and society.
The irony of becoming a prison chaplain is that I have had to leave the church and become a civil servant to do so. The Ministry of Justice has no brief to provide accommodation and so I am on my own.
I sent out an SOS through the Rochester Diocese newsletter asking for someone to provide two nights a week overnight accommodation in order to save on commuting costs. A family invited me to meet with them and said that if their children liked me, they would be happy to offer me the use of their spare room. I passed muster on the basis that I could talk about football.
After having had books published and a PhD completed, my future was, in part, decided by two children and I felt honoured that it should be so.
The Bible gives strong reasons for working in a prison. We obey Christ and meet with Christ: ‘as you did to the least of these, so you did to me’. We are helped to become ‘sheep’ rather than ‘goats’ at the Second Coming. As ‘sheep’ we get to take up our ‘inheritance, the kingdom prepared for us since the creation of the world’ (Matt 25:31-40). It makes my long commute and the fact of my life being temporarily in storage small beer by comparison.
What a contrast working with 18-25-year-old young men in prison will be to two years leading a Mother and Toddlers Group and five years in an all-female book group:UK churches are currently made up of 65 per cent women (Tearfund 2013).
How comfortable will HMP Rochester be with a Jesus who had little children sit on his knee in public without feeling his masculinity compromised and was able to look his best friends in the face and ask them ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:15-17)?
Will they want only a Christ angry with the Pharisees or else turning the tables over in the Temple in frustration (Mark 3:5 & 11:15-18)?
Prisons are a black hole for people in society that we don’t otherwise know how to treat. England and Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. Reoffending rates are as high as 74 per cent. A willingness to use prison as a blunt instrument simply to punish people has meant that over the last 30 years the prison population has increased by 77 per cent while public sector prisons are running with three quarters of the front-line staff they had six years ago.
Assaults on staff have increased by 158 per cent. A sustained period of government austerity cuts has not done the prison service any favours.
When I was interviewed for the post a teenage girl, visiting her boyfriend, saw me looking confused by the barrage of procedures needed to enter the prison. She asked if I was “all right” and offered to help. In an instant she was changed from someone vulnerable to the situation, in which she found herself,to someone able to help another.
I felt reassured in the task I had set myself. The church fulfils her vocation by helping the dispossessed such as she and I feel privileged to be able to play my part. After the interview she was waiting for me outside the prison wanting to ask me how it had gone.“You will be all right”, she said.
I hope that she is correct.
Bob is due to start as Chaplain at HMP Rochesterlater this month.