In the early days of my ministry I attended a prison. I had an interest in this that went back to the days when my mother worked as a secretary in a minimum security ‘open prison’, and facilitated a meeting for me with the chaplain. In turn that led a Sunday spent in the old Strangeways, with the remarkable Noel Proctor, and then to a visit to a prison where I was at university in Hull. I have no idea why I felt called to explore this, but it brought me into contact with a world often hidden from public view. Recently, much of the character of this concealed incarceration was portrayed with insight and skill by Jimmy McGovern in the outstanding BBC mini-series, Time. It has stimulated a much needed debate about the day-to-day reality of the criminal justice system.
“McGovern could be criticised for the sheer number of shocking scenes his protagonist witnesses and suffers. But there is nothing in the show that I have not seen first-hand during my time inside”.“‘There’s nothing here I did not see inside’ – a former HMP inmate on Time” by Eric Allison in The Guardian 18 June 2021
These earlier experiences eventually led to a small role helping out the chaplaincy team close to where I served as a curate. Looking back I have no doubt that I was very innocent in my understanding of life behind bars. I was keen to make connections between this world and the local community and arranged two Sunday visits by our very large confirmation class. The prison Governor was happy to facilitate this on what was a reasonably quiet day of the week. Seeing some of the scenes in Time reminded me of these 11 and 12 year olds sitting in the chapel with many prisoners. The confirmation candidates experienced ‘church’ in a very different setting from the leafy suburbs nearby, and met people who had grown up in very different circumstances. I have no idea what lasting effect it may have had upon them.
The most striking part of McGovern’s drama was the realistic portrayal of corruption. It was not (and is not) a one-sided story. The drama portrays the small nudges and influences that push people further and further towards the edge of their usual behaviour.
“But ’tis strange: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray’s in deepest consequence.”
Macbeth, Shakespeare Act I, Scene 3, lines 124-28
There are still many conversations and situations which took place during my brief chaplaincy that have shaped and informed my ministry. Seeing a Deputy Governor and a life-sentence prisoner side-by-side with hands outstretched, sharing Communion together. A prisoner feeling aggrieved about some injustice in the prison system, who started to tell me his tale but then decided: ‘but you haven’t got the power to sort it’ – and promptly walked away. A young man who had made a dreadful mistake and was determined to start afresh. The carol service which was both strange and deeply moving.
There is a chaplain in McGovern’s drama. It’s never easy to portray spiritual support in largely secular times but Time manages to achieve a sense of authenticity and purpose. So many things are beyond the chaplain’s power to resolve, but what can be done is very moving. It felt as though ‘Miss’ knew what she was about, nether colluding nor despairing, but walking a narrow corridor of integrity in a culture where violence was only ever a heartbeat away. A way of being that brought to mind the writings of Ety Hilesum.
“I know that those who hate have good reason to do so. But why should we always have to choose the cheapest and easiest way? It has been brought home forcibly to me here how every atom of hatred added to the world makes it an even more inhospitable place.”Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork
Changing the dynamics that foster corruption and violence will never be easy. We need a spirituality that has no illusion about this reality but, like Hillesum, is equally if not more determined to resist the temptation to be less than we are. Thankfully, McGovern’s drama is not without realistic hope. At the outset it seems to lie only in the small frame of the chaplain, surrounded by forceful men on every side. She remains faithful to her task, even when help is rejected. As the storylines progress others find their own moment of resistance, often at cost, and discover a way through to somewhere that offers the possibility of redemption. To portray this in a realistic way is not easy – evil always seems more credible – but it is accomplished in this drama. Which is an important reminder that wholly giving way to despair is perhaps the greatest betrayal of all.