Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Geoffrey Baker on being a Prison Chaplain in Jersey

This is an interesting piece from "The Pilot" from 1983 on being a prison chaplain. Geoffrey Baker, who penned this, was in many respects an unorthodox priest, well on the liberal wing of the Church of England, which as he reminds us, is a diverse body.
But in 1983, society in Jersey was not perhaps quite so diverse as today, and anything unorthodox was regarded with a degree of suspicion. "The Myth of God Incarnate", published in 1977, had provoked reactions within the Anglican and Methodist communities; and the Methodist contingent in politics was also very much stronger than today. The Bailiff, meanwhile, had contrived in 1979 to prevent the "Life of Brian" being shown in Jersey under its UK classification, and effectively banned it.
Many Ways of Being a Priest
Geoffrey Baker
(The Pilot, 1983)
The Bishop was reassuring: he said that there was no need for me to worry about being a bit of an anomaly, for the Church of England is full of them! I am, after all, almost working outside the Church, in the "established" sense of that word. No fixed parish, no Church building as my centre. There are, however, many ways of being a Priest,. and this is becoming increasingly realised, even in Jersey.
I saw real value in what I tried to do during my years at St Mark's, and I was very happy there. I see just as much, if not more, value in my present work outside the formal structures of Church life. I spend much of my time with the casualties of society: as Prison Chaplain; as A Marriage Guidance Counsellor, and as a helper at the Shelter for "down and outs" and alcoholics. Just as it felt right to be at St Mark's when I was there, so it seems very right for me to be where I am now. God's will, you could call it. (My friends tell me they're not surprised I get on so well with ne'er do wells and drop-outs - they say I've found my own level at last!)
When I was asked to write about my work, by the Editor of The PILOT, it was suggested that perhaps my work might be "thankless and frustrating". It is never thankless, though sometimes frustrating. It has its rewards. There is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense reality about it all. The distress and the suffering of so many with whom I spend my time is of course deeply disturbing, but the unexpected friendship of so many people "down on their luck" is heart-warming.
I do not have many skills, but getting through to people, establishing a rapport, seems to be one of them. If this is my gift, then I must use it. In my years at the Prison I have met - without exception - nothing but friendliness and welcome, and an unmistakable honesty in communication. Few of the men there have had much to do with Ministers of Religion, and they are naturally a little suspicious on first meeting. This caginess rapidly disappears once they know that I sincerely care about them without strings attached, and whether they attend the Sunday service or not. Many of them desperately need to talk; to be accepted as worthwhile, if faulty, human begins, like the rest of us. This I have no difficulty in doing. We talk about everything under the sun: prison life, life and death, religion, work, crime, sex, food, drink.
The Church, and its many divisions, is mostly irrelevant to them, though they are deeply interested in the really big questions, like "Is there a God, and if so, what's He like?" and, "Is there more to life than we see here on this earth?' The Sunday Service, which I regularly conduct in the Prison Chapel, is now very well attended - for many different reasons, as in the Parish Churches. Hardly any of the men have been (or ever will be, I fear) churchgoers "on the outside". The atmosphere in the Chapel is something I wish others could come and feel for themselves. During silence for private prayer, you could hear a pin drop. When people are in trouble, they very often reach down deeper than ever before into the roots of their being. Reality has a habit of breaking through in the strangest of places - as we all know.
What do I achieve? I am not foolish enough (nor young enough) to imagine I change many - or any - lives. I set my sights fairly low, and just hope and pray that here and there I ring a few bells, start a few journeys, open a few eyes. I like, most of all, to think that I might be showing them the human face of God.
All this applies to my work with down-and-outs and alcoholics as well as at the Prison, as it does to my recent first-hand experience of children in care at Haut de la Garenne. My beginnings were in a most favoured section of society. I thank God that my links with the most unfavoured are now so strong. At least I spend a great deal of my time with the sort of people with whom Jesus spent his time, and was criticised for doing so!
Before I began to work at the Prison, I only knew of criminal cases from what I read in the Evening Post. The sometimes sensational headlines, and the abbreviated accounts of the cases, led me to a very false idea of what had often happened. Now that I meet and come to know the men involved, I can only say that things are seldom just the way they sound in the newspaper! The men have, some of them, done really terrible things. They usually are the first to admit this. They remain, however, like you and I, all part of God's human family, with potential for good and for bad. Like you and I, they are mixtures of good things and bad things. We are not so different. Maybe we need sufficient humility to say, and to mean, "There but for the Grace of God, go I".

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