prison chaplain
Mission

Prison chaplains may no longer convict offenders of sin: preaching must be ‘sensitive’

Remember the case of the Rev’d Barry Trayhorn, the ‘tent-maker’ (gardener) volunteer prison chaplain at HMP Littlehey in Cambridgeshire? Being an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church, he quoted Scripture (1Cor 6:9-11) during a prison church service he was leading. He warned the congregation of their sin and told them of God’s mercy and love for those who repent. The sins specified included sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, theft, greed, drunkenness and slander: these are the sorts of things which will keep you out of God’s Kingdom, he preached as the Holy Spirit led him.

No one was obliged to attend this service: inmates are not coerced in religion; attendance is entirely voluntary.

But a complaint was made by a prisoner to the prison’s Managing Chaplain, the Rev’d David Kinder. It came via the prison’s LGBT co-ordinator, and was as follows:

Whilst in the chapel Sat pm 31/5/14. During the service Barry the gardener instructor gave his sermon which included God hating prostitutes and gays.

As one of God’s soldiers and a follower of Jesus Christ I found this most offensive and regardless of my orientation he had no right to incite hatred towards anyone or judge anyone. The Bible provides forgiveness and acceptance of all as God’s followers. We should be promoting and not self-interpretation of a single person’s own thoughts and feelings and has also broken prison protocol over quality. This could have had severe consequences via bullying or self harming.

In answer to the question on the complaint form which asked what the prisoner would like to see done about his complaint, he answered: “The prison population should be assured this cannot happen again and that the prison does not support this person’s personal views.”

Barry Trayhorn was duly suspended (ie prevented from leading future church services) and subjected to a barrage of disciplinary hearings (five of them, in fact). The principal one was that of “unprofessional conduct – that on Saturday 31st May 2014 during a Pentecostal service whilst you were leading worship as a Chaplaincy volunteer you made homophobic statements…”

Suffering stress and depression, he felt he had no choice but to resign. He wrote: “The situation I find myself in now makes it impossible for me to continue to work at HMP Littlehey and I regard my situation as one of constructive dismissal because of the way that I have been treated.” He took his case to an Employment Tribunal and lost, basically on the grounds that expressions of religious belief must be subject an institution’s Disciplinary and Equalities Policies as a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of maintaining order and safety in the prison. It wasn’t so much the quoting of Scripture which was the problem, but the ‘insensitive’ preaching and teaching which followed, as the ET expounded:

(vi) It is clear from his own evidence, however, that what the Claimant said on 31st May 2014 at the relevant service went far beyond a mere quotation of scripture. In addition, we are reminded of the evidence of Rev. Kinder that it was important to both contextualise and approach with sensitivity within the Christian spirit of forgiveness the delivery of Christian message, particularly within the confines of the prison environment. Both PR3 and the Rev. Nyandoro, in the evidence they gave to the investigation conducted by Mr Moore, confirmed that the Claimant’s comments went far beyond the quotation of Scripture – he was in his own words to that investigation “teaching and preaching”.

(vii) It is clear and we conclude that the difficulties which the Claimant experienced as a result of the service on 31st May 2014 were due to the lack of context, the lack of sensitivity of approach and the encouragement by the Claimant of the congregation to raise complaint about him. We have not been taken to any part of the Conduct and Disciplinary Policy nor the Equality of Treatment for Employees Policy which is said to put neither the Claimant as an individual nor those of a Christian faith (or those of the Pentecostal denomination) at disadvantage, singly or as a group. Professor Kay does not say that, the Claimant does not say that and it was not put to the Respondent’s witnesses that there was such an impact in relation to the Claimant or those defined groups.

So you can quote Scripture to your heart’s content as long as you do it sensitively and get your exegesis and Sitz im Leben right.

Is a Pentecostal prison chaplain now obliged to understand and interpret Scripture the same way as liberal Anglicans? Or is it that they must all conform to the drowsy liberal Anglican mode of preaching? Is the State similarly obliging Muslim chaplains to grapple with quranic literary genres and set Mohammed’s conduct in ancient societal context? Certainly, if you take a verse of scripture out of its context the original meaning may often be lost. But is it really for the State to determine what is God’s word to all people for all time, and what is God’s word to a specific people in a particular time?

In an interview for Christian Concern, Barry Trayhorn explained:

“I simply said what the Bible says. Prisoners have a right to hear God’s word, just as much as anyone else. If people come to a Christian chapel service, we cannot keep God’s message from them. As I led the worship, I spoke about the wonder of God’s love and the forgiveness that comes through Jesus to those who recognise their sin and repent. I said that I am the worst sinner I know.

“But that wasn’t politically correct. The mere mention of homosexual behaviour in the Bible verses that I quoted provoked complaint. I was immediately barred from taking part in chapel services and trouble came my way. I was put under enormous pressure. This is about the expression of Christian faith. I am being punished simply for daring to say what the Bible says.”

The Employment Tribunal decision was appealed, and the judgment handed down yesterday by the Honourable Mrs Justice Slade DBE. Despite the reasonableness of the defence argument made by barrister Paul Diamond – namely that church services should be free from interference in matters of theology; and that Pentecostalists suffer ‘group disadvantage’ if they may not express their firm views on what constitutes sin – it was determined that the Employment Tribunal did not err in its judgment that expressions of religious belief in a prison church service must conform to State orthodoxy where Equality is concerned.

The context is prisons: this has nothing to do with public acts of worship in church buildings. But this judgment clearly has implications for Christian chaplaincies in all secular institutions – hospitals, schools, the armed forces, universities, shopping centres and work places. Wherever chaplains provide a listening ear, spiritual guidance, emotional support or a service of divine worship, God’s love must be filtered through the lens of Equality, and God’s word must be purged of anything which may be interpreted as ‘hate’.

But here’s a thing…

When we get past the ubiquitous vapid rainbows and orgasmic unicorns of Gay Pride shoving ‘Love is God’ boozy-orgies down the throats of sensitive heterosexuals, gay men are still six times more susceptible to committing suicide than heterosexual men, and half of LGBT students are reportedly bullied at school. It is a very real persecution which can have devastating consequences for their families. Young gay men who are incarcerated in a Young Offender Institute may already be over-burdened with guilt; lonely, depressed, isolated or fearful. Who knows their deepest inner sexual struggles or what mental health problems they suffer? Who knows what bullying traumas they’ve experienced growing up which has brought them to where they are? Does a prison chaplain ever ask to see their scars?

Shouldn’t a church service in a prison be concerned first and foremost with creating a welcoming space of love and mercy? If St Paul can live like Jew when working with the Jews, or like a Gentile when working with Gentiles in order to win them for Christ (1Cor 9:20ff), what is wrong with living like a young offender in order to minister to their needs? St Paul became all things to all men in order that all might be saved. He was not subject to the Law of Moses, but lived as though he were when working with those who are. He lived like a Gentile, outside the Jewish Law, in order to win Gentiles. He didn’t bark sin and judgment at them or preach that they’re all going to hell in a handcart. Being under Christ’s law permitted him missiological flexibility and a practical theological approach to facilitate participation in God’s plan of redemption: ‘To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak‘ (v22).

Young offenders are weak. They feel worthless, hopeless and helpless, and they cry at night.

Is it really helpful for a prison chaplain to heap red-hot coals of sin and retribution on the already-bowed heads of convicted youngsters? How many of these are likely to attend a church service when they leave prison? What may hinder them from doing so? What is wrong with a little restorative pastoral sensitivity in your preaching and teaching?