Chaplain General Paul Cowley Michael Spurr

Sir Humphrey sneers at the CofE to appoint Chaplain General of Prisons

There is a vacancy for the post of Chaplain General of Prisons (or, to give it its full title: Head of Chaplaincy and Faith Services at Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service). You probably didn’t know there was such a position, but there most definitely is, and for the past four years it has been performed admirably by The Venerable Michael Kavanagh.

‘Admirably’ would be Sir Humphrey’s preferred adverb (since Sir Humphrey appointed him): others might say ‘meek and mediocre’; more of a Chaplain Corporal than a Chaplain General. The fact that no-one has heard from him or knows much about him (or has any idea the role even exists) is largely down to his capacity for inconspicuousness and proclivity for latency, and such a disposition suits Sir Humphrey down to the ground. The less these God-botherers do, the easier it is for secularised bureaucracy to spread its tentacles. But that’s by the by. The point is that the Ven. Michael Kavanagh is stepping down, so there’s a vacancy for the post of Chaplain General.

The Rev’d Paul Cowley MBE is the Bishops’ Advisor for Prisons and Penal Affairs in the Diocese of London. He is also Global Ambassador for Social Transformation at HTB/Alpha International, so he knows quite a bit about prison ministry and its capacity to transform hearts and minds for the good of society (and, of course, souls for salvation). Hearing of Michael Kavanagh’s decision to step down, and at the recommendation of friends and colleagues in the prisons world, the political world and the ecclesial world, Mr Cowley decided to apply for the post of Chaplain General, believing he had quite a lot to offer.

Computer said no.

Paul Cowley’s application was rejected because he is not employed by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service: he is a volunteer in the prison system, and Sir Humphrey insists that the post of Chaplain General can only be filled by an existing employee.

Sir Humphrey in this case is Sir Michael Spurr, CEO of HMPPS, and Second Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice.

O, sorry, he’s not yet ‘Sir’: he is ‘CB’ (Companion of the Order of the Bath). The KCB will surely come someday, but it must yet be preceded by a few more years’ service to national bureaucracy and petty-regulation-upholding before it may be bestowed. Mr Spurr is adamant that ‘outsiders’ may not apply for this position – not even if, like the Rev’d Paul Cowley, they are ex-military (17 years); a security-cleared part-time chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs performing statutory duties; a former Head of Prison Ministry at HTB, and founder of the charity Caring for Ex-Offenders.

Yes, Paul Cowley’s CV is rather impressive: he not only knows quite a bit about prison ministry and its capacity to transform hearts and minds for the good of society, but in 2015 he was appointed MBE for services to ex-offenders. Yet this doesn’t impress Michael Spurr very much at all: the post of Chaplain General can only be filled by an existing employee. This Civil Service rule is apparently immutable.

Helpfully, the ‘Computer says no’ email which Mr Cowley received said at the bottom that if he wasn’t happy with the way his application had been handled, he could take the matter up with the Complaints Department of the Civil Service Commission. But before doing so, he thought it better to explore the issues personally with Mr Spurr, believing him to be an honourable man of courtesy and common-sense integrity. So a telephone conversation was arranged in which Mr Cowley sought advice on how he might circumvent ‘Computer says no’ and apply for the post as an ‘outsider’. He was told in no uncertain terms that it simply wasn’t possible: the vacancy was for internal candidates only; effectively a closed shop. Only serving Anglican chaplains on the payroll could apply: volunteer Anglican chaplains – no matter how passionate, experienced and honoured by the Queen – did not qualify.

In Civil Service jargon, this is a ‘closed position’ – one which Sir Humphrey intends to bestow upon a man person of his choosing, no matter how superior an external candidate may be. Paul Cowley may or may not be superior to the pool from which Mr Spurr is intent on fishing: we cannot know because he cannot apply. And nor can Mr Spurr know – or, indeed, anyone else in the Ministry of Justice – because it is a Civil Service closed shop.

But the role of Chaplain General is a national leadership role in the Church of England. It demands not only sociological and psychological sensitivity, but theological knowledge, spiritual discernment, pastoral compassion, tenacity, endurance and vision. But Mr Spurr doesn’t want any of that: he just wants someone who will sit behind a desk and organise multi-faith meetings. For Paul Cowley, the post of Chaplain General is matter of Christian vocation; for Michael Spurr, it is about bureaucratic administration.

The Chaplain General is licensed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, so you’d think Lambeth Palace might have some say in the appointment. Sadly not: in fact, Justin Welby supports Paul Cowley’s application for the post (as do an number of other bishops), not least because the Archbishop can see no reason at all why the job shouldn’t go to the best-qualified person, as opposed to the best-qualified current Civil Service employee. What’s wrong with an open and transparent process? Lord Ramsbotham (former HM Inspector of Prisons) is so incensed that he’s considering tabling a Parliamentary Question, as, indeed, might the Prison’s Minister and the Justice Secretary, all of whom are somewhat irked by the petty obfuscation.

But Mr Spurr wasn’t fazed by any of that: it is the Second Permanent Secretary’s prerogative to select the next Chaplain General, and it is not a privilege he intends to relinquish. As their phone conversation drew to a close, Mr Cowley was encouraged to complain through the appropriate channels, and they said their courteous goodbyes. But just as Mr Cowley was about to hang up, he heard Mr Spurr continue talking to his MOJ colleagues about him. It appears that instead of hanging up, Mr Spurr had mistakenly only switched his conference speaker off, so, hearing his name mentioned, Mr Cowley (..naturally) carried on listening to what was being said about him (not least because he had assumed this to have been a private conversation).

The gist of what he overheard may be summarised as: ‘Who the hell does this guy think he is?’ Mr Spurr was disparaging and intemperate – not only about Mr Cowley, but also about some of those who were supporting him – and reiterated to his fellow Civil Servants that the post of Chaplain General is basically one of multi-faith niceties and pen-pushing. For Mr Spurr, it has absolutely nothing to do with passion, vision, transformation or mission. It has nothing to do with shining a light in dark places, healing broken hearts, weeping with those who weep, or bringing peace and reconciliation to those whose lives need changing. It has nothing to do with supporting chaplains through their own times of stress as they, in turn, support prisoners through their traumas, suicide attempts or thoughts of self-harm in often squalid or overcrowded conditions. It has nothing to do with the onerous task of coordinating rehabilitation or enduring reformation. It has nothing to do with pastoral care for those precious labourers in the vineyard who are so often shunted to the peripheries of Christian ministry…

No, according to Michael Spurr, the Chaplain General must sit behind a desk, make polite but impeccably inconsequential phone calls, and tick lots of boxes.

Paul Cowley has the vision to change a few things, not least to iron out a few of the inconsistencies between prisons about the way chaplains are viewed and deployed (and so treated and supported [or not]). He wants to infuse prison chaplaincy with morality and foster fraternity. He wants his fellow chaplains to be nourished with red meat instead of milk; to become bold and excellent rather than meek and mediocre. And then there are the absurd inconsistencies from diocese to diocese: some pay their chaplains, but others do not, so the whole Sir Humphrey rationale for restricting the post of Chaplain General to a paid chaplain is an arbitrary discrimination and manifestly unjust. Mr Cowley would obviously like to address this.

His omission from the list of potential interviewees is an opportunity lost, and a considerable talent squandered. The Bishop for Prisons, the Rt Rev’d James Langstaff (Bishop of Rochester) ought to be asking questions in Parliament: it is he who ought to be ensuring that the Church of England wrests the authority for this appointment from Sir Humphrey, for it is a senior Anglican leadership role which has been reduced to a Civil Service bauble to be bestowed upon an ordained (and remunerated) Bernard Woolley MA (Oxon), in proportion to his meekness and mediocrity.

Incidentally, when Paul Cowley complained to the Civil Service Commission, ‘computer said no’. He was politely informed that his complaint couldn’t be considered because the appointment of the Chaplain General is an internal matter, and therefore an outsider could not complain about it.

Sir Humphrey nods at this victory for bureaucratic obfuscation, and smiles: “Yes, Vicar.”