Prison Chaplaincy ~ An Interview

acorn droplets scaled, Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids.

Craig a member of the order, prison chaplain and founder of the Dinas Canolog grove in Birmingham has recently been appointed as the first Pagan Managing Chaplain for a prison in the UK. To mark this momentous occurrence, he and fellow Chaplain Alan, a Christian member of the order, interview each other for Touchstone.

Craig: So for the sake of the readers what is a Managing Chaplain

Alan: A managing Chaplain is the senior member of the chaplaincy team, there is one per prison. The managing chaplain leads the multi-faith team of chaplains and has line management responsibility for them.

Craig: What is the point of chaplaincy within prisons?

Alan: I always say, “Chaplaincy is the department that doesn’t want to DO anything!”. Other areas in a prison have something they want to do for a prisoner; Healthcare want to prescribe something, Psychology want to assess the person’s offending risk and put them on a suitable intervention, probation want to look at their sentence plan and licence conditions; but chaplaincy don’t have a thing we want to do. As chaplains our role is just to be with the person, to listen, to really listen and to provide pastoral care and support. We are not there to DO anything, just to BE, with anyone, regardless of their faith or lack of it, regardless of their offence, regardless of their background or behaviour. Whilst we are not there to convert or proselytise, I think that nevertheless we are there to show people that there are other ways of living.

Craig: Why is Pagan representation important?

Alan: Simply because as Chaplains we are there to provide people support within the faith that they have, some of those people are Pagan, so we need pagan chaplains. But it is actually more than that, in prison we are often dealing with people whose knowledge of faith may be limited, and some may have misunderstandings and preconceptions of both their own and others faiths, it is important that we challenge and correct those errors and what better way is there than to meet people of those faiths and to see them working together.

Alan: So Craig, what attracted you to prison chaplaincy?

Craig: I was at a point in my life where I was looking for a new challenge. I had been a store manager for a coffee shop chain for 6 years, and I’d had enough. I had a really fantastic conversation with my line manager who asked me what I had enjoyed over the last 6 years. I said that I had really enjoyed helping people, supporting people getting into work, working with agencies like the princes trust, and supporting people on their personal development journey. I had spoken to other Pagan Chaplain about what they did and that seemed to be a good fit. Also one of the things we are encouraged to do in the Druid grade is to work with and support our community. Becoming a Pagan Prison chaplain seemed a good way of giving back to both society and the Pagan community.

Alan: How does working in a prison influence your work with the Dinas Canalog grove and vice versa?

Craig: One of the things I try to do is to bring whatever ritual we are doing outside into prison, usually with modifications, although I have been known to bring half a tree through the gate! I think the way it most influences me is by giving me inspiration! Prisoners can be so inspiring! They also constantly challenge you, either through your wider knowledge of paganism, or your own moral compass, which I believe helps me be a better Druid. It also means that I often have an anecdote to hand to help people understand or explore.

Craig: Talking about Druids Alan, why do you think that Druids make good prison chaplains?

Alan: Within prison chaplaincy it is perhaps no secret that I have a slight preference for Druid chaplains over those from the other Pagan paths, and as a member of OBOD that is probably no surprise. I of course respect all the various pagan paths, but to me it just seems that Druidry is a tiny bit more compatible with life in a prison and the examples we want our prisoners to learn, it is also a lot easier to practice in a prison than some other Pagan paths. All the pagan paths speak of peace but to my mind it is just a little more front and centre in Druidry. I doubt it would ever be possible to have a full wiccan coven operating in a prison, there are just too many restrictions, but if we had enough followers of Druidry a small grove could form. Ours are rituals that are inclusive and can be performed solo or in small groups, with other pagans. Men can journey to their inner grove in the privacy of their cell and there is plenty of opportunity to experience the flow of awen through a prison and find your own way of expression (to which the prisoner artwork in my office gives testament).

Craig: Why is it important to have a pagan managing chaplain?

Alan: Because until yourself Craig we haven’t had one. We have managing chaplains from many other faiths, but you are the first Pagan. It is important because it reinforces that Paganism is a valued faith path that has much to contribute to the vision of the prison service in preventing victims by changing lives. As a managing chaplain you will have opportunities to mix with the senior management of your prison and share your wisdom, knowledge and experience in a way that the other chaplains can’t.

Alan: How do people react when you tell them you work in a Prison?

Craig: Well mostly they are a little shocked! Part of that shock is that they had not realised that there are chaplains in prison let alone pagan chaplains, they then what to know if they are really as dangerous as the media make out. Finally they go on to ask “what exactly do chaplains do?” and that’s often when the conversation gets interesting.

Alan: Oops forgot that one, okay what do Prison Chaplains actually do?

Craig: I think this is a really interesting question. My job is split into two parts. The first part is faith. I lead pagan worship and study groups. We hold ritual celebrations for the wheel of the year, and have studied things as diverse as the fools journey in Tarot, the Havamal and Mabinogi or the Ogham. We have to take a very eclectic approach and cover many different paths. You also become a kind of mentor to your prisoners, they approach you for advice and guidance on a wide variety of topics, and often you are one of the few people in their lives who they can have a completely confidential, none judgmental conversation with. I have helped people deal with the loss of relatives, family, relationship problems and illness. I’ve also had to help people who are feeling suicidal or who are at risk of self-harm. You become a people person very quickly in this job if you had not been one before.

Aside from the faith based work I also work with the wider chaplaincy team providing pastoral support around the whole prison population. There are some things that chaplains are required to do every day, like visit any prisoners that are in segregation or health care, visit any prisoner that has just arrived at the prison, and deal with any general applications that come in, which can be as varied as “do you talk to god?” right through to “my child is in hospital, can you find out how they are doing?” We are also the default breakers of bad and good news. Essentially we are here to offer support and hope to the prisoners in our care, in whatever form they need that to be.

Alan: Do you find you are accepted as a Pagan within the prison?

Craig: I think this can be a little hit and miss if I’m completely honest, but it’s something I’ve worked really hard to improve! As in all walks of society there are people that have different and sometimes wrong ideas about pagans, what we believe and what we do. But thankfully most people will listen to you with respect, and when they come to realise you’re more likely to offer them a cup of tea and recommend a good book on the native plants of the British islands, than invite them to a satanic dark mass, they slowly warm to you. Popular culture has a lot to answer for, and we can’t shy away from the link between the Alt. Right, and their brand of “paganism”. Only this week The Mail ran an article about it!

Once people know me, or if they have had a positive experience with one of my fellow pagan chaplains, then I do find that we are not only accepted, but valued as part of the wider chaplaincy team and as a result the prison.

Alan: What is the one message you want your Pagan prisoners to hear?

Craig: That it’s ok to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them! Our mythologies are full of stories where our gods make mistakes or do things that are wrong. But more often than not they learn and make things right! Just look at poor Efnysien in the second branch of the Mabinogi. For me, helping prisoners examine their moral compass has been a really important part of my journey as a chaplain. We are fortunate in Paganism that we don’t have a judgmental god, or a list of thou shall not’s. Rather than it being handed on a plate, we actually have to think about our morals, and see how they fit within our ideas of self.

Craig: How can people reading this interview make a difference?

Alan: Above all be being aware of Prisons and the work they do. Send us peace in your rituals. Maybe consider if you personally could fulfil this ministry (whilst there aren’t a ton of vacancies they do arise). One of the things that I find disappointing is that as a Christian I have a large team of volunteers to call on, charities that send us books and courses for people in prison, but this isn’t something I see coming from the Pagan world. It also creates an anxiety in the men as they see plenty of resources for some faiths but less in others, so they think we are favouring another faith over theirs!

Craig: What do you see as the future of Prison ministry?

Alan: To be honest I quite like the way it is going at the moment, we are developing strong multi-faith teams that I think are leading the world in multi-faith work, which we do by not pretending that we are all the same, but by acknowledging the differences, respecting them and seeing that each of our faith journeys has value. Above all, I think the future is in Pastoral care, taking that time to walk with people through their ups and downs is something that Chaplaincy has a special gift for. I hope we continue to be given the time to do that.

Good question by the way, you are getting that one back at you!

Alan: What do you see as the future of Prison ministry?

Craig: I think this is a really difficult question to answer. I think that with people like me, coming through the ranks from the numerically smaller faiths, that the hold that the Abrahamic faiths had on chaplaincy is lessening. I think a lot of it depends on what happens within wider society. The Pew reports suggest that the biggest growing self-description is “spiritual but not religious”, and I wonder how prison ministry will adapt its wider pastoral role, whilst losing some of its more structured religious role.


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