Revd Dr Geoffrey Burn, Managing Chaplain of the Chaplaincy at HMP Rochester, offers insight, further resources and an invitation:

Session Four invites us to reflect on the life of Peter, and this session and the next explore how we are caught up in behaviours that damage us, friends and family, those in our community, and, ultimately, with the whole created order. They also invite us to explore the nature of forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation and justice.

Working in prison focuses sharply focuses some of these questions. In the Bible, God’s justice is active, putting things right. Too often I hear victims of crime being glad when someone is sent to prison as if that was going to put anything right. If we really think about what would make communities safe, on the whole this is not done by temporarily removing people who have committed crimes from the rest of the community, but by (re)establishing bonds of trust through the process of reconciliation.

Let me tell you about something that happened in our prison, with the names changed. After a period of preparation, Chris was brought together with Dave for what is called a ‘restorative justice conference’. Chris had burgled Dave. During the conversation, Dave told Chris that he was glad to have met him because up until then, whenever he went around his town, he was wondering if anyone that he was seeing was the person who had burgled his house. He also said that one of the things that Chris had taken was his laptop, which had photos of his father on it, and his father had subsequently died. The laptop would have been virtually worthless to sell, but Dave had lost the photos of his father forever. Whilst he was talking, Dave noted that Chris was full of remorse. He ended up saying to Chris that, when he was released from prison, if he ever wanted to have a chat, a ciggy and a cup of tea, then he could go round to his house for, after all, he knows where he lives! Dave also said that his son-in-law had a scaffolding firm, and if Chris needed a job – he was a scaffolder – when he left prison, he would try to get him a job. Neither Dave nor Chris is a Christian.

We should not be surprised when things like this happen, because God is at work in the world to bring reconciliation. Properly understood, reconciliation is a process involving both the offending and the offended parties. The offending party, which may be a group or even a nation, needs to come to the point of recognising that what it has done is wrong and want to put it right. Using an image from Miroslav Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace, this is like opening one’s arms to prepare for an embrace. This is the beginning of the process of repentance, for repentance is usually more than just an apology. The offended party, which again might be a group or a nation, needs to come to the point where it is willing to let go of what has happened, of wanting the future to stop being determined by the past. The willingness to offer this is again like opening one’s arms for an embrace.

When the two parties are in this place, then they can begin to meet, to share their experiences of what has happened, and to begin to work out what needs to be done to go into the future together without the past continuing to destroy each party. The embrace of reconciliation is justice. It is important recognise that the reconciliation process can be initiated by either party. The nature of repentance and forgiveness in any particular case will only arise from the process of reconciliation, and so the nature of justice cannot be determined outside the process of reconciliation. That reconciliation can come, that justice can be established, is a gift of God, who is working to bring reconciliation in the world. Like what happened with Dave and Chris in the prison, this is often a surprise, something new, similar to how resurrection is not a repair job, nor is it getting back what was lost, but it is being given something new and unexpected.

The best approximation that we have to this understanding of the nature of justice in criminal justice is the process of restorative justice, where those involved in a crime are prepared to eventually meet each other in a restorative justice conference, just like Chris and Dave in the story above. Properly understood, the whole criminal justice system could be re-ordered to be based on restorative principles, and in some parts of the country, restorative processes are used to intervene in situations before they reach the court process. Restorative Justice can still be used when people have been imprisoned for their offences. In HMP & YOI Rochester, we begin preparing for restorative justice using the Sycamore Tree Programme, developed by Prison Fellowship. This is often the first time that men think about the affects of their crimes on others. For those who wish to take their learning further and work towards restorative justice, our prison uses the organisation called Sussex Pathways to deliver Restorative Justice.

All Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are given money for pursuing restorative justice, and there is now an accreditation for those involved in restorative justice services, called the ‘Restorative Services Quality Mark’. In this country, restorative justice is always victim-led. Often PCCs only allow restorative justice processes to be initiated by the victim, but the experience of the Sussex PCC is that many more successful outcomes of the restorative justice process occur when those who have committed the crimes are also allowed to initiate the process.

Further Information:

If you would like to explore any of this further, then here are some resources.

If you are interested in thinking more about the nature of forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation and justice, then you can look at Chapters 3 and 4 of Rev Geoffrey Burn’s thesis, Reconciliation and Land in Australia: A Theological Approach, and follow the biographical links from that:

You can watch a testimony given by one of the men who completed the Sycamore Tree Programme in HMP & YOI Rochester by following the link: information about Prison Fellowship and Sycamore Tree can be found by following the link:

There is a very powerful video about restorative justice called, The Woolf Within. You can find this by following the link:

More information about Restorative Justice in the UK can be found by following the link: More generally, you can search for various combinations of ‘restorative justice’ and ‘pcc’ and ‘study’ to find a lot of work being done on restorative justice. The model developed in Sussex for the delivery of restorative justice is recognised as being one of the best in the country: The Sussex Pathways website is:, and an evaluation of their work can be found at:

Practical Responses:

There are several practical ways that individuals or churches might like to get involved in this work.

You could be part of a Prison Fellowship Prayer Group, or be a Prison Fellowship volunteer, or, after some training, be a group facilitator for the Sycamore Tree Programme. You can find out more information by following the link above.

You can follow the progress of restorative justice in the country, and continue to encourage the Kent PCC to support restorative justice, both victim- and offender-initiated processes.

The Bishop of Rochester has launched Prison Hope: One of the things that they are doing is producing some material for Lent next year, and you may wish to consider using this in some way as a church.

A practical way of engaging with Prison Hope is to consider how your church can be a welcoming community for those who leave prison, from just being comfortable with people leaving prison being part of your church, to more extensive support. The Welcome Directory Project has three sessions of study material which helps churches to think about these issues: The second session needs to be hosted in a prison, and the Chaplaincy at Rochester would be very willing to host your church group for this. You can contact the Managing Chaplain via the email address:

2 thoughts on “Exploring Prison Chaplaincy

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