Like many people, I spent most of my life blissfully ignorant of the state of Her Majesty’s Prison Service. That is, until a friend convinced me to join an ecumenical mission group that ministers inside a Category-A (maximum security) men’s prison. Once inside, I quickly learned that the UK prison population is growing at a dramatic rate, but, so too is the percentage of prisoners attending church. It has become increasingly common for people inside to start asking the bigger questions of life, and it appears that God is meeting them in that space. In fact, prior to the pandemic, it was rumoured within the Church of England’s Ely Diocese that the chapel inside HMP Whitemoor was their fastest growing congregation!
This should not surprise us. Jesus was often drawn to outcast fringe groups who were ostracised by majority; “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). The first person Jesus personally promised to meet with in paradise was a criminal who hung next to him on a cross at Golgotha, and, let’s not forget that both Moses and Paul committed murder before being transformed by God’s grace and used for His Kingdom.
It’s important for us to realise that when a criminal finds faith, their potential is enormous. I have met some extraordinary men who are serving long-term sentences and are using their time to memorise large sections of the New Testament, regularly pray for people who are persecuting them, and read intimidatingly large books on Systematic Theology and early church history. These people are passionate about God and are hungry to learn as much as they can about Him. But, until now, their access to any kind of formal theological education has been non-existent.
This is why I am pioneering CamTIP. My vision is to bridge the gap between well-resourced theological colleges and under-resourced prison chaplaincies who are experiencing growth. With the help of Dr Alison Gray, we are creating a partnership between Westminster College and HMP Whitemoor, so that Christians inside can study theology with academic accreditation, go deeper in their faith, and be connected to the wider family of God.
I am excited to see how each of our students will continue to flourish in their personal spiritual journeys, as well as the significant opportunities that come with receiving a high-quality education. I am also eager to see how they may bless us – the wider church – with their testimonies and insights. We know that God is in the business of surprising us with the people he chooses to advance His Kingdom. Might these people be the key to the UK’s next big church renewal?