Archbishop Vincent Nichols made a powerful defence of Catholic prison chaplaincy in a speech at Brixton Prison in London today.
The Archbishop of Westminster criticised suggestions that amid budget cuts the state should only fund a single “generic chaplaincy” in Britain’s prisons.
He said: “There are some today who seem to see a future with some sort of ‘generic chaplaincy’, providing spiritual support irrespective of the church family of the person, as part of a package of care and rehabilitation to all.
“That is, of course, valuable, and no chaplain would or should turn away any person who seeks help. But where I part company from such thinking is in the idea that a generic approach can ever be truly respectful or sufficient.”
The archbishop said that Catholic prisoners remained members of their dioceses even in prison. Catholic chaplains, he said, were “the instrument of sacramental graces that, quite simply, no one else can provide” and “Catholic prisoners are entitled to no less”.
“This is not just a Catholic point,” he said. “The same principles apply, with equal force, to any other religious group.
“Prisoners don’t have much; their religious identity is important to them. It is a fundamental right which should be respected.”
The archbishop argued that Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain last month marked a new era in relations between Church and state.
He said: “The Prime Minister’s farewell address to the Pope was extraordinary in the extent to which it mapped out a new way of accepting the contribution that religion can make. He quoted Newman’s ‘common bond of unity’ as being at the heart of ‘the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain’. He looked to Church and state to ‘redouble our resolve to work for the common good’.”
Archbishop Nichols said that David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society, in which individuals and communities play a more active role in tackling social problems, could offer a way forward.
“There are some things that should not be too difficult to resolve if common sense can be applied,” he said. “In some prisons I hear that it is becoming almost impossible to get Catholic volunteers in chaplaincy. Not because no one is coming forward, but because it can take months and months to provide security clearance. Similarly it can take months even for a local parish priest to be cleared to come into prison to say Mass as a sessional chaplain.
“I don’t want to belittle security for a moment, but something clearly seems out of balance here, and it is prisoners that are suffering as a result. Perhaps we need to be a little more discriminating in what level of scrutiny is warranted for people of different ages and in different circumstances.”
The archbishop was delivering the first Sir Harold Hood Memorial Lecture. Sir Harold, who died in 2005, was a Catholic philanthropist with a strong interest in prisoners’ welfare.
Archbishop Nichols said: “He would simply turn up at Wormwood Scrubs for the privilege of sharing Mass with the prisoners. The Mass, I am sure, was the well-spring of his life and work for prisoners.”
The archbishop also praised the work of the Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact), which has launched a Basic Caring Communities project in which groups of six volunteers from local churches provide daily support for a recently released prisoner.
The lecture took place in the chapel of Brixton Prison following an ecumenical service in which five prisoners read prayers.