A reflection by the Bishop of Gloucester and Anglican Bishop for HM Prisons, Rachel Treweek, as delivered at our 2021 Carol Service at Farm Street Church, Mayfair.

Perhaps like me you have been opening an Advent calendar each day. My husband gave me one with chocolate in it, but I’ve managed to resist and have only opened one door each day!  

Last night, as I heard the Prime Minister talking about new restrictions as Covid continues to spread, I found myself thinking more about the whole notion of opening and shutting…  

Last week I was visiting a primary school and I was given the great privilege of being asked to play the innkeeper in a rather impromptu telling of the Christmas story. It involved few words and simply opening and shutting doors. 

When Joseph and Mary knocked on the door there was a mischievous part of me which wanted simply to invite them in, but I knew I would ruin the rest of the story. Instead, I had to tell them there was no room at the inn and close the door. But then invite them to step through another door to a different space with an animal feeding trough. 

In prisons there is endless opening and shutting of doors. If you have been in a prison, you will know that any moving around involves the endless unlocking and locking of doors, and of course the locking and unlocking of cells. It is all about restriction and separation. And this separation ripples out in broken relationships - not only of those in prison but also within the families of those who offend; those who are victims; and indeed across whole communities. 

And the life stories of those caught up in the criminal justice system have usually been punctuated by broken relationships and separation:  Doors closed within people and between people; potential left unlocked; pain and hurt kept locked within. 

Yet as a follower of Jesus Christ and as Anglican Bishop for prisons I believe in transformation and the endless possibility of new doors being opened - doors which can lead to healing and reconciliation and redemption. 

And that brings us back to the innkeeper and the door of new possibilities. No room in the inn but the possibility of a different hospitable space. And if we peer through the door we see a tiny vulnerable baby - God come to earth - fully God and fully human - God with us - not abandoning us to separation and locking us out. God come to be with us and among us, showing us what love is - what hope is. 

In every life and every situation there is always the possibility of a new door and transformation. 

Sadly, it’s not what I see at the root of the big picture of government legislation and the ethos around prisons and offending, not least as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill makes its way through Parliament, but I hold fast to hope because it is what I see in so many charities, in the work of Pact, in the work of so many individuals and organisations working across the CJS.  

Tonight, we heard those words from Isaiah of the people walking in darkness seeing a great light. The darkness will never be able to shut out the light or separate us from the light. 

In prison last week I met James, and in response to the question, ‘How are you?’ he replied, ‘Sadly still alive’. And I tried to offer words of hope and new possibility. 

My hope and prayer in the coming year is that we and those in prison might discover something more of God’s love and God with us, because God is never locked out and never closes the door on us. And I pray for doors to spaces where individuals, each precious and loved and known by name, can share their stories - whether people in prison; or families and friends separated from those they love; or victims, or different professionals, workers and volunteers across the criminal justice system. I pray that stories can be shared and heard, and that things can become unlocked; and that light can be shone on things locked away in dark corners within people so that healing and rehabilitation can emerge, and new doors can be opened as people discover more of who they are and who they are called to become.  

And all made possible through the love of God. 

I pray that more will be done in the coming year not only to enable prison to be a place where doors within people are unlocked to enable healing and transformation, but also that more will be done to ensure that those who walk through the gate have a front door to go through to a place which can be called home; And that there will be an even greater focus on creating new doors of opportunity for purposeful and meaningful work which allows people not to be labelled as an ex-offender but to be known by name and valued and loved.  

God whose face is seen in the baby Jesus Christ, is the God who cannot bear to be separated from us, and longs to draw closer than close because we are loved.  

The light shines in the darkness. God is with us. Amen. 

The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek 

Bishop of Gloucester and Anglican Bishop for HM Prisons