DIARY OF A DEACON PRISON CHAPLAIN: Sarah Gillard-Faulkner (Church Times)

Insider’s view

sarah g-f

MY MOTHER is a good, Anglican, Church-in-Wales-going woman who, when the possibility of my being ordained first arose, exhibited some nervousness. A few years ago, however, when I told her I was heading for prison ministry full-time, she said she was relieved. “Why?” I asked. “Because you are not very good at being a parish cleric,” she replied. Grateful as I professed myself to be for her candid response, my inward reaction was rather different.

I’ve since discovered, however, that my present job has given her great cause for hilarity with unsuspecting folk. When acquaintances, or friends of hers, ask after me, she wryly responds, “Oh, she’s in prison. . .”

Spiritual uplift

NOT much in prison is DIY. There is very little anyone — prisoner or staff member — can actually do for themselves. Each part of the community relies on others to play its best, for the whole thing to work. There are few technologies to make our lives any easier: no direct-line phones; no Zoom.

The pandemic has enforced a return to simpler times. With no gathering for corporate worship in person, and no audio-visual kit available to provide an alternative, weekly interaction has been reduced to a simple leaflet with a short reflection on the readings of the day: something that can lift the imagination beyond the confinement of spending up to 23 hours a day in a room with a lavatory, and place the individual in the perspective of God’s wider world, if only for a while.

Each leaflet is individually named and addressed, and delivered to the door of its recipient. Woe betide me if it doesn’t arrive! But, unlike feedback at the church door on a Sunday morning, my weekly response is now based on the number of typos I managed this week. I console myself with the thought that at least the leaflet’s being read.

Reformed character

WHENEVER a hand-written envelope arrives with my name on it, it fills me with terror. What have I done? Whom have I offended? But the contents are sometimes a surprise. As prison chaplains, we are often involved when prisoners are at a loss about what they can do. We become what I have always seen deacons as being — bridges: individuals who can be the conduit between Church and the edges of society. In a prison context, we may be bridges between home and family; between the living and the dying.

At the start of the pandemic, the father of one of the toughest and most notorious and intimidating individuals in our community was dying in hospital. There was no way of enabling them to meet. We had offered a video call, but the hospital could not facilitate it. So we kept a contact with the hospital staff and family members via the phone. Within ten days, the father had died.

Some weeks later, an envelope arrived on my desk. The card inside it read, “. . . this can be a lonely place and I felt so much support, and good talks, and advice, and comforting. . . thank you. P.S. I was totally wrong about you and I take everything back! Ha ha!”

Without these walls

I AM hopeless at time off, although it does provide a chance to catch up with stuff — not just domestic chores, but also social media, and the connections that are harder to maintain when I’m working. In one hit, today, three separate interactions have highlighted opportunities for the distinctive diaconate — for those who understand themselves as go-betweens, with a special responsibility to cross boundaries, make connections, and bring the message of the gospel to the unchurched.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is highlighting our need, as a Church, for people who are willing to be visibly part of its family and at the same time comfortable working with those in the marginal places of our world. I’d never thought that would be me — but perhaps also that’s what comes from being open to the unlimited possibilities of God’s good purposes.

One bread, one body

FOOD in prisons is prized, not only by prisoners, but by staff, too. If free food is on offer, the scene will resemble bees around a honeypot. Both staff and prisoners, if they want to cook for themselves, have to be innovative with the limited provisions available. I have seen some very interesting “curries” come out of kettles, and dessert creations emerge from residential-unit fridges.

As a team, we recognise the significance of food in all our faiths and cultures; so one of our big treats is to share food together — not eating our own meals alongside each other, but all of us eating the same food at the same time. Halal and kosher diets and other religious observances have all been catered for with only a microwave, toaster, and electric griddle.

When we eat together, differences are forgotten and joys are shared as we recognise in each other a communal nature and spirit. The one thing that prison ministry has taught me is that, wherever and whoever we are, we are all humans who experience the same emotions, even if, for the time being, we find ourselves laying our heads in rather different places.

The Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner, is a Distinctive Deacon, and the Anglican Chaplain of HM Prison Onley, Northamptonshire.

This article appeared in the Church Times 14 August 2021.  Reproduced with permission.



The Diaconate

by Deacon Sarah Gillard-Faulkner

Sarah Gillard-Faulkner

Its fair to say that within the Anglican Church, the diaconate is a ministerial order which is unique indeed.  It is for many, a transitional place where they move from the diaconate to priesthood. But there are a few, like myself, who are called to it permanently.  All who are called to ordained ministry are to be Deacons, but few remain distinctively so.

So what are we all called to?  Well, the ordinal states:

Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.

The biblical setting out of this ministry is most clearly seen in Acts chapter 6, where we find Stephen and six others chosen to serve the widows of the community at table.  And in his first letter to Timothy, St Paul describes the attributes of one who is called to this service.

The word Deacon comes from the Greek ‘diakonia’ which means literally ‘to serve’.  That service is not only to the Church of God, but also to the wider community around it.  At my ordination the preacher talked of the Deacon as the “go between” role; it is the order that goes between church and world, being the living presence of the church in the community in which deacons live.

The Deacon should be the eyes and the ears of the local church in a particular area.  This almost suggests being a really nosey person!  However, the Deacon should be observing, engaging, interpreting, praying and bringing the needs they see in the wider community to the attention of the Body of Christ.

For me, the diaconate is a bit of a chameleon of all the ordained expressions of ministry we have in the church.  It can be the visible presence of Christ within and without the walls of the church community, and it seeks to bridge the divide between them.  It is and always will be the original pioneering ministry.

Currently, I’m serving as a prison chaplain, so I seek to serve the people, both staff and prisoners, in whatever way is deemed right and proper for their needs at any given time. I am able to be a bridge, to build a way across the wall and to heal divisions, to bridge the gap that exists between mainstream life and the church, between resident and family, between organisation and person.  To sit alongside people in their isolation from the world.

These are the joys of the diaconal calling.  To sit with people where they are, how they are and in whatever need they have.  The original Deacons were called to serve the table of the widows.  Deacons are called today to serve wherever they find themselves, through the proclamation of God’s word, teaching and care.

Deacon Sarah Gillard-Faulkner

Published by the Additional Curates Society, April 2021

By kind permission of Sarah

NOT CALLED TO PRIESTHOOD: Deacon Sarah Gillard-Faulkner

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Born and raised in Newport, South East Wales, I have been brought up in the tradition of the Church in Wales, with both my mother and father being key figures in several church communities. It was not until I was 18 and left home to study at university that I found my spiritual identity. Through friends, I associated myself much more to the catholic tradition, and with the appointment of an influential priest, in Newport when I returned from study did I really engage in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.
I embarked upon a successful career as a secondary school teacher until one day a conversation lead me down the path of considering more deeply my vocation. Here was to begin a journey that has been, and in many respects continues to be, an adventure. A woman in the catholic tradition offering herself for the ordained life. I had from the beginning of this road a clear sense that, what ever some vocations advisors had said, I was not called to the priesthood. And so for many years it has been a journey to discover what the distinctive diaconate meant in the church of the 21st century.
Ordained in 2009 by the then Bishop of Monmouth I served my title in the valley’s parishes of Abertillery, with Cwmtillery, Six Bells, Lllanhilleth and Aberbeeg and well as throughout it working with a team to develop a youth community within the diocese through the mediums of Music, Drama and liturgy. The end of my curacy saw a difficult time for the diocesan team who, at that point, were unsure what to do with me and so I was left wondering what the next stage of ministry would hold.

It was at this point in 2012 that the then Managing chaplain of HMP Cardiff took me under his wing and more formally, having spent some time there during my theological training, employed me to work as a chaplain 2 hours a week in that establishment. Within a few months I was working part time at 3 establishments in the South Wales region. It is an intrinsic call of the church to be present in these communities. And a call to which few respond. This went hand in hand with becoming the new Bishop of Monmouth’s liturgical chaplain and continuing with the youth work as a non stipendiary minister in a parish in the city of Newport.
Young people have always been a part of my life, as I started teaching at the age of 17, and it was back to young people I’d be drawn into a more settled parish setting, when in 2014 I was appointed to be the Sub Prior of the Holywell Community in Abergavenny, a community which the ACS has supported since its conception at that point. So for 2 and a half years, whilst still ministering to the various prison communities I was involved in, I walked alongside 6 young people in living in the spirit of the rule of St Benedict.
In some strange way for me prison ministry has been ever so slightly addictive in its nature. Through it the Diaconate really takes its shape. Building the bridge between the church and the outcasts of society seems to fulfil what those early Deacons in first- century Jerusalem were doing. And so in July 2017 I began the next stage of the adventure and this time a huge change of life and place for me. In April last year I was appointed as the full time Church of England chaplain at HMP Onley. The church that we peeked at over the river Severn occasionally was now going to be my new family! And now 6 months on I’m fairly much part of the furniture in this new prison community and still discovering how the Church of England works as an entity!
And in that transition period Fr Darren asked me to join the ACS council as one of its members. A huge honour for me to be considered. The first ordained female to take a seat in this forum. And for me, as I hope for the society, a brave and well placed move. I bring with me a whole host of experience from a church, as connected as it is in being an Anglican province, which is very different in its culture. The Church in Wales is a smaller more family-styled province which has, in my own experience, by several of its Bishops over the time I was there, been welcoming to those of us of such a tradition amongst them. So I bring with me that experience of finding space within a church that has no formal strategy for a place for AngloCatholics but seeks in love to make that space for all to engage.
I bring with me the rather unusual context of being ordained as a Deacon and living in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. It at times feels like the church  struggles with those who exercise a similar ministry to myself. In truth some in the Anglo-Catholic tradition seem not to be so sure about my existence because, a woman in a collar is just wrong! And those in the more liberal tradition seem to see me as some kind of traitor to womankind! Those situations withstanding I bring the reality that we have a church that is predominantly attended faithfully by women. So I hope to be able to help the Society answer questions about how do we speak into the real set up of the congregations we have in front of us.
I hope that my experience of working with younger people can be something with the ACS can use to its advantage in encouraging younger people to consider their own vocation in the context of their own discipleship. I look forward to being given the opportunity to speak into the discussions on vocation and the catholic tradition and hopefully widen the horizon of the church in their concepts of the needs of the church today.
To bring a new perspective to the work of the ACS I hope and pray will further encourage the church in its needs to engage the church with the reality of the world in which we live, so that the gospel message may continue to be engaged in the world of today.


This article has been taken from the Additional Curates’ Society publication http://www.additionalcurates.co.uk/admin/uploads/GoodNews_Summer_2018.pdf