If anyone had the right to call Britain’s worst criminals “monsters”, it would be Sharon Grenham-Thompson. Having suffered sexual abuse as a child, she knows what it’s like to be a victim of a serious crime. But rather than demonise prisoners, Sharon has dedicated years of her life to serving them.
Sharon’s belief in rehabilitation is resolute and it’s guided her ministry as a prison chaplain. She’s no pushover, but is keenly aware that the vast majority of prisoners will be released back into society at some point. So it’s in all of our best interests to rehabilitate them, she argues.
Few Christians are able to fulfil Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you came to visit me” in its literal sense, and it’s an unglamorous calling for the ‘Glam Vicar’ – a pithy epithet she thought up while searching for a Twitter name. But prison ministry wasn’t always on the agenda. Having grown up without a faith, Sharon never thought she’d become a vicar, instead opting for a career in Law. That was before her “dramatic” conversion to Christianity while at university. It’s an event she recalls with vividness and excitement during our interview.
I was very untrusting and defensive, ready to expect that people would reject me
As her personal motto “nothing is ever straightforward” suggests, adult life hasn’t been plain sailing. She’s endured two failed marriages and battled severe depression. The full story is recounted in her autobiography, Jail Bird: The inside story of the Glam Vicar (Lion). It must have been difficult to write – not least because of her decision to open up about the abuse she’s suffered.
In our conversation, Sharon radiates grace and compassion. She’s assertive, self-confident and tough too. After all, compassion alone isn’t enough if you’re going to minister to convicted murderers. You have to have guts as well.
What was your early life like?
I was born in Hampshire, spent some of my childhood in Surrey and most of my teenage years in north London, so I’m a good Home Counties girl. It was very ordinary; happy bits and some not good bits. It was a fairly turbulent time in lots of ways.
My parents split up when I was 9, and my mum married again. There were various issues at home, difficult relationships and things like that.
How was it a turbulent time?
One of the things which I haven’t publicly spoken about before, is that I was a victim of sexual abuse from the age of 11 for a few years. That stays with you for the rest of your life; no matter how much healing I have found.
For many years there was loneliness, brokenness, fear and self-disgust – all those things that you hear survivors talk about. I was very untrusting, defensive, ready to expect that people would reject me, so I would reject them first – the classic psychologist’s dream kind of stuff. I felt very confused about where I belonged in the world. I didn’t know how to relate to men.
Some of these things take a lifetime of undoing. I’m at a stage where those things haven’t all gone, but I recognise them now. I can see when my reactions are getting a bit defensive or I’m feeling a bit insecure, I can see that is just a character trait that’s probably come from those early days.
Being open and honest about the things that have affected me has helped hugely as well. These were things I had to begin to address as I went forward for ordination. I didn’t actually get through the first time I applied – it took me two goes – which was probably no bad thing.
Did you encounter Christianity as a child?
There was no Christian background in my family at all. But I went to a Catholic convent school and the nuns were fantastic. They used to troop us along to Mass every Monday morning, but because I wasn’t a Catholic, I couldn’t receive Communion. One day I decided I quite wanted this ‘bit of God’ that was being handed out. So I filed up to the front and knelt down, ready to get my bit of God. Along came the priest with the mother superior, and of course they knew I wasn’t Catholic, so they passed me by.
That was quite a formative moment. It was negative, in the sense of “Gosh, I’ve been passed by, by God”, but also positive: “Wow, I want some of that!” Although I was only 8 years old, it got me curious.
I got through my teenage years with a vague idea about faith. But I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage. I had come away from my childhood feeling I was unlovable, stupid and ugly. I got to university and all that difficult stuff exploded. I discovered alcohol, the opposite sex and drugs. All of that lack of self-esteem and inability to draw boundaries channelled me into really self-destructive behaviours.
It was around this time – studying Law at university – that you became a Christian, wasn’t it?
Yes, I would say it was a dramatic conversion experience. I had a boyfriend for a very short while. I didn’t see him for about a year and when I saw him again he was very different – he seemed to have got his life together. He’d become a Christian. I wasn’t really sure what that meant at the time, but I was impressed with the difference it had made in his life. So I got myself up – which was unusual for me on a Sunday morning – put on my best clobber, because I thought, “going to church, that’s what you do”; skirt, heels, the lot. That was my first mistake, because I walked in and everyone was in jeans! But they were so welcoming, without being pressurising. As I was leaving, the young curate said, “Oh, I’m glad you enjoyed it. We’ve got a healing service this evening, why don’t you come along?” “Oh yes, thank you very much”, I said, thinking, “Get me out of here!”.
I got home and my housemates were quite amused that I’d been to church. They said, “Are you coming down the pub tonight?” “No, I’m going to go back to church,” I said. I don’t know why I said that, it just came out! I went back – in jeans this time. When the vicar said, “We’re going to do some prayer for healing now, so if you would like someone to pray with you, then just come forward”, I was thinking, “Here comes the weird bit, not on your nelly, I’m not doing anything!” I was sat there in the seat, and was aware of a pushing on my shoulder. So I looked round to say “Get off!” but there was nobody there. There was just this sense of being very gently but insistently propelled forward and then almost immediately after that a sense of being pushed back as well. It was really quite strange.
While I was trying to work out what on earth was going on, I found myself falling to my knees. I’m quite a rational person, but this was an amazing experience – it’s a little bit graphic, but you know when you’ve got a tummy upset and everything comes out? There was that sense, as my knees hit the floor of ‘whoosh’, of emptying out. And then this gentle light and warmth coming in – like the famous Wesley “my heart was strangely warmed” quote. I didn’t have the language for it, but I knew it was God. I just knew.
So how did your conversion experience affect your life?
Gosh, in lots of ways, some of which were probably a bit extreme at the time! I was very into karate – I’d won a bronze medal in the British karate championships.
I didn’t have the language for it, but i knew it was God
But the group of people who surrounded me at the time said, “You shouldn’t be doing that. It’s not a Christian thing to do.” I’m not sure I agree with that now, but at the time I thought “OK”. So I gave up my karate, I got rid of a lot of the music I used to listen to, I stopped the drug smoking immediately. I stopped getting drunk. My relationships became much more sorted. There was a lot of ‘giving up’ at the time. But I needed to do that.
At what point did you start to think about ordination?
After I graduated I stayed on in Reading, married the boyfriend, and we worshipped in that church for a while.
I found that while I’d been training for the Law, people would come to my office in a state: I was dealing with people who’d gone bankrupt, whose marriages had broken down, who’d lost their houses. I’d go to court and hopefully sort things out for them and wave them on their way. I didn’t see them after, and I wanted to do more. I wanted to use that new passionate Christian faith of mine in how I dealt with people.
Do people have misconceptions about what prisons are like?
The usual phrase that people come out with: “It’s all a holiday camp.” Let me say here and now – it isn’t.
Yes, you occasionally hear stories about how all prisoners have Sky TV in their cells. Is that not true?
No, it’s not true. Televisions are there, but they are paid for, they have to be earned; if there’s misbehaviour, they’re taken away. At the very highest level of earned privileges there is the opportunity to have a PlayStation on occasion – it has to be paid for and it will be taken away for misdemeanours.
When people are locked up from seven in the evening to seven the following morning, they have to have something to do. You don’t improve anyone’s behaviour by making them stare at a wall!
I guess this speaks right to the heart of the national debate over what prison is for – is it a place for punishment or for rehabilitation?
I think it’s for both. Wrongdoing has to be dealt with. I’m not all bleeding heart. I think there is a place for a punitive element. But for me, that punishment is the removal of freedom; it is being put behind those walls. Prisons can be very scary places.
With the exception of probably only about 50 people, every prisoner in our system is going to be back out in society again, because they haven’t got a whole life sentence. Therefore there has to be a rehabilitative element. We have a stake in trying to get them on the right pathway.
Prisons can be very scary places
And presumably that’s where your job comes in as a prison chaplain?
Yes, rehabilitation is a massive part of it. My job most recently in Bedford prison was to oversee a whole raft of chaplains so that anyone who came into prison with a religious background was able to practise their faith in an appropriate environment – to assist with their rehabilitation.
But we were also there for people of no faith for pastoral care. A prisoner would find that this was possibly the lowest point in their life; where they have messed up big-time, and that’s when they’d ask the big questions.
Christian initiatives such as Alpha are thriving in prisons. The suggestion is that because of the situation they’re in, a lot of prisoners recognise they need forgiveness and a fresh start. Was that your experience with people?
I think you’re absolutely right. Interestingly enough, it was not the younger men who were at that position, it was often men in their early 30s and 40s. At that stage it suddenly hits them: “Here I am, at rock bottom, my partner’s going to leave me, I’ll never see my kids again.”
There are people who say the chaplains just swoop in when someone is vulnerable and whack God on them. But it wasn’t about that. It was about accompanying someone and listening to their story – often a very tragic story. And then begin to talk about forgiveness, hope and healing and how I understand God to be in that.
What hope can you offer someone who is in prison for 20 or 30 years? What’s the difference that God can make in that situation?
The thing I learned very quickly was that there aren’t any easy answers. To turn around and say, “Oh, it’ll all be fine” is pretty meaningless. It’s much better to look at the biblical stories of darkness and struggle.
I was able to – from experience – say to people, “There will be times when it will feel like God’s not there, and it will feel as if the whole world’s against you and you’re just in a big black hole. But hold on.”
When many people hear about horrific crimes being committed, they use words like “evil” and “monster” to describe the perpetrator. What goes through your head when you’re talking with a convicted murderer?
There is a sense of nervousness. But so often, you’d think, “you’re just a normal guy”. And that was sometimes the most surprising thing – that someone who was a human being like you and me, was also capable of terrible things.
We tend to call people like that “monsters” and demonise them because we can’t bear to think that a human being can do those things. But I try to approach them as a human being. While not condoning anything that they might have done, I’ve got to help them find a way forward, because that is the only way you can go. Forward.
Hear the full interview with Sharon GrenhamThompson on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday 4th March 2017 at 4pm. Or listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile
Sharon Grenham-Thompson’s book Jail Bird: The inside story of the Glam Vicar (Lion) is out now