22 December 2023
The Methodist President gives the sermon for the Carol Service at HMP Lindholme
Christmas is a difficult time for those in prison. The separation from loved ones is emphasised by the season and often by guilt. It provides an opportunity for reflection, but, behind bars, the reassuring message of hope and unconditional love offered by Christmas is an essential comfort.
HMP Lindholme is some 10 miles outside of Doncaster in South Yorkshire. A category C prison, it houses over 1000 men with an emphasis on training and resettlement.
A few days before Christmas, the President of the Methodist Conference, Revd Gill Newton, travelled to the prison where she had been invited to give the sermon at this year’s carol service. Both inmates and staff had been invited to attend, with the music provided by the local Salvation Army Band.
The austere setting, with the endless fences and numerous locked gates, were at odds with the warm welcome of the interfaith chapel, complete with a decorated tree, nativity scene and mince pies laid out for after the service. The exercise yard and barbed wire outside the window gave additional emphasis to the meaning of the carols, and to Gill’s words.
In her sermon, Gill considered the shepherds’ role in the Christmas story and what we can learn from this group of normal working people, who found themselves present at such an extraordinary event as the birth of Jesus. “it seemed to me that within the context of a men’s prison it might be helpful to focus on the group of men who were chosen to be the first to receive the joyful news of the birth of Christ. This provided an opportunity to speak about the way in which God chooses ordinary people to be part of the divine story and the way in which God sees all of us as treasure.
“This was the first time I had been inside a prison. I hadn’t known what to expect but I was impressed by the depth of relationships that seemed to be apparent between the members of the chaplaincy team and the prisoners who came to share in the Carol Service, as well as the care that was being offered by prison officers towards the inmates. I was also deeply moved to see some of the prisoners share in the gospel readings and form a choir for the worship.”
Jack Key is the Free Church Chaplin at Lindholme. Part of an interfaith and ecumenical team, he ministers to the inmates and staff. He explained how, despite being in prison, the inmates still keep Christmas. “The prison does brighten up around this time. There are Christmas trees and decorations dotted around. Prisoners look forward to having family come to see them in the pre-arranged visits, and at a time when they’re reminded that they are not with family, these visits are all the more important.
“Hope is certainly an important theme here. Hope for a normal life, hope for their family, hope for a future. Of course, the hope that Christ brings is a strength and anchor for many prisoners. In a challenging environment, the hope that Jesus brings – wrapped in the Christmas message – is a reminder to many prisoners that there is more to life than this. The light of Christ emphasised at Christmas acts as a boost of encouragement that Jesus invites us onto a better path.
“Things like not waking up on Christmas morning to see family and open gifts can be tough, but there are also the small pains like not being able to follow your family traditions, not being able to eat the food you would usually eat, perhaps not visit your church. We expect that their pain during Christmas comes from the large stones dragging them down, but perhaps it’s more like a thousand small pebbles accumulated into one big bag that makes Christmas painful. Each one is a small reminder of what they’ve lost.”
Rob Kellett is the Governor of HMP Lindholme, “We keep a different routine on Christmas Day and treat it as a Bank Holiday, with no work, education or visits. The atmosphere can vary but we know it is a difficult time for most. Christmas in prison is somewhere that nobody, neither prisoners nor the staff, would choose.
“The work of the chaplaincy at Lindholme brings comfort and normality. It is a critical part of prison life given our unique and challenging environment. The hope it brings is vital to encouraging, supporting and guiding people.”
The Revd Gill Newton reinforced the Governor’s words on the importance of hope saying, “The message of hope which is at the heart of all that we anticipate and celebrate at Advent and Christmas is one which brings light and peace into the darkest of days.”