24 April 2015
Prison ministry: core to the Church's commission?
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Tell us how you first became involved with prison ministry?
"Both my parents were alcoholics so I left home at 15, was expelled from school andthen got in trouble with the police. I went to Risley prison for a while – a borstal then now a prison. When I came out I didn't want to get in trouble again and I didn't want to go back to prison, and I eventually joined the army."
Cowley spent the next 16 years in the military, serving in Northern Ireland and Falklands, which included two marriages, two divorces and almost becoming an alcoholic. At the end of his army career he moved to London." A few things happened where God was on the scene, but I didn't know about Him because no one has spoken to me about Him. I went out for dinner with some friends and they mentioned this course called Alpha. I had too many questions that they couldn'tanswer in one go. This chap said: 'Why don't you try one of these Alpha courses?' I thought: 16 years in the army and I've done every course you could possibly think of, I'll try a course on God. Half way through it I got a real shock, really. I met with God. It was probably a shock for both of us – I don't know whether I was looking for Him, or He was looking for me."
After becoming a Christian Cowley gave a testimony at Holy Trinity Brompton, where he did the Alpha Course, and was asked to go into a prison with an HTB staff member. "And I said no. Why on earth would I? But she was very persuasive. I went to Dartmoor prison in between working as a volunteer and there was something in the prison that really struck me. I spoke to some of the men and their stories were horrendous. Mine was nowhere near as bad as theirs, but when I spoke to them I found myself speaking about God and about hope, and they were really interested."
This got him thinking about whether Alpha would work in prisons. In 1997 Holy Trinity Brompton asked him to become a pastor with the aim to develop the Alpha course in the prison system.
How did that lead to the creation of the William Wilberforce Trust?
"I started to get more involved with prisons, visiting and talking to chaplains, asking if they'd take [Alpha] up. At its height it was in about 100 prisons. Today the course is in over half of the UK prisons and more are now starting to run the course. As more men and women came to Christ, we had to get churches lined up [to support prisoners on their release]." They began offering ministries to tackle the issues that a huge proportion of prisoners face. "They're homeless, they're addicted to something, they're in debt, they have mental health issues and they need mentoring. So we started all those different ministries at HTB." But these weren't joined up. "When someone asked me what I did, I just reeled off this sort of shopping list –it sounded a bit odd." A fan of Wilberforce for his "47 years of tenacity" trying to get the slavery bill through, and his ideas about reforming society, Cowley chose to call this group of ministries the William Wilberforce Trust.
Tell us a little bit about what the organisation does today…
"It tries to help people who are caught on the margins of society: rescue people who are caught in crisis, restore their lives by helping them with the courses and organisations we're involved in, and then we try to reintegrate these men and women back into society."
You've worked in prisons a long time – does anything still surprise you when you meet with prisoners today?
"What we do to other human beings. I always think I've heard the worst story that you could possibly hear: emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, but then I hear the next story. I'm constantly surprised at the state we get ourselves in."
So is the Church doing enough to reach those in prisons and ex-offenders?
While there are "loads of fantastic organisations, like Prison Fellowship and Reflex who are doing stuff with young offenders", and other groups working outside prison, there's room for improvement. "What we don't seem to do as a Church in general is pull it all together and work together. I think that's a shame and that's my passion, unity."
Alpha has 7,000 churches signed up to run the Alpha course, but just 650 signed up to work in prisons and with ex-offenders. "Just imagine if we could get those 7,000 to sign up to actively participate in meeting men and women at the gate upon release. We could reduce re offending overnight – we really could."
Matthew 25 forms the basis for the work the Wilberforce Trust does. "It's meant to be at the epicentre of what we do, but sometimes it's at the peripheral. Churches are busy – they're doing lots of good stuff, but I think the lots of the stuff is peripheral, we need to be careful the good we do doesn't stop us from doing the great we can do together. I think the core is supposed to be that Matthew 25 scripture, it's our corporal acts of mercy."