The Revd Sharon Grenham-Thompson talks to Sarah Meyrick about her journey to prison chaplaincy and on to parish ministry.
The day we meet, Storm Doris is raging, and a cup of coffee with the Revd Sharon Grenham-Thompson provides a welcome oasis of calm as the wind howls. Sharon has been in post as team vicar of the Watling Valley since March last year, but before that she was a prison chaplain for almost 12 years. Towards the end of her time in office at HMP Bedford, she took three months’ unpaid leave in order to write her book, Jail Bird: The Inside Story of the Glam Vicar.
“I’ve always loved writing,” she says. “Through my involvement in prison work I’d become passionate about the difficulties prisoners and ex-prisoners face. Three years ago, a book was sent for review to prison chaplains and I thought ‘I could write that…’ So I rang up the publisher and said ‘Would you be interested in my story?’”
Not only has Sharon survived the distinctly unglamorous world of prison, but she has fought more personal battles than many. Her upbringing was abusive, and behind her ordered life today lie two failed marriages, a battle with depression and a suicide attempt. In the book she writes frankly about her own experiences, and shows how she takes this into her ministry.
“I’m not learned, and I don’t have the answers, but I do have my reflections, pieced together from my own long and winding road,” she writes. “I’ve always been someone who didn’t quite fit, and in jail, ironically, I seem finally to have found where I belong.”
Sharon’s parents split up when she was nine, and her mother remarried, not happily. Aged 14, she discovered that the man she had always called “Dad” was not her father. She went to university to study law, but describes her behaviour there as “ill advised”. “I lived the whole adolescent rebellion thing in the space of three years,” she writes. Nonetheless, it was while at university that she found faith. She describes attending a healing service, and feeling an invisible hand pushing her forwards onto her knees. “I was aware of a rushing in of warmth and light and at some deep level I knew … it was a spiritual experience,” she says.
The healing service was the start of a new chapter. Sharon and her boyfriend were very involved in their church. They got married, and had two children. Sharon’s husband started to train for ordination, and she too went forward for selection. However, by the time she was accepted for training, her marriage was in difficulties. Just before she was ordained, they split up. Sharon had a breakdown, and was very ill for a year and a half. She spent several months in a psychiatric hospital and was even sectioned for her own protection. The jolt out of the mire came when her ex-husband filed for custody. It was enough to propel Sharon towards recovery. She’s been open about her depression, and in 2010 made a programme for Radio 4 for World Mental Health Day.
“We had such a positive response. It was just at the point that public figures were beginning to come out about depression. There are so many people with depression in prison, all struggling with a sense of shame. That seems so wrong. In fact, the sense of being broken and despairing and coming out of that difficulty a quieter but a stronger person is a wonderful experience of resurrection. I can’t help but see God woven through that.”
Recovery led to a job in a new church, and an accidental break into voice-over work and broadcasting. Sharon became a regular contributor to BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought. (Chris Evans, Radio 2’s Breakfast Show host, wrote a glowing foreword to her book.) She has also led Sunday Worship and the Daily Service on BBC Radio 4.
“I adore radio broadcasting. It’s one of these things I believe I was made for,” she says. “To be able to use the medium of radio to communicate my faith in a way that is relevant is a huge privilege.”
Sharon soon remarried. Her new husband was also a vicar, recently divorced, and the relationship was “a colossal mistake”. When they moved so that he could take up a new job, she assumed she would be able to find a parish nearby. This proved impossible, to her frustration. Hence her move into prison ministry. “I applied for a prison job almost as an afterthought,” she says. “It proved to be the best thing I could have done.”
Sadly, Sharon’s second marriage also foundered. She finally faced the demons that had followed her all her life. She has found happiness with Richard, a fellow prison chaplain and long-standing friend and colleague. And she has left her prison ministry for a parish appointment. “I submitted the book two weeks before Christmas, and then the job advert appeared. It was one of those weird things: I said to my husband out of the blue ‘I’m going to apply for that.’” By the time she returned to work in January, she was in a position to hand in her notice.
The move out of prison ministry has been a surprise. “But it felt completely right. As I’ve said to people here, once or twice I’ve found myself thinking ‘What have I done?’ The last time I was in parish ministry was 12 or 13 years ago, so things have changed and I need to polish up my skills. I put my heart and soul into prison. I’ve had to rebuild my identity.”
There are obvious differences in parish life. “The prison world is robust. It’s task-orientated, and also hierarchical. It’s straight talking. There’s not a lot of time and not lots of committees. You have to make quick decisions and act upon them in a short space of time. That’s not necessarily the culture within the Church.”
Meanwhile, she hopes her book has helped raise awareness of the reality of prison life.
“I wanted to show the secular world that the Church can talk about difficult things. We’re not all goody-goodies with perfect lives.”
Sharon is the Lead Minister at St Mary’s Church, in the Watling Valley Partnership. She lives in Cranfield with her husband Richard and children Leo and Maddie. Her book Jail Bird (£9.99) is published by Lion Hudson.
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20TH MARCH 2017