#whitefeather diaries

Worship in prison

Friday 4 March 2016

John's negative experience of the prison chaplain was not unusual. While a few COs found chaplains who were sympathetic or at least respectful, others found them positively insulting. Will Chamberlain, a journalist and conscientious objector imprisoned in Winchester gaol, described his first experience of a service in the prison chapel in 1916. This is an abridged version.

We are seated at intervals of about thirty inches, and from remarks hurled at us by a warder, we gather that we have to sit quite still, with our eyes looking straight in front; and departure from this instruction would bring dire penalties upon us. We contrive, however, by various devices, to take in a general view of our environment.

The chapel is severely plain in every detail, and is rendered more so by the hideous dress of its congregation. The altar has nothing beautiful about it; even the few flowers placed on either side of the crucifix are drooping their heads as if conscious of their incongruity. The only touch of colour in the building is the blue uniforms and bright buttons of the warders, who are seated on elevated stools at various points.

Presently, the organ begins to breathe soft, restful music, and we begin to appreciate the service. We stand as the chaplain enters, and everyone then kneels for silent prayer – except the warders, who remain seated. We dig our knees into the back of the comrade in front of us. He nods his head so violently that we begin to tremble for him; but nothing happens.

Another hymn, and at its conclusion we find the chaplain in the pulpit. He is a good-natured, bluff, elderly gentleman, with a very homely style. His logic was quite unique at times; but, on the whole. We remember one gem, obviously addressed to us: “Do as Christ bids you; never mind your conscience!” We tried to probe into the depths of this injunction, but had to give it up.

The sermon over, we sing the last hymn. The benediction is pronounced, and the chaplain leaves the chapel. We remain seated. The Governor mounts the steps of the desk from which the lessons are read, unfolds the Weekly Dispatch and gives a resume of the previous week's war news. He is thankful to say that the German losses are terrible; our losses are also heavy; we must carry on to the last man – and so on in correct retired-Major style. The chaplain has returned to listen to the Governor, and nods his head approvingly.

The Governor concludes his recital, and we are ordered to stand and sing the National Anthem. We hesitate about standing, but remember that at our own request we have been granted special permission to attend chapel. We stand and fold our arms instead of standing at 'attention' and keep our lips tightly closed, so that we cannot even be suspected of singing! One verse is apparently considered sufficient for the salvation of His Majesty. We resume our seats. The bell twangs to indicate the conclusion of the proceedings.

Each row remains seated until the row immediately behind has left. We march out along the corridor, down the stairs, back to our cell, and shut the door. So ends the most remarkable religious service we have ever attended.

Source: The Tribunal, 21 September 1916.

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