Prison chaplain 'stood up for the vulnerable and marginalised'

The Revd Jonathan Chambers 1950-2020

August 6 2020The Revd Jonathan Chambers, a long-serving Victorian prison chaplain whose ministry also included parish work in three states, died on 15 May.

Mr Chambers, whose wife Susanne and late father David also have been prominent clergy in Melbourne, was Senior Chaplain in the Criminal Justice Ministry from 2002-12, later serving as Staff Chaplain at Anglicare until 2016.

The Revd Jonathan Chambers, with his wife, the Revd Susanne Chambers, and family.

After studies at Ridley College, he was ordained deacon at St Paul's Cathedral in 1989 and priested the following year. He served in the parish of Willagee/Winthrop in Perth from 1989-90, before spending his first year as a priest at Christ Church South Yarra in 1990-91. He then led Braybrook parish until 1995, when he became Rector of Burnie in Tasmania. In 2000, back in Melbourne, he was Associate Priest in Glenroy/Hadfield.

Archbishop Philip Freier said Mr Chambers was one of the first clerics to qualify as a professional supervisor, “a ministry he continued to provide for the past few years that was of great benefit to many in the Diocese”.

The Revd Susanne Chambers, formerly Vicar of St Paul's Canterbury, said that “in all areas of his ministry, Jonathan stood up for the vulnerable and marginalised”.

Her late husband was the son of Archdeacon Emeritus David Chambers, a former Vicar of St Stephen's Richmond, who died in 2016.

Jonathan Caleb Chambers was born on 20 December 1950 in Richmond, the only child of Audrey and David. He went to school at Brighton Grammar before completing his matriculation at Geelong Grammar, where he boarded. He studied Economics at Monash University and worked for several employers, including the Country Roads Board, as well as completing a Master of Business Administration.

In the last weeks of his life, Mr Chambers was able to witness the wedding of his son from his first marriage, Benjamin.

While studying at Ridley, he met a fellow student, Sue Watson, and they were married on 9 July 1988 and later had two boys, Callum and Nicholas.

In his eulogy for his father, Callum Chambers said he admired his care for the marginalised, notably those in prison.

“I was staggered (and still am) by Dad’s zeal and commitment to fighting just about everyone on the issue of prison reform. Politicians, the media and generally most people disagreed with him (it’s not particularly popular to speak for convicted criminals, but then neither was Jesus), but Dad stuck by those who society would rather forget about. Him getting up in front of some very conservative audiences and sharing his views filled me with pride and adoration. Even more impressive was when he managed to get them to agree with him.”

Mr Chambers' successor as Senior Chaplain with the Anglican Criminal Justice Ministry, the Revd Robert Ferguson, said Mr Chambers' influence was not limited to Anglican circles.

“He is respected and admired by people in other faith groups within the prison chaplaincy world, as well as para-church organisations,” Mr Ferguson said. “He is remembered for his deep sense of the importance or restorative justice; the hope and belief that each person is made in the image of God, and has the potential to rise above our past.

“I believe he was disappointed that he was not able to effect greater systemic change in this area, but anyone who has worked in this challenging space knows how difficult change is. What we need, and had in Jonathan, are advocates for real justice who will maintain their call for change even when it seems no one is listening.”

The Revd Jonathan Chambers with Anglicare Victoria CEO Paul McDonald and Bishop Philip Huggins.

Another prison chaplain, the Revd Heather Toms, said: “Jonathan was the person who supported and encouraged me on my journey into prison chaplaincy. He was authentic, ‘what you saw was what you got’, a person of integrity, compassionate, and one whose wise counsel I valued. If I was struggling, he was there to walk with me and work through any issues I may have and I never felt alone in my ministry, he was a great mentor. I found Jonathan was true to himself and he encouraged me to know myself and take care of myself. I remember him saying, ‘If you are feeling flat and struggling do not go into the prison because you take that with you’...”

The Revd Stephen Delbridge paid tribute to his friend for his “care, insight and love”.

Mr Delbridge, a long-serving hospital chaplain, worked with Mr Chambers as Victorian President and Secretary respectively of Spiritual Care Australia [SCA], the professional association for those in spiritual care practice in health, aged care, palliative care and justice (prisons).

In a tribute written for the organisation, Mr Delbridge wrote that Mr Chambers was remembered with great affection.

“Jonathan presented a workshop with me at a Melbourne Conference titled 'Three Voices, a model for Supervision', which was the Jonathan's first presentation of what became his most important contribution to the understanding and appreciation of Professional Supervision models of reflective learning,” Mr Delbridge wrote. “His Three Voices model took on great power for him as he developed his insights into the theory and practice of professional supervision and I am delighted that I was part of that early work with him.

“Jonathan shared many moments with so many others in SCA and this included offering supervision to several members. They know who they are and appreciate Jonathan for each particular relationship, care, skill and intention that he brought to that relationship.

“We have been blessed by his care, insight and love and a huge gap remains in our lives with Jonathan's passing.”

Mr Chambers' funeral was livestreamed from St John the Divine Croydon on 20 May.