How JONATHAN AITKEN has gone from convict to prison chaplain
22nd December 2018

‘I’ve gone back to jail and found the true meaning of Christmas’: Ex-Cabinet minister and convict JONATHAN AITKEN on the year he became a prison chaplain (and had a secret stroke)

Former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London after being ordained as a Chaplin in June this year

Christmas has never before been such a joyful season in my life. 

Like most people, I have minor worries and grumbles. But the big picture is one of glorious contentment.

Why? Because at the ripe old age of 76 I have a new job, or vocation as it is called in the spiritual world, which I find totally absorbing, fulfilling, challenging and the source of deep happiness.

In June, I was ordained at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Bishop of London. 

For the past six months, I have been working as a prison chaplain at HMP Pentonville and a curate at St Matthew’s Church, Westminster. And there is never a dull moment in either establishment.

At a time when most sensible septuagenarians are putting their feet up, the so-called quiet and contemplative month of Advent has kept me in overdrive. 

I am almost as busy as I was in my previous life as a Cabinet minister.

This month, I have officiated or preached at 11 spiritual events in venues ranging from prisons to cathedrals, schools, churches, charities, business offices, think tanks, retirement homes and government departments. These occasions, many of them carol services, are by no means the preserve of committed Christians.

As I said to a 200-strong gathering of sceptical diplomats in the Locarno Room of the Foreign Office this week: ‘The atmosphere here reminds me of the story of a visiting preacher being warned by a church verger, “You’ll have to speak up! The agnostics in this place are something terrible”.’

Jonathan Aitken walks away from Elmley prison in Kent after serving seven months of an 18-month sentence for perjury and perverting the course of justice

What I have learned this year is that the best moments of a clergyman’s life are not spent trying to convert agnostics, singing hymns or preaching sermons. They are found in the quiet times of private prayer for wounded souls.

When I do my rounds on the wings of HMP Pentonville, sometimes I am greeted with the ‘V’ sign or shouts of ‘Wotcha Father Pie!’ (pie and liquor = vicar in con-speak).

In reply, I play my trump card and say: ‘But I am an ex-prisoner. I have been where you now are.’ Springing that surprise often starts a dialogue with troubled individuals who appreciate a touch of kindness and a prayer for themselves or their families.

Vocations are mysterious. For years, I dismissed suggestions that I might extend my theology studies by exploring the ordained ministry. 

Too old? Too racy a past? Too controversial (no doubt many readers will remembers my travails in the libel courts which saw me end up in the slammer long before I returned with a dog collar on)? Too boring to be marooned with all those cheesy Christians?

Now I wish I had ignored such negatives and gone for ordination years ago — although as the tabloid villain often dubbed the ‘disgraced ex-Cabinet minister’ I might well have been turned down by the C of E selectors. 

The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury and MP Jonathan Aitken pictured in Downing Street in 1994

Yet when the Hound of Heaven — as the Victorian poet Francis Thompson described God — is calling you, the unthinkable becomes the inevitable.

From beyond the grave an English Test cricketer, C.T. Studd, kept prodding me with these lines he wrote in the Twenties to explain why he had switched from playing at Lord’s to serving the Lord as a prison chaplain:

‘Some like to live with the sound

Of Church or Chapel bell;

I want to run a rescue shop,

Within a yard of hell.’

A chaplain’s life can be testing because we do rescue work among the suicide-threateners, the self-harmers, the mentally disturbed and the depressed characters who overcrowd our prisons.

But living ‘within a yard of hell’ is an experience that goes far beyond men in jail. There are many other kinds of prisoners walking free, yet shackled by invisible chains.

They include prisoners of broken relationships, of pain, sadness, sin or fear.

When you wear a dog collar, a surprising number of people on both sides of the jail walls open up to you about their troubles. Being a sympathetic listener is an essential qualification for life as a pastor.

After spending too much of my life talking, I am learning about quiet empathy. And getting better at it, I hope, after a recent experience of being a prisoner of fear myself.

Three months ago, I had a stroke. At the time it was frightening, even though my initial symptoms were not severe. But when you are carted off to the specialist stroke unit of Charing Cross Hospital in an ambulance with its siren blaring and blue lights flashing, listening to the paramedics warning that you could have a second stroke at any time, it gets scary.

Then, as I lay on a trolley in A&E reception for four hours awaiting a bed, with drama erupting around me in the ward and the screen above my head emitting its repetitive bleeps, I really felt afraid.

The ex-Tory minister, pictured above as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1994, was sentenced to 18 months in jail in 1999 after admitting perjury and perverting the course of justice

Imprisoned by such fears, naturally I did a lot of praying. But to my surprise, my principal prayers were not panicky requests for survival or recovery. After a bit of that, I started to feel that whatever lay in store, I wanted to thank God.

So I thanked him for what Englishmen like to call ‘a good innings’: 76 years of interesting life, a happy marriage to Elizabeth, and the inner peace which I find is growing as I serve God as one of his chaplains and curates.

These ‘count your blessings’ prayers liberated me.

Not only did they completely calm me down, they made me feel joyful and grateful. Perhaps they contributed to my medical improvement.

For after a night in the hospital doing the full monty of NHS tests and scans, my results could not have been better.

The previous day’s symptoms of speech slurring and mouth drooping vanished. Blood pressure was normal, as were all my movements and cognitive skills.

As one Filipino nurse genially observed: ‘Mr Aitken, you must have had a stroke in a part of your brain you don’t use very much!’

Whatever happened, my stroke has had zero after-effects. I am back to my usual routine of running four or five miles three times a week in Richmond Park, eating and drinking normally, sleeping well and fizzing with joie de vivre.

I have no intention of slowing down. With so much interesting work to do, I shall continue to follow Kipling’s advice in his poem ‘If’, to ‘fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run’. 

But however well life’s race may run for me, having a stroke is a warning shot across the bows of one’s mortality. So, starting from my dark hours in the A&E wing of the Charing Cross Hospital, I have tried to think and pray more deeply about how best to use life’s unforgiving minutes.

This is work in progress, but so far two new imperatives have entered my soul. They are: Be more grateful, and be more encouraging to others.

Jonathan Aitken in 1994. For the past six months, he has been working as a prison chaplain at HMP Pentonville and a curate at St Matthew’s Church, Westminster

Gratitude to be alive drove out my fears of having another stroke, and drove in some good new habits. Saying words of thanks and appreciation at every possible opportunity during the working day can bring a rich harvest of smiles on the faces of curmudgeonly characters such as grumpy prisoners, predatory traffic wardens, harassed Tube travellers and Brexit-obsessed MPs.

Giving unexpected encouragement is far more rewarding than giving unwanted Christmas presents.

I have discovered a niche in the encouragement business among prison officers. 

They are an under-appreciated lot who get more brickbats than bouquets, but most of them are dedicated, decent and versatile public servants coping with more stressful situations in a day than most of us see in a year.

Here are a couple of stories from this unreported corner of our national life which have given me great joy this year.

A while ago, two Yorkshire prison officers from HMP Leeds came to see me. Blunter than Geoffrey Boycott on a day when England are batting badly, Steve Freer and Val Wawrosz complained about their frustrations as mere jailers.

They said what they really wanted to do was turn their knowledge of prisoners into rehabilitating them and helping them to get second chances outside prison.

After several bottles of wine consumed over further meetings in London and Leeds, the three of us decided to found a charity called Tempus Novo, or New Time.

It has been an amazing success story. This year Tempus Novo has found jobs for 101 young prisoners from Yorkshire jails in the local community, with a 90 per cent success rate of no reoffending.

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Although I am called ‘Honorary President’, all I do is give encouragement to Steve, Val and their team — with remarkable results. They will soon open a London branch of the charity and recognition is coming their way.

My second encouragement story began on my first rather nervous day on duty as a prison chaplain at HMP Pentonville. The Duty Governor, Noel Young, said to me rather gruffly: ‘We’ve met before.’

We had. It turned out that he had been admissions officer at HMP Belmarsh on June 8, 1999, the night I had arrived as a first-night prisoner after being sentenced to 18 months at the Old Bailey, where I’d pleaded guilty to perjury charges. Small world!

After we had a laugh about our shared memories, Noel said: ‘You could be useful at my next appointment.’ He then asked me to talk to 20 new prison officers who filed into his office on their first day on duty.

So I spoke to them about how well a good personal chemistry between officers and prisoners can work, and how much it can contribute to the morale and spirit of a prison. I have now repeated this talk to other groups of new prison officers from Pentonville, and soon from Wandsworth. Encouraging receptive young people as they start their careers is a delightful bonus to my vocation.

I am also looking forward to the next stage of ordination when I move from Deacon to Priest in June. I am training for this now.

Being ‘Priested’ means new responsibilities, which include presiding over communion services, giving blessings, hearing confessions and granting absolution.

What my dog collar has not brought relief from, alas, is a flow of questions — whether from prisoners or party-goers — along the lines of ‘What is going to happen next?’, as if I were still a parliamentarian.

Needless to say, I haven’t a clue and now have a perfect excuse for not having a clue. But I was put on the spot recently by a church questioner asking: ‘What would God want us to do about Brexit?’

Feeling rather like the proverbial fool rushing in where angels fear to tread, I said something like this: God is neither a Remainer nor a Leaver. He sits on a throne high and exalted above today’s political battles. 

Perhaps he might be dismayed that so much of the Brexit debate has been about fear and negativity. He might prefer prayers of gratitude for the 40-plus years of peace and prosperity to which the EU has contributed.

As a final irreverent thought on Brexit, perhaps we should follow the practice in Papal elections of locking away the conclave of cardinals until they vote in a new Pope.

Why not lock away our MPs inside the Palace of Westminster and pray for them, until a puff of white smoke announces Habemus Brexitam Dealam! (We have a Brexit deal!) Have a happy, joyful and prayerful Christmas.

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