I had spent 24 years in frontline politics when I made, to put it politely, a foolish mistake that revealed all kinds of flaws in my character and behaviour.
I told a lie about who had paid a hotel bill in the Ritz. It was my hotel bill and I didn’t want journalists to find out, when they were on the trail, that it had actually been paid by a friend of mine, who is an Arab businessman.
And so I said: “My wife has paid the bill”. And this foolish lie got me into deeper and deeper trouble; I repeated the lie under oath in court. And when my world fell apart there was a great cry that I should be prosecuted for perjury – which is perfectly fair. And so I was, and I pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to charges of perjury and was given 18 months’ imprisonment.
God had been whispering to me for some time before I went to prison and there’s an old Christian saying that if you don’t listen to God’s whispers, one day you’ll have to listen to God’s shouts. And perhaps if you’re a rather arrogant, fairly successful person like I was, you sometimes have to get a great big divine kick up the backside before you move.
For me it wasn’t a simple journey to faith. There wasn’t one moment when I said: “Hallelujah, I’m converted.” With me it was much more of a difficult, painful journey of stumbling, falling, sinning, backsliding, but all the while gathering momentum.
All sorts of people helped me to gather momentum – pastors, friends, I went on an Alpha course (all of that was before prison). But while in prison, there were two or three special big changes.
Firstly, to my surprise, I found that cells – as monks have found down the centuries – are a very good place to pray in. All that solitude, all that calmness – there’s noise outside your cell door, of course – but in the cell there was peace, and tranquillity and stillness, and I was able to think, and pray and read the Bible quite deeply.
I was there for 211 days – I counted them all. Every day I did far more praying, and thinking and Bible reading than ever before, because of the luxury of all the extra time.
Secondly, improbable people very often lead other people to God, and I got into, by coincidence, a prison prayer group consisting of some of the most unlikely characters I’ve ever met or am ever likely to meet again.
The leader of the group was an armed robber, another guy was ‘the big dipper of Brixton’ – he was a specialist pickpocket, another man opened safes for a living, there were a couple of ‘lifers’ and a couple more burglars. It gave a new meaning to the Christian term ‘cell group’!
Only God could have got the group together. But there’s something about the body of Christ in action. I still see the leader of the group Paddy - he and I remain good friends. I’m the godfather to his daughter.
I often say to people that coming out of prison is harder than going into prison because you’ve really lost all your moorings, you’re not sure who your friends are and whether you’re going to get a job.
I solved that problem in a rather unusual way. I sometimes joke that I went to the one institution in Britain that had worse food than a prison and worse plumbing than a prison. This was a distinguished Anglican theological college called Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. I became a full-time residential student there for over two years and took the exams in theology – that was a real turning point in my journey.
I’ve had bucketfulls of cynicism poured over my head and at first I was slightly upset by this – that a good many people, especially in the media, would not believe that I might genuinely be a Christian. But as the years have rolled by, I’ve become more sympathetic to the cynics because, if I ponder what I may have been like if I’d heard a story of a parliamentary colleague getting into an embarrassing situation, being sent to prison and coming out saying: “I’ve found God and it’s all alright”, I’d probably have thought the same.
I’ve learned an awful amount about forgiveness. The Christian faith is about loving your neighbour, loving God and then forgiveness. We have a forgiving God and I am constantly grateful for having been forgiven for some pretty rackety life choices and bad works.
I think it’s a great joy that God and the Anglican Church is willing to forgive a wretch like me, a sinner like me, and are willing to ordain me.
Return to prison
God’s call is always mysterious and not easily explained. I have been going into prisons doing voluntary chaplaincy work for 15 years so it’s a world I know quite well, but I really hadn’t thought much about entering the ordained ministry.
But about a year ago, mysteriously, insistent signals in my prayer life seemed to be saying: “You should think about this.” My immediate thought was: “Please God, don’t say that.”
I felt there were pretty good practical objections – I wondered whether anyone would be willing to ordain me (but that didn’t bother me too much, I was willing to try), and more importantly, I’m quite old for this world – I’m 75 years old and that’s a late age to be starting a new career, a new Christian ministry.
But I realised that only an ordained priest – which I will not be until next year - can give a blessing, can hear a confession and give absolution. So there are a whole range of duties a priest can perform much better with the authority of ordination. Finally, I was just moved to do it and so, here I am!
Jonathan Aitken is a former Conservative MP and Cabinet minister. He was speaking to Rosie Wright and John Pantry on Premier Christian Radio