Jonathan Aitken was ordained last June as a deacon in the Church of England, and was wearing clerical dress when we met, for he had just been addressing the clergy of Guildford about prison ministry.
He was born in 1942 and served as a Conservative MP from February 1974 until May 1997, when he lost his seat. In 1999 he was convicted of perjury and sent to prison for seven months.
The downfall of this gifted, gilded, raffish figure, who had risen into the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury from 1994-95, attracted enormous attention.
He had been involved since boyhood in the worlds of politics and journalism, through his father, Sir William Aitken, a Conservative MP, and more particularly through his uncle, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, at whose table he met Winston Churchill.
The Aitkens are descended from the Reverend William Aitken, a Presbyterian minister in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, and Jonathan has now returned to that calling.
But although this interview starts with the Resurrection, it ends with his view of the way Parliament is dealing with Brexit:
“I would rather be back in a cell in Belmarsh than be in the House of Commons right now. They were much nicer at Belmarsh to one another.”
ConHome: “What is the meaning of Easter?”
Aitken: “Easter is of course the most important, most joyful, most extraordinary event in the whole of the Christian year, far more important than Christmas or anything else.
“And somewhere in a Pauline epistle, Paul says if we don’t believe in the Resurrection our faith is quite useless. That’s a little harsh, because some people still seeking simply can’t believe in a risen Christ instantly, but nevertheless Paul is right, it’s the centrepiece of the entire Christian faith.
“To me, Easter has a personal resonance, it’s a rather good time to talk about it. Because I think we’re all, if we’re fortunate enough and we pray for it, we can have second chances, little resurrections in our lives.
“If I think back 20 years, I was towards the end of a process I sometimes call defeat, divorce, disgrace, bankruptcy and jail, a very good royal flush of crises by anybody’s standards, and I was very unhappy.
“I actually was sentenced in June, but Easter 1999 was a very miserable period, I was sort of in the tomb more or less. And yet the joy of Christ’s love is that no one is beneath the reach of his grace.
“And I am now happier and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been in my life. And it’s nothing to do with me. I give myself zero credit for being a prison chaplain and curate, and above all for being so happy.
“So I think the Easter message is obviously predominantly about the risen Christ and all that flowed from it. But also for each and every one of us it’s gosh, there is a real chance to resurrect my miserable sin-strained life and find a new life in Christ.”
ConHome: “Did you have glimpses of this before? Did you count yourself a Christian during your political life? Or when you were very young and you were ill?”
Aitken: “At the time that I got into trouble, I was at best a half-Christian, which I now know is as valuable probably as being half-pregnant.
“At the time I thought it was perfectly OK to have a nominal, lukewarm kind of half-cock faith, and to politely go along to the odd service, and listen to the teachings of the faith, and not obey them.
“Now despite giving that state of mind a good knocking, it’s not wholly useless, because you don’t completely lose every single one of your navigation points.
“I had actually quite a good schoolboy faith.”
ConHome: “You were confirmed, and all the usual things?”
Aitken: “Yes. I remember dimly school reports [at Eton] about how seriously Aitken had taken his confirmation. But it is true, you remind me of something, I did have a rather strange youth.
“I was a TB patient aged four to seven, in the period before people had discovered antibiotics for TB.
“And TB was more frightening than cancer is today, by a long chalk. People died of TB, especially children. And I was diagnosed in wartime Britain, very late in the day.
“By the time I was diagnosed – I tell some of this in my book Pride and Perjury – I was really a goner. The optimistic diagnosis was that this child may live, but he’ll never walk, because it had gone way into my bones.
“The pessimistic diagnosis was that this child can’t live. My poor parents – my father was a fighter pilot recovering from being shot down in a Spitfire and burnt.
“I had been parked in an ambassadorial residence. It wasn’t called that, but my mother’s father was our man in Dublin during the war. He was called His Majesty the King’s Special Representative.
“So I grew up with red boxes and things. But Ireland was actually one of the TB capitals of the world. There was a lot of it around.
“There was one brilliant surgeon called MacAuley who said, ‘Actually, this child could live and could walk, but the cure is rather drastic. Three years immobilised in a plaster cast.’
“The BBC have a poor man’s Desert Island Discs programme called The House Where I Grew Up, and I said to them, I actually grew up in a TB ward.
“They took me over, two women Guardianista women, who were determined to make me say ‘Oh it was the most terrible, awful, miserable, unhappy time.’
“When I got back to the TB ward, I remembered it in the most scary way, every detail, which is apparently not uncommon in this programme.
“We were wheeled out every day, it didn’t matter if it was snowing, all the children were wheeled out onto the terraces. It was run by a nursing order which has long since vanished I think called The Little Sisters of the Poor.
“In the middle of this, there was an amazing nun, she was a very clever woman, outstanding, she was the Mother Superior, her brother was the editor of The Irish Times, she was a class act as a person and also very spiritual.
“She took fantastic trouble over me, maybe because I was the British ambassador’s grandson. My grandmother, who did not like papists, would come along and say, ‘Have you been made to pray to Old Red Socks?’
“We had a member of the staff at the British embassy who was also designated to keep an eye over my protestantism, who was John Betjeman, who was my grandfather’s press secretary.
“Anyway, I wouldn’t overdo this, but nevertheless, the nun taught me to read on a magic lantern above my head, I can vividly remember her to this day kneeling by my bed and praying.
“Did it have some deep impact on my spiritual life? Who knows?
“Sister Mary Finbar used to say, ‘Oh you’ve been saved for some great purpose.’ I think this is all a bit mystical, probably mumbo-jumbo, but nevertheless, who knows.”
ConHome: “Should we be gloomy about the ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the Sea of Faith?”
Aitken: “Well, we are in a secular, post-Christian age in the western world. There’s no question of that.
“But I actually think the death of Christianity has been hugely exaggerated. It’s very active in all kinds of places.
“Here in London, for example, the number of Christian people who are signing the electoral rolls, going to church, has been rising for about ten years – an extraordinary thing, but it is actually true.
“There are masses of good, vibrant churches. If you just play the numbers game, you have to say we’re in decline, not everywhere, but in rural ministry we’re in bad decline. In London, as it happens, we’re not.
“But does spiritual life go on, and happen quite dramatically? In the prison where I work…”
ConHome: “Which prison?”
Aitken: “Pentonville. But I go to others as well. There’s never a dull moment, for all kinds of reasons. Spiritually there are people who are longing to pray, or get angry with God.
“There’s a real ministry there. I’m rather fond of quoting a verse of doggerel from an English clergyman who was as famous as David Gower or David Sheppard or Joe Root is today, called C.T. Studd.
“He was a great cricketer who played for England and Cambridge and so on. Then he became a vicar, and he was expected – we’re talking the 1880s or something – and C.T. Studd decided to go into prison ministry.
“Then as now, it was way below the salt in ecclesiastical terms. People said, ‘Why are you doing this, Studd? There are plenty of nice vicarages, and preferment.’
“And then he came out with this verse of doggerel:
Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.
“That’s what I do when I go to Pentonville.”
ConHome: “Where can we hear you preach?”
Aitken: “I’m a curate at St Matthew’s, Westminster. I used to be, a long time ago, churchwarden of St Margaret’s, Westminster.”
ConHome: “While you were an MP?”
Aitken: “Yes. I was the parliamentary warden. My deputy parliamentary warden was Enoch Powell. He kept on correcting the Rector for not holding the chasuble in his right hand, or something.
“Anyway, St Matthew’s is smaller and poorer. It’s a good little church, growing, it looks after mainly the Peabody housing estate. I’m preaching on Easter Day for example.”
ConHome: “What’s the state of the Tory Party?
Aitken: “Well I honestly think I would rather be back in a cell in Belmarsh than be in the House of Commons right now. They were much nicer at Belmarsh to one another.
“But no, I watch it with great sadness. We’ve lost our way as a parliamentary nation. Absolutely by chance, Rory Stewart asked me to lunch, I have a great high regard for Rory Stewart, on the day when the first meaningful vote was coming.
“And I went up in the gallery, the first time for years, and I took a great friend of mine, someone called Wafic Said, who founded the Said School of Business.
“And we sat down and we listened to this debate. And one after another, superb speeches. Kenneth Clarke opened. Hilary Benn. There was a Scot Nat who was superb. Dominic Raab was very good. Bill Cash, who can bore for the world, was superb.
“Also they were edging towards one another’s positions. And I thought that what would come out of these debates was what I vividly remember coming out of the devolution debates in ’75.
“Scotland was going to be devolved, and we went all night, regularly, with giants like Enoch and of course people have forgotten somebody called George Cunningham, the member for Islington South, there was Tam Dalyell, there were old buffers like Sir Derek Walker-Smith.
“Out of it all was hammered a compromise on Scottish devolution. I just know the House of Commons of the Seventies would have reached a deal on Brexit. Not this impossible impasse we’ve got today.”
ConHome: “Do you know Theresa May?”
Aitken: “Yes I do a bit. On the day of my ordination, as I was heading off to St Paul’s Cathedral from being buried deep in a silent retreat, some motorcyclist revved up to the silent retreat house. Message from Number Ten: ‘Dear Jonathan…'”
ConHome: “That’s very good.”
Aitken: “Sweet of her. I think it was probably the doing of Jonathan Hellewell, her faith adviser. Not a lot of people are saying nice things about Theresa, but that’s one of them.”