A former Cabinet minister who spent 211 days in prison for perjury was ordained a deacon June 30 and intends to work in prison ministry.

Jonathan Aitken was jailed in 1999 for lying under oath in a libel case against The Guardian. He sued the newspaper when it said he allowed members of the Saudi royal family to pay his £1,000 hotel bill at the Paris Ritz in September 1993.

He had vowed to “cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play.” These words came back to haunt him.

Aitken, 75, says he is a reluctant ordinand. Soon after release from prison, he studied theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, but he resisted ordination because he “wouldn’t like to give dog collars a bad name.”

In fact, the Diocese of London has bent its usual rules because Aitken is well above the usual ordination age.

For many years he worked voluntarily in prison ministry, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, through Prison Fellowship. He has visited 30 U.K. prisons.

Aitken was brought up in formal Christianity but “practiced imperfectly.” His faith came alive while he was imprisoned, and he led a prayer group that included an Irish burglar.

Several former inmates, current politicians, and family members were among 220 people who attended an ordination party in the Grand Hall of London’s Old Bailey court. In 1999 he was led from the Old Bailey in handcuffs to begin his prison sentence.

He says his inspiration to take up prison work grew partly from his experience and partly through missionary C.T. Studd’s verse: “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”

Preaching on Sunday at St. Matthew’s Westminster, where he has been a regular worshiper from the time of his release from prison, he said: “I was trapped in a self-inflicted downward spiral of disasters, which I have described as disgrace, defeat, divorce, bankruptcy and jail. I was clinging by my fingertips to faith and occasionally to life itself. But the love and shared faith I found here helped me to steer through the encircling gloom.

“When a chaplain goes into prison on a Monday morning, the first thing they say is, ‘Here are the reports from the wings: self-harming, suicide attempts, assaults, bereavements, Dear John letters.’ Often these people want to see the chaplain. So the main thing you do is pastoral work. Being a good listener is important, and that’s something I’m learning.

“I have no idea if I’ll be a good chaplain, but I’ll try. One thing I say to people when I give talks in prisons is, ‘I have been where you are now.’ I think that helps.”

John Martin

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