Setting Prisoners Free!

Revd Chris Wood

I was fascinated to discover recently that Jonathan Aitken, the former Conservative cabinet minister who served a prison sentence for perjury, is to be ordained and plans to work as an unpaid prison chaplain. If ever there is a modern-day example of 'God working in mysterious ways His wonders to perform' this must surely be one.

Jonathan Aitken certainly knew the high life as through his influence within the Conservative Government, he was on familiar terms with Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Henry Kissinger, not to mention Middle Eastern sheikhs who sought his counsel. His fall from grace was savage, leaving him bankrupt with a loss of his privileged way of life.

He was sentenced to 18 months at the Old Bailey after admitting perjury and perverting the course of justice, following a failed libel claim against the Guardian newspaper. Amazingly, while undertaking his prison sentence, he attended prayer group convened by an Irish burglar, which also included an armed robber, a safe-cracker, a cheque forger, a couple of murderers and a pickpocket!

Through this process of engaging not only with this prayer group but also Biblical reading and reflection, that Jonathan became a Christian, and his life was dramatically turned around, and has had a wonderful impact not only on his own life, but also those to whom he seeks to reach out and support. As he reflected on this dramatic change in fortune, he is quoted as saying: 'I live in a more real world now and am very happy with it'. Indeed he reckons he's now much poorer materially, but richer in the things that are of God.

Naturally, Jonathan has encountered scepticism about his conversion to Christianity, but reckons he no longer gets upset about the 'bucket-fuls of cynicism' that have come his way. Indeed he readily admits that, prior to his time in prison he would have been one the these cynics, saying 'If I'd had a parliamentary colleague who'd got into trouble, gone to jail and come out saying, "I've found God", I'd have said, "Oh, how very convenient for him".'

But since his release, he studied theology and wrote a biography of John Newton, the former slave owner who repented and wrote the ever popular hymn: 'Amazing Grace'. Initially he resisted the thought of ordination, believing that the Church of England wouldn't touch him with a barge pole given his background and reputation, but God's grace is all-sufficient for those who call on His Name, and he was eventually left in no doubt that this is what God was expecting of him. Thus we find him responding to the prompting of God in Christ and soon to be ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church at St. Paul's cathedral.

Graham Tomlin, Bishop of Kensington, said this about him: 'I have known Jonathan Aitken for several years and this is a calling that has grown within him and been tried and tested by many others. His experience of the prison system, both from the inside and the outside, gives him a unique perspective to offer Christian ministry in this vital area of our life as a society. He has a wide life experience, a knowledge of the wider issues in criminal justice and a pastoral understanding of the needs of prisoners that will help strengthen the church's ministry to all'.

Jesus, in His reading from the Prophet Isaiah at the beginning of His ministry made a statement of what His followers should expect: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me; He has sent me to announce Good News to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour' (Luke 4: 18 - 19). It was a reassuring promise that the criminal crucified with Jesus received: 'Truly I tell you: today you will be with Me in Paradise.' (Luke 23: 43).

This is a counter-cultural statement, where God's transforming love reaches out to all people, irrespective of creed, colour or background We should therefore never be surprised in whom God calls to Himself through grace, for Jesus insisted: 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners' (Mark 2: 17). The reality of this truth will always be a challenge in every generation, but especially to those cynics who fail to grasp the enormity of God's grace, mercy, forgiveness and transforming power.

God Bless


July 2018