7 min read

Pride: self-obsessed isolation

The Revd Jonathan Aitken has had one of the most high profile and colourful careers in British public life

In the sixth of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Jonathan Aitken identifies Pride as egotism with a capital E and the cause of his own royal flush of crises.
Illustration of skull

The sin of pride takes us into a sea of puzzles. Its choppy waters of contradictions and cross-cultural currents can be difficult to navigate. Is pride the worst sin as learned Christian moralists have sternly proclaimed from Augustine to Aquinas and C.S. Lewis? Or should we applaud many popular forms of 21st century pride? 

Pride drives parents to encourage their children; students to strive for better results, football fans to cheer on their team and soldiers to die for their country. Black Pride and Gay Pride have made millions of previously ostracised people more understood and more accepted, rolling back yesterday’s tides of bigotry and prejudice. 

How can the apparently “good” pride in these modern categories be squared with the condemnation from ancient Greek philosophers and Christian teachers down the ages that hubris or individual pride are not just bad sins but the personification of evil? 

“These are deep waters, Watson!” as Sherlock Holmes might have said to his assistant. But they become easier to fathom if the most toxic element in bad pride is diagnosed. It is egotism with a capital E, perhaps better identified as rampant self-centredness. 

Many walks of life tempt us towards self-centredness, but some professions seem to attract more egotists than others. In this article I will concentrate on those who make their chosen careers in the arena of public life – particularly politics.   

 I now describe my downward spiral of this crash as a descent involving defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy, and jail. 

I can write about this notorious minefield of pride with some inside knowledge because this was where I spent decades of my life “climbing towards the top of the greasy pole” as Disraeli described political ambition.  

It was where I had a spectacular fall from grace, plummeting from rising Cabinet Minister to imprisoned convict. I now describe my downward spiral of this crash as a descent involving defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy, and jail. The ingredients in this royal flush of crises were caused by pride. 

Without recognising the fault line in my personal and political character (a common failing in many prideful people) I was climbing well on Disraeli’s greasy pole in the 1990s.   

I was in my fifth term as an elected Member of Parliament. I had held two portfolios as a Minister of the Crown. One was Minister of State for Defence and the other was the powerful Cabinet post of Chief Secretary for the Treasury. To make my head swell further I was quite frequently being tipped to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and as a potential successor to Prime Minister John Major. 

The political graveyards are littered with the long-forgotten corpses of ex-future Prime Ministers. So, these transitory labels should have made a wise man humble. 

In fact, it did quite the reverse. A combination of what Shakespeare in Hamlet calls ‘the insolence of office’ and in Macbeth ‘vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself’, gave me a surfeit of hubris. Pride is the deadliest of sins, and I was bursting with it. Politically I began to believe that I could walk on water. I took myself far too seriously, especially when I was made the target of a campaign by the Guardian

It does not matter now what the Guardian said in their attacks, because all feelings of resentment about them have long since left me.  Suffice it to say that, in a long series of articles, they made a number of allegations against me, some of which were true, some of which were untrue, and all of which were given a strongly negative spin. In the face of this campaign I was full of prideful anger and went for the journalists’ jugular. I initiated a lawsuit for defamation and announced my libel action in a ferocious television speech which contained the peroration,  

‘I will cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth’.  

These were recklessly insensitive words of pride which came back to haunt me. 

Where was I as a Christian when I was riding high as a politician?   

To put it simply, I called myself a Christian without actually being one. I was strong on the externals. I went to church regularly; I supported Christian causes and was a church warden at St. Margaret’s Westminster – the Parliamentary church. However, I do not think I had understood the simple truth that being a Christian has little to do with external appearances and everything to do with an internal commitment to Christ’s teachings. 

I probably bore a disturbing resemblance to the Pharisee in the Bible’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who go up to the temple to pray. Even if I did not boast about my external piety quite as loudly as the Pharisee did, the humility of the Tax Collector was far removed from me. I was certainly not saying ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’, nor was I doing the will of the Father, especially when it came back to the libel case. In order to win it, I did something that was against the will of the Father: I told a lie. 

It did not seem at that time a terribly important lie, at least in relation to the lies I was accusing others of telling about me. It was a lie about who paid a £900 hotel bill of mine at the Ritz Hotel in Paris while I had been a government minister. I told this lie. I told it on oath in my evidence in court. To my eternal shame, I even got my wife and daughter to back me up with witness statements supporting my lie. But then my opponents ambushed me in the middle of the trial with clear documentary evidence that I had told a lie on oath. My credibility as a witness was shattered. 

I had to withdraw the libel case. And within twenty-four hours my whole life was shattered. The rising Cabinet Minister had impaled himself on his own sword of truth with explosive and apocalyptic consequences. 

I was prosecuted for perjury, pleaded guilty at my trial in the Old Bailey and by June 1999 I was in a prison van heading for HMP Belmarsh to serve an 18-month prison sentence. 

Having proved the truth of the old saying “Pride comes before a fall” I had plenty of time to reflect on how it happened, how it could have been avoided, and how I might prevent this deadly sin from resurfacing in my life.

Compliance has replaced conscience as the arbiter of what is right or wrong. 

One key discovery was that pride had turned me into a self-obsessed loner. Despite an outward carapace of gregariousness and friendliness, I confided in hardly anyone and made myself accountable to no-one. Graham Tomlin hit this nail on the head in his 2007 book The Seven Deadly Sins: And How To Overcome Them when he wrote:  

“Pride is the most isolating of sins………..the ultimate end of pride is loneliness”.   

Once one has recognised and acted upon this wisdom, the chances of recognising and defeating the sin of pride, when it tempts you, are infinitely higher.   

I used to believe in an old line of verse by Rudyard Kipling:  

“Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, 

He travels the fastest who travels alone”.   

Now I think differently. Conquering one’s ego is no easy task. But if you make a determined effort to confide in and make yourself accountable to carefully selected friends, family members, colleagues or prayer partners you will build, with their help, strong defences to the sin of pride. 

A Christian faith can be a powerful bulwark in strengthening these defences. I had never heard of, let alone participated in prayer groups, or had a prayer partner or found a spiritual director until after my fall from grace. 

God has moved in his mysterious ways to bring these friends and protectors into my life to such good effect that I am now a contented priest and prison chaplain. Yet pride can still lurk as a dangerous enemy even among practising Christians. Pastoral ministry and preaching have their pride traps but accountability and self-awareness can help to avoid them. 

If I ever receive a compliment on a sermon, I promptly recall the following story about John Newton the author of Amazing Grace

One day when he had been preaching in his home church of St Mary Woolnoth, in the City of London, an exuberant member of the congregation fell at his feet as he came down the pulpit steps and gushed:  

“What a brilliant sermon Mr Newton!  What a great sermon!”  

John Newton responded:

“Thank you sir!  

The Devil himself told me that a few moments ago”. 

The Devil, as he surveys the 21st century landscape of what used to be called the Seven Deadly Sins, must be rather pleased. These days serious sinning is often equated with minor rule breaking. If you can get away with it, you will not be seen by contemporary society as a sinner. Compliance has replaced conscience as the arbiter of what is right or wrong. 

Yet pride remains stubbornly out there on its own as a different and deeper category of sin. 

Don’t worry about the distinction between “good” and “bad” pride. They are easy to separate because the former are non-egotistical while the latter are toxically absorbed with the self. The French language helpfully has two different words - fiertè and orgueil to make the division clear. 

Orgueil or self-centred, self-absorbed pride is what C.S. Lewis rightly identified as “the great sin……….the upmost evil……….the complete anti-God state of mind” 

Perhaps it takes a poacher who has been caught in this sin to recognise the magnitude of its destructiveness on all other relationship and on one’s personal character and soul. Turning gamekeeper in order to defeat pride means spiritual discipline, accountability and prayer. Even so, the struggle against pride will always continue. 


1 min read

Parliament’s floor tiles that empowered a queen

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

From Palace of Westminster floor tiles fit for a Queen to feminist theology, Belle Tindall takes a thought journey.
A grand highly dercorated hall in the neo-gothic style, with encaustic tiles in the foreground.
The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament.
Houses of Parliament 360° virtual tour.

Engraved into the floor tiles of Westminster’s Royal Gallery are the words Cor Reginae in Manu Domini, which is the Latin script from the biblical book of Proverbs. However, there is one salient difference, one which has caught both my attention and imagination. In English, the original Proverb reads, 

‘in the Lord’s hand is the king’s heart’ 

But what is written on the floor of the Royal Gallery is, 

‘the Queen’s heart is in the hand of the Lord’  

Right there, on the floor of the Palace of Westminster, is a little piece of feminist theology. 

In a parliament that was the apogee of Victorian values and sentiment, the political and cultural epicentre of an Age that was (ironically) remembered in reference to a woman but was nevertheless pontificated on laws that treated women as chattels, these tiles were theological dynamite (as opposed to literal dynamite – that was a century or two earlier).  

Female empowerment was present below the feet, if not within the hearts and minds, of the men who oversaw an era of undeniable and near-absolute patriarchy.   

Feminism: A little context 

Feminism is not an easy concept to define. It isn’t black and white, however much we wish that it were. In truth, it more accurately resembles the entirety of the grey scale. It cannot claim to be singular any more than the female experience is singular. In reality, it is brimming with nuance, complexity, and subjectivity. What’s more, I would confidently wage a bet that you have arrived at this article with an already in-tact pre-conception of the term. None of us approach feminism neutrally, be weary of anyone who claims to do so – it is simply impossible. Therefore, we are not only faced with the endless external nuances of feminism, but we’re also tasked with sifting through our differing internal understandings. Like I say, it’s about as definable as the shade of grey.  

Nevertheless, for the sake of being on the same page, allow me a moment to try. A moment to (briefly) unpack what I mean by the term feminism. For that, I will borrow the words of award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who influentially declared that feminism is the belief in ‘the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’  

That’s it.  

To me, feminism is nothing more, and certainly nothing less than that. Of course, as a self-proclaimed feminist, it’s necessary for me to plunge the dark depths of the subjective nature of such a belief. But it is more important to ensure that I continually come back up to the surface for a deep breath of air, and I consider Chimamanda’s over-arching definition to be that air.  

With Chimamanda’s words filling our lungs, let us dive beneath the surface for a moment.  

Feminism has, and still does, get worked out in the most tangible of ways: through marches on the streets, protests outside government buildings, petitions, boycotts, legal battles and demands. All of which is advocating for the empowerment of women, the restoring of an equilibrium, and the ensuring of that all-important equality of the sexes. 

As well as the macro-examples that adorn the history books and media outlets, we must also acknowledge the micro-battles; the thousands upon thousands of non-news-worthy conversations, changes, and decisions that nudge the individuals and communities involved toward the very same goal of equality. Afterall, feminism is as personal as it is political. And all of these actions, past and present, whether they be macro or micro in scale, are (often imperfectly) working toward the practical, tangible, measurable flourishing of women and therefore society.  

And so, with all of that practical work going on – with the many battles won and the many more that are raging on - why on earth would we need something as abstract, as contemplative, as time-swallowingly-indulgent as feminist theology?  

I’m glad you asked.  

Feminist theology as an imaginative endeavour  

By way of an answer, I’d like to return to those words on the floor of the Palace of Westminster. Victoria was the Queen. She wore the crown, she sat on the throne, she lived in the palace, she presided over the government, she ruled over the country. All the evidence was there; it would have taken a rather large dose of delusion for anyone to have questioned it. And yet, according to the existence of those floor tiles, the tangible evidence wasn’t quite enough.  

Queen Victoria’s right to be such was ultimately held by the divine. So much so, that the intangible was made tangible, literally carved into the ground that she (and others) would walk upon. And therein lies the need for feminist theology.  

Whether one considers themselves to be Christian or not – or even religious, for that matter – we all have ‘imaginative landscapes’. Not ‘imaginative’ as in fantasy, but rather, ‘imaginative’ as in our landscapes of thought. These are the interior places where we attach meaning to our experiences, and therefore judge the significance of every waking moment. As Francis Spufford so eloquently puts it,

"we are meaning-making creatures. We cannot stop making enchantments.' 

This is also the realm in which we wonder about the existence of God, the mysteries of our universe, and the significance of ourselves.  

And so, it’s in those places, as well as the practical, that work is being done toward the equality of the sexes. It’s in those places that we must grapple with the inherent value of women. Because, in many ways, those are the truest places. Those are the places where reality is crafted, ordered, and understood. It is in those places where truth is sought, viewpoints are galvanised, and actions are decided upon. Feminist Theologian, Serene Jones, writes it this way, 

‘Closely tied to the view of practical transformation is feminist theology's contention that changing society requires both changing laws and practices and challenging the categories and processes we use to think about life and to make sense of our world.’ 

In short, feminism has work to do in both the seen and the unseen. Feminist theology, therefore, is an imaginative endeavour. Which makes it a profoundly important one.  

It is the work of digging into biblical texts with an un-denied bias, a particular mission, a sole question that needs answering. We do so in order to uncover what the maker thinks of the made (the maker being God, the made being women), and from there do all other feminist inclinations flow. We find evidence of the empowerment of women in the divine agenda, so it naturally gets included in ours. We spot profound equality of the sexes present in the original blueprint of a flourishing earth, and so we work in partnership with it. We find validation of female worth, value and power in the pages of the Bible, and then work about writing it into the pages of the history books. And on it goes. We get things straight in our imaginative landscapes, and then we get them straight everywhere else.  

Did the fact that Queen Vicotria walked upon those affirming floor tiles eradicate any possibility of sexism or misogyny? I doubt it. But I like to think that it was a profound start-line, a radical piece of feminist theology that we are still running to catch up with. 

You may be thinking that this is interesting, albeit utterly irrelevant. Because we now live in a secular society, one where we don’t need any kind of God to legitimate the way we perceive anything – least of all ourselves. This is not the good old Victorian era, after all.  

And to such arguments, I may be tempted to direct you toward the work of Nick Spencer or Tom Holland and suggest that we’re not quite as secular in our values as we first appear. Or perhaps I could point you to the discography of Nick Cave, Lauryn Hill, Paul Simon or Stormzy and question whether our craving for something truer than what we can see is a craving we’ve truly progressed beyond? Or even bring to your attention the fact that the Barbie Movie is the highest grossing film of the year (you didn’t really expect me to not mention that film in an article about feminism, did you?), and argue that we’re obsessed with wondering what we’re for, what makes us who we are, what generates our value. It is an itch we cannot stop scratching.  

I could point to all those things. But oddly, I don’t feel the need to. Because I think you know, as do I, that our imaginative landscape is there, and it matters. We know it, we engage it, we feel it. 

And that’s why feminist theology matters. At least, to me.  

Gosh. All those thoughts from a few floor tiles. Maybe I need to get out more.  



All insights into the Palace of Westminster are curtesy of Richard Hall; architectural historian and author of The Palace of Westminster: Faith, Art, and Architecture: an illustrated guidebook that uncovers the Christian legacy that underpins the visual culture of the Palace of Westminster.