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Sam Hailes meets Britain’s most famous vicar
The Reverend Richard Coles was on sabbatical when the Brexit vote happened. “It’s just as well,” he reflects, describing the outcome as “devastating”. He’s all too aware his political views aren’t shared by his flock: “I’m a typical Guardian-reading vicar in a Daily Mail-reading parish,” he explains. But the way he seeks to understand and be generous towards those with opposing views hasn’t just helped him cope with Brexit. It also seems to have aided his approach to the issue that threatens to split the entire Anglican Communion – homosexuality.
Coles first found fame as part of 1980s pop group The Communards, playing keyboards and saxophone alongside frontman Jimmy Somerville. The duo’s track ‘Don’t leave me this way’ was the UK’s biggest selling single of 1986. The story of how he eventually found his way from the party, sex and drugs scene of 1980s London into the Anglican Church is as eye-opening as it is profound. Part of that story is his sexuality. The pop star turned priest identified himself as gay from a young age, and continued to do so after his conversion, believing God doesn’t have “the least objection” to it. He’s in a civil partnership, but hasn’t spent time publicly objecting to the Church of England’s guidelines which require him – as a gay man – to be celibate. He doesn’t like the rules, calling them a “messy compromise”, but he’s abiding by them. Despite deep disagreements with some of his colleagues in the Church, he’s not going to cause a fuss, an approach that has earned him the respect of many both within and outside his Anglo-Catholic tradition.
It’s hard becoming a pop star; it’s much harder un-becoming a pop star
That’s not to say Coles isn’t passionate about what he believes. When asked, he’s happy to explain why he thinks St Paul was wrong about gay relationships and why the Church should to some degree reflect the values of the mainstream (he elaborates on this in the full interview, to be broadcast on Premier Christian Radio).
But for now this eloquent priest has fascinating stories to tell about how he moved from heady days of substance abuse and huge success as part of a chart-topping band (“the best of times and the worst of times”) to encountering God and becoming a priest. Today, Coles may well be Britain’s most recognisable vicar: he’s a regular on QI, and Have I Got News for You and the co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live.
Given his views on sexuality, and the apparent ease with which he has found a platform in the mainstream media, more conservative Christians might be tempted to write him off as a wishy-washy liberal. But once Coles shares the details of his testimony, it’s impossible not to warm to him. What’s his calling? “To confidently live in the light of the mystery that we preach: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again… Persevere onward; follow the way. It’ll lead you to Calvary, but there’s something beyond Calvary that’s worth heading towards,” he says. That’s hard to argue with.
You’ve been called ‘Britain’s most famous vicar’. Do you think that’s true?
Oh, I don’t know how you measure those things, and I’m not sure I’d want to be…It gets dangerously close, doesn’t it, to ‘celebrity vicar’, which I sometimes get described as; which of course is a reason to immediately resign what you’re doing. There’s a sort of necessary self-effacement in being a minister of Christian religion, I think, and that’s quite hard to sustain when you’re constantly popping up on various things.
I see it more as a missional role, actually. I think if you have an opportunity to access mainstream media and fly the flag for what we believe in and stand for, generally that’s an opportunity to be taken. Although they did ask me to go on Celebrity Big Brother and I thought about that for about two seconds before thinking “no”, there are so many ways that can go wrong.
Did you have any interest in Christian faith as a youngster?
I went to English public school, which had a chapel and a good choir. And very early on I discovered I could sing. So that was my introduction to the mysteries of Christian faith and the even more mysterious mysteries of the Church of England. But as soon as I was capable of thinking, it seemed to me that the content was quite obviously a fairy tale. So my best friend and I started the Wellingborough School Chapel Choir Atheists Club when we were 8, just to annoy the chaplain.
By the time you reached your late teens, things had gone wrong. You ended up taking a drug overdose. What led up to that?
The form of life to which I’d been destined and prepared, failed. My father was a shoe manufacturer who was the son of a shoe manufacturer – big family firm. And that collapsed in the 1970s along with so much else in the manufacturing sector. That world no longer offered a future. And also to realise you were gay in Kettering in 1976 was not something that filled you with anticipation that riotous joy awaited just around the corner. It was a difficult reality to face. The world was hard and intolerant. One of the ways in which you deal with a tough reality is to seek escape from it. But it’s ultimately a very counterproductive thing to do, because you have to live in reality.
Aged 18 you moved down to London – was that another kind of escape?
Totally, yeah. I got run over and for that I got criminal injuries compensation: £2,000, woohoo! So I pierced my ears, bought a saxophone and moved to London. And that was really a sort of rebirth.
How did you get involved in music?
My first professional employment was busking. One man said, “I’ll give you £10 if you stop.” But that was that.
Then I drifted into bands. And around that time Jimmy Somerville, who had also run away to London like me, said, “Well, why don’t you come play saxophone in Bronski Beat?” And I looked at my crowded diary which involved mostly signing on and thought, “Yes, I could probably find time to be in a chart-topping pop band, thank you very much.”
Was it that quick?
It was. People heard it and responded to it straight away. So Bronski Beat made one single which went straight into the top five, and then went off to New York and made an album, which went straight into the top five. There was no sort of preparation. Then Jimmy and I left Bronski Beat and formed a new unit: The Communards.
You’re 22, you don’t really have the necessary skills to cope with the rewards that it brings. Money of that kind chucked at the under-40s is often not a good idea. Everyone thinks you’re marvellous and people tend to say “yes” to you, and doors open. You get used to that very quickly, and that can be quite a corrupting thing. It’s like when people win the lottery, and they say on the news, “Will it change you?” And they say, “Ooh no!” And then they get in a helicopter and fly away.
The Communards had three number one singles in as many years. But then your success came to an end. What was that like?
It’s hard becoming a pop star; it’s much harder un-becoming a pop star. I can remember going to the airport and turning up at the VIP bit going, “Hello”, and they said, “Not any more, mate, you’re in the queue with everybody else.” I remember feeling outraged at this!
You have more money than you know what to do with, you don’t have to work and you think, “Did I just have the best years of my life before I was thirty? What am I going to do?”
The dramatic changes that happened to us in the course of the band’s success also coincided with the impact of the arrival of HIV and AIDS, which was a catastrophe – the best of times and the worst of times. Then of course what you do is, you turn to a nightclub and take ecstasy, and I lost a year of my life in a drugged haze.
You’ve talked before about watching your friends die. What impact did all of this have on you?
It was horrible. It was like a medieval plague that afflicted people. Cough on Tuesday, dead on Friday – diseases which would normally respond to antibiotics but didn’t respond to antibiotics.
You were in a hostile environment in which lots of people thought you were just getting your just deserts. Making pop music about boys loving boys and girls loving girls went lower onto the agenda and we got involved with setting up the London Lighthouse, which was the first dedicated centre for people with AIDS and HIV. And fighting a really important PR battle, which was getting people to see that the victims of HIV were just like them, and not some kind of unpleasant category of people who weren’t fully human.
I went a bit mad; lots of people did. I was convinced I was HIV positive – which in those days was the equivalent of a death sentence. I remember having a fight with Jimmy Somerville and I told him that I was HIV-positive, I think partly just to get him off my back. And he was very sort of sympathetic and kind after that – then I got the result back: it was negative. I had to go and tell people that I wasn’t actually HIV positive. And that was really difficult and tough, particularly when I [was] talking to people who actually were HIV-positive – it pissed a lot of people off. It did cost me. And I think dealing with the shame of that pointed me in the direction of forgiveness, which was what I wanted and needed. And I knew sort of where to get that.
So what did you do?
Rationally I was still utterly opposed to the idea that the Church could be anything other than a kind of malevolent fairy tale. But I did feel myself drawn to it. I went to see someone who was married to a vicar and she pointed me in the direction of a church. And I went in one morning as a spectator and I came out as a participant. Something just happened. It was that Wesleyan moment of “my chains fell off” and the light came in and all of a sudden I knew that that was for me.
It wasn’t at first scripture, sermon or hymns that got to me. It was the sacrament. I was hungry, here was food – it was that simple, and I sat down and I ate and I’ve been eating ever since.
What was it about the message of Christianity that caught your attention?
The fact that no matter what a mess you’d made of your life, there was an opportunity to be made good again, to be picked up and to be understood, forgiven and set right. Realising that beyond the furthest horizon of human suffering and darkness was this new dawn that rose, and all of a sudden a land you could live in and the possibilities of transformation and new life beyond that. I wanted to live my life as best I could in that new dawn.
Was going to King’s College, London and studying theology, you trying to put meat on the bones of the Christian faith you’d rediscovered?
I think it was just trying to get sharper focus. It was a bit hazy and indistinct.
So often I think our failures to engage with Christianity are to do with a lack of attentiveness and concentration on our part. It’s an irony that so many people complain about how difficult it is to pray and that they do it while they do the ironing. If you make an appointment to watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta – believe me, I go there, I know what that’s like – just make half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening to do the most important thing you’ll do, which is to pay attention, to tune into that frequency, and to allow that stuff to begin to take on focus. Easily said, isn’t it, and so difficult to achieve.
Do you feel a sense of duty to represent priests when you’re on TV?
Not so much representing priests, but I do think being faithful to the tradition. I’m always identified on the radio as the Reverend Richard Coles; I always wear a dog collar when I’m doing telly, because I think that’s important that my commitments are visible.
I’m a mission priest, and my mission field is mainstream media, where it’s very difficult for people who make public commitments to faith to get a hearing. We’re increasingly marginal (and there’s actually lots about that I quite like) but we do have a lot to offer, I think. So I try to find a way of raising our voice and hoisting our standard in the mainstream conversation. Full of risks, though – how do you stay faithful to your tradition and at the same adapt yourself to present circumstances? But that’s a problem that missionaries have been dealing with for centuries.
It’s a tough gig, isn’t it? Being a representative of the Christian faith on something like Have I Got News for You. I wouldn’t have the first clue as to how…
It didn’t stop me! You get it wrong all the time…whenever I do, I get vigorous correspondence from people who are only too keen to point out my deficiencies.
It’s great you’re on there. But you’re not there to talk about faith, are you? You’re there to make jokes about the news…
It’s tricky. Have I Got News for You is a bear pit, and we’re called to be doves, not bears. So you try to find a way of engaging with it but at the same time not lapsing into something that’s too disrespectful or dismissive. Although, politicians do often give us easy targets, and I think another job we have as Christians is to call it like we see it and to say difficult things to power.
Every piece of research on religion in the UK seems to suggest that Christianity is a dying breed and church attendance is in freefall. Is that true?
I think there are certain sobering realities which the numbers tend towards, that we have to get to grips with. But I think the opportunity to seize is one in which we have to renegotiate our contract with everybody.
I’ve been a vicar of a parish of extraordinary social deprivation. I’ve been a curate of a very posh London, rich parish. I’m vicar now of a very middle England congregation, and what I’ve discovered is people’s needs are pretty consistent.
What we need to do is encourage people again to bring stuff to us, to make ourselves persuasive. I think that’s often about just confidently living in the light of the mystery that we preach. I think this could be extraordinarily powerful.
Hear the full interview with Rev Richard Coles on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday, 7th January 2017 at 4pm. Or listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile
Rev Richard Coles' latest book Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and chaff from my years as a Priest (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is out now