Heavenly host: Caspar Melville interviews Rev Richard Coles
Former popstar, BBC presenter and parish priest Reverend Richard Coles talks to Caspar Melville about faith, doubt and dachsunds
Britain may have fallen out of love with Anglicanism but it retains a soft spot for vicars. Though it’s been off the screens for four years The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French as the eponymous lady cleric, remains one of the most popular comedy series ever and this month sees the return to BBC 2 of the award-winning sitcom Rev, starring Tom Hollander as the put-upon Reverend Adam Smallbone, vicar of the “socially disunited” East London parish of St Saviour in the Marshes. There is a third media vicar, who can be found gracing the airwaves of Radio 4 on a Saturday morning, as well as lounging on review-show sofas and fronting radio and TV documentaries on subjects from the history of homosexuality to religion in the movies. This one is the Vicar of Finedon, the Reverend Richard Coles. Like Hollander and French, Coles is an entertainer and media veteran – for a brief period in the 1980s he was a bona fide celebrity, as one half of the electro-pop combo The Communards. But unlike them he is a real vicar, and if you found yourself in Finedon, Northamptonshire, on a Sunday morning, and made your way to the grand 14th-century church, you would see the Reverend Coles in the pulpit, preaching the word of God.
But what is a former popstar and, judging by his widely admired radio shows, an intelligent and worldly man, as well as a man in a long-term gay relationship, doing as a priest? I set off to Finedon to find out.
Coles met me at Wellingborough Station in regulation Rev gear – white collar, black cardi, newish but unostentatious economy hatchback. On the two-mile drive to Finedon, a historic town in the Peterborough diocese, full of lovely buildings hewn from the reddish local ironstone, I comment on the sign for The Bell Inn, which has “1042” written on it. This establishment, he informs me, claims to be the oldest licensed pub in the country. “The tourists love it. Of course,” he adds, “it’s all bollocks.” Religious or not, it’s always a thrill to hear a vicar swear, don’t you think? This was merely a hint of the pleasing anomalies, paradoxes and schoolboyish naughtiness that come with an afternoon spent with Reverend Coles (just to put you in the same mood as I was in, I should tell you that the article I read about Coles on the train revealed that while in The Communards his gay codename was Elsie Bitchface. I never actually addressed him as “Elsie”, but the temptation was a constant companion in what followed).
It’s been a good year for Coles so far. This spring he landed two fabulous gigs: on 12 April he took over as parish priest of Finedon, where he presides over a splendid church with a healthy congregation – he tells me his Sunday numbers are well into the hundreds – close to where he grew up; and in the same week he was confirmed as the successor to Fi Glover as full-time presenter of Radio 4’s ordinary people chat show, Saturday Live, as job at which by common consent he excels (one reviewer described his voice as “the definition of mellifluous”). But if, as it appears, he is somewhat contented now, snug in his spacious grace-and-favour vicarage with his two pampered dachsunds Daisy Mu-Mu and Willy Pongo, what led him here was spiritual anguish.
Coles has been an ordained minister since 2001, so he has had ample opportunity to tell his story to the media. Wary of boring him, I asked for a swift recap of his road to the vicarage. It went something like this: in the mid-1980s Coles was a successful pop musician, playing keyboards behind the charismatic frontman Jimmy Somerville in The Communards, whose biggest hit was a reworking of Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, number one for four weeks in 1986. Coles was rich, sort of famous, out and proud, and living a life of glamorous excess. “I was very fond of ecstasy,” he tells me, something I have no reason to doubt since, sometime in the late 1980s, I saw him on the dancefloor at a South London rave and can confirm that he was in a state that at the time would have been described as “off his tits”.
It couldn’t last, and didn’t. The Communards broke up in 1988. The life of drugs and parties palled, and the AIDS epidemic hit the London gay scene, hard. Coles watched as one friend after another succumbed. He was assailed by religious thoughts, so out of keeping with his leftie atheism that he felt he was going mad and sought the help of a therapist. The therapist recommended he try a priest. The Anglican Church, within which Coles had been raised – he was an enthusiastic choirboy – began to reassert itself in him. In York, he went alone to evensong at the Minster. In the gift shop on the way out he bought himself a silver cross, and with this small gesture he realised that his involvement with religion had now clicked on “from spectating to participation”. A degree in theology followed, and then the collar and all that goes with it.
So, given that he’d spent a large portion of his young life in churches, was it a kind of a homecoming? Not a bit of it. “I think I was looking for something that would give me peace and structure,” he tells me, once we settle in his study with the inevitable cup of tea, “but what I found was not what I expected. I found myself on the edge of a new land. I walked into something that was a huge surprise.” Part of the surprise was that he found himself accepting arguments he had given up years before. “I was a chorister but I became an atheist at eight. I even tried to start an atheist club. I threw myself into the singing, but if I was sitting in the pews I would refuse to bow my head in prayer.” He seems rather delighted to point out that he has this in common with Richard Dawkins, who went to school nearby and also refused to bow his head at prayer. But his rejection of religion was not in any way angry or confrontational. It was, as befits a cerebral chap like Coles, intellectual – “I always felt at home in a church, liked the music, liked the people, I found it a congenial world to live in. But it was an atmosphere to breathe rather than a system to subscribe to. I was certain that the transcendent claims of religion were completely nonsensical, I couldn’t understand how anyone could fall for that for a second.”
So if religion’s transcendental claims seemed implausible to your eight-year-old self … He interrupts: “They still do, even more so.” But hang on, you’re a vicar, how can you do what you do if you don’t believe the claims your religion makes? “I say implausible because, like most people of my age, I acquired ways of making judgements about that world that are post-Enlightenment. So at the same time as inheriting the Christian tradition I also inherited the Enlightenment and what happened afterwards – a way of thinking that we imagine gives us reliable information about the world. I’m very happy about that. I’m very happy to take on board evolution as an account of human origins that is infinitely more persuasive than a literal reading of the book of Genesis.”
At New Humanist we sometimes joke that we are only slightly more religious than Anglican vicars, so I guess I expected this, but still I feel flummoxed. I ask him to be absolutely clear (he snorts rather at this, as if absolute clarity were some kind of naive dream that he shared but had long since given up). When you read to your congregation, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”, do you think this is literally the case, or are you saying it to them but not believing it yourself? “I don’t think the earth was created in six days and on the seventh day God rested,” he says. “I don’t think that my first ancestors were Adam and Eve walking around getting up to stuff in a garden. But I do think those stories tell us profound things. I would maintain that faith also gives you reliable information about the world, but in a different way. The book of Genesis tells you real stuff, not about the origins of the universe, but about what it is to be human.”
It’s all spoken in elegant unrushed sentences, like this. It’s undoubtedly mellifluous. But still I didn’t quite get it, how a man so evidently intelligent could now believe, perhaps not all, but even some of what the Church preaches.
I try one of the atheist’s core objections to every religion: out of all the hundreds and thousands of gods that have been created over human history, I ask, why do you think your version – something that happened only 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem – is right and the others wrong? He probably expected this one, and he meets it with a three-pronged answer that echoes the three planks of Anglicanism (as patiently explained to me by his partner David, over lunch): tradition, reason and scripture. “The first thing to say is I think this because this is where I was born, into this tradition at a certain time. The second thing to say is just because it’s unlikely doesn’t mean that it’s untrue.” Lastly we get to the essence of his faith, a relationship with Jesus Christ in all its intangibility: “The other thing is the more I get to tune myself into the reality of God through Jesus Christ, the more it makes an exclusive claim on me.”
I have never really had the chance to probe a vicar on their beliefs, especially one I’ve shared a rave dancefloor with, so I want go a little deeper. What had brought him back from his atheism, which had been as hardline as that of any New Atheist? “I never left it completely behind. I maintained a critical relationship with religion. I wouldn’t argue that Dawkins and Hitchens are crypto-believers, far from it, but it interests me that religion continues to hold a fascination for them, even if it is an appalled fascination. That tells you something about religion’s persistence, endurance. When I read Hitchens’s God Is Not Great – which I found good in parts – I liked his passion, but there is something so angry and disappointed in that literature, and you think, ‘Why do you care so much?’, and then I think it must be because of the way followers of Jesus Christ fail so lamentably to follow what Jesus preached.”
And does he think they, we, are wrong to be disappointed? “No, I feel the same way, more keenly every day, because my own shortcomings in that field are vividly inescapable. The difference is that I now recognise that we are imperfect people called to perfection, and that everything that is valuable about the Christian faith is lived out in the gap between those two things. It’s about figuring out who you are in the light of that, and for me I couldn’t live without it.”
If that sounds like a tough place to be, it’s meant to. “It is tough. Herbert McCabe says the message of the cross is: ‘If you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do love you’ll be killed.’ That is not a comforting creed, and he’s dead right. Christ is a tricky sort of inspiration, he is so enigmatic. You have to shut up and tune in to the mysterious frequency and abandon the pretentions of the self.” But, I ask him, do you also abandon the pretentions of reason? “Good question. I hope not, though there is a long history of stupidity in Christianity – the holy fool, the foolishness of the cross. It is deeply, deeply challenging to the status quo. If you want to live your life you must give it up, if you want to be first you must be last. They are paradoxes that represent the reality of the divine emerging in human consciousness.”
We sceptics sometimes flatter ourselves that we are people who value doubt as opposed to credulous believers, but Anglicanism is as opposed to fundamentalist literalism as we are, and yields to no one in its ability not to be sure. They positively revel in it: “I think the doubt, the bafflements, the anger, the fatigue that you encounter is where it all gets interesting.”
One potential source, surely, of anger and doubt must derive from the Church’s attitude to homosexuality. As he found his sexuality in his teens Coles says he was “aware that who I was conflicted with what the Church would have me be”. He is in a committed long-term relationship – David, his charming partner, is also an Anglican priest with his own colourful stories, including the time he worked as a nurse at the gay nightclub Heaven, helping drag queens come down from bad trips – yet the rules of the Church insist that they remain celibate (a rule that does not apply to the laity). It sounds ridiculous. “It is ridiculous,” he responds. “It’s not as I would have it, but it’s where we are.”
Well, OK, that’s his decision, but how does he feel when Christianity is used to oppress and vilify homosexuals? “I think it’s a tragedy, and it’s one that keeps me awake at nights. I meet people in that situation and I think: for you, for me and for everyone our salvation lies in Jesus Christ, but sometimes I’m also thinking, ‘Get out, go live your life’, not the half-life that we offer you but the full life that Jesus offers, and the tragedy is that the full life is not available living within the Church in some of its manifestations.” But as a vicar aren’t you a representative of an organisation that is responsible for this kind of thing? Doesn’t it make you want to leave? “I wasn’t mad on invading Iraq but I didn’t stop being British when it happened, or wanting to be British.”
Of course the Anglican Church is embroiled in an acrimonious internal debate about this very issue. Coles, though not an official participant in negotiations between the factions, as a high-profile gay priest is evidently a player. He even tried to write a book about the subject earlier this year, but gave up having written 13 words, “all of them rubbish”. “All I came up with were some good punning subtitles. Then I took the dogs for a walk.” He is full of praise for Archbishop Rowan Williams (“the best preacher we have had for half a century”) and his attempt to hold the Anglican Communion together to “reconcile the irreconcilable”. It is because of men like him that Coles became a priest. “I’m thinking this is a fucking ridiculous fairy tale, how can you believe it, let alone impose it on other people, and then you see somebody who would make it look possible, like a rector near where I grew up, Freddie Whittle, or Rowan Williams. They have lived lives of integrity, and it made me think I could too.”
The importance to him of tradition comes up a lot. He admired the Islam he saw recently in Egypt, a mature, venerable and long-established tradition, compared to the simplistic Islamism we see more frequently in the media. Since arriving at Findeon he has been delighted to discover that two members of his family had been vicars here in the 17th century. As for the Church of England, he’s very happy for it to remain “part of the national conversation”, along with other faiths, and none, “but I don’t think it should be privileged”, or at least no more than it is already. So, no plans for an Anglican theocracy then? “I’m not sure what an Anglican theocracy would look like, compulsory papier mache?” Nor does he harbour ambitions to move up the Church hierarchy himself. “I fancy being a Bishop for a day, I’d like to be called ‘My Lord’ just once, I’d like to wear a purple cassock and I’d like to put on the bling. But I wouldn’t want the job. I’d be useless at it. Being a parish priest in Finedon is a lovely job, I have no desire to do anything else.”
But of course he does do something else – he is a parish priest with a regular slot on BBC radio. When he does his media work he insists on wearing his collar and being introduced as Reverend – “it’s just my title like Professor Dawkins or Lady Gaga” – and while he says he is “not preaching” from the airwaves, he is prepared to accept that there is some common ground in the two jobs. “If there is a transferrable skill, it is that priesthood demands of you a sort of attentive listing which isn’t bad in an interview. And I’m nosey.” Is he, I wonder finally, just a teensy bit of a show-off? “Of course, it’s what I do. I’m a Butlins red coat.” He certainly entertained me.