Real Life: In the end, a certain grace: Richard Coles, a pop musician, decided that he could be a Christian, despite its 'untrendiness'. Then a friend's death tested his faith
Sunday 06 March 1994
I came to Christ from an unlikely place. I was a gay man, living in London, in my late twenties, working in the music industry and media. I went on all the right marches, went to all the right clubs, read Marxism Today and the New Statesman.
The Church then seemed to me hypocritical, preaching love and practising coercion, keeping the oppressed oppressed and the privileged privileged, offering cant in place of truth, illusion in place of reality. It was the principal foe in the battle to win equality and dignity for gay men and women.
When I first started getting religious twinges in 1989 I thought them a symptom of approaching insanity. They took the form of a fondness for what I can only describe as Catholic tat - there's something about the Infant of Prague that lifts the heart of a gay man - and around the same time I found that I was less and less moved by Belgian Techno and more and more moved by Renaissance polyphony. The twinges became curiosity, the curiosity became urgent and it began to feel like need. Eventually, very reluctantly, I went to Mass one Sunday at the end of the summer. To my surprise and embarrassment I wept from the Sanctus to the Dismissal. I realised that what I had found was home.
I couldn't explain how I'd got there. There was something indistinct at the back of my mind, memories from school, the atmosphere of some of the cadences of the liturgy, some of the more absurd Victorian canticle settings. But what was decisive, I suppose, was the arrival of Aids.
In 1986 I went to my first Aids funeral. Since then I have been to at least a dozen more - funerals for people I had come to look on as family. Aids came to be the dominating event in my life. When you're surrounded by death and illness and suffering the mind tends to turn to questions that quickly become religious.
Yet, I found the standard Christian discourse unpalatable. I had memories of sinister, well-groomed youths turning up uninvited on the doorstep looking like extras from The Stepford Wives, asking: 'Are you a friend of Jesus?' Or of scenes from kindergarten nativities - the little baby Jesus wrapped in hospital bandages while angelic infants wreathed in tinsel lisped their way through 'Away in a Manger'. At the other extreme was the kind of theological talk that sends most people running for shelter - phrases such as Original Sin, Immaculate Conception, the nature of the hypostatic union. How was I to find a way to speak about Christ that worked?
In fact, any talk about Jesus is difficult. The message has always been bewildering, the language inadequate. I began to think that it might be more profitable simply to get on with Christian life - praying, going to church, all the basic stuff - and with that there grew a realisation that I might as well start trying to participate in the life of the Christian community, in spite of what I then saw as its unattractiveness, its blandness and, worst of all, its untrendiness. I hated it being so hideously unfashionable: crystals, Krishna, even tree-hugging had been adopted by peop1e I knew and these all had a certain cachet. But Christianity was crimplene religion, slipper- wearing and suburban. I hated the way it made a virtue of mildness; I wanted a religion of drama and thrills. What had that mild, unworldly religion to say in the face of the continuing crisis in which my friends and I were living?
I should say that I find absolutely no contradiction in being gay and being a Christian. It was through the gay community that I learnt about how we must all hang together, about the primacy of love, about human dignity, about respect for others. Gay people have mostly undergone the same experience of being outcast, of being rejected, or worse, even though we now enjoy a greater level of tolerance than ever before.
In October my friend Hugo, who had been diagnosed with Aids about two years ago, fell seriously ill. He rapidly went downhill - it became obvious that he wasn't going to get better, so we arrived at the hospital to care for him in the last stages of his illness.
The night before he died we sat up with him in his hospital room. It was not like La Boheme. Instead of wailing family and friends throwing themselves on the bedclothes in agonies of grief, we sat on the bed, drank several bottles of Campari and watched Hellraiser II on the video. Hugo kept us all entertained, in spite of his pain, and the nursing staff let us get on with it - it was quite a party. We knew what was happening to Hugo, but the solemn ritual of death and deathbed had no place there. There was no return to the Catholicism of his childhood, no calling for a priest, no urgent confession of sin - there was a conversation with God on an imaginary telephone which brought him comfort - but Hugo's real concern was to keep us all amused, to sustain us and to be sustained. It was only while he slept that I had any sense of tragedy. It was then that I called to mind all the images of Christ and tried to find comfort in them.
But they were beginning to break down. I went through Christ the Light of the World, but there was no light; Christ the King, but there was no kingly glory that I could see; Christ the Comforter, but I felt no sense of comfort. Christ the healer? How about a re-run of that Lazarus trick? I remember laughing out loud as I thought of Christ the 1st century social worker, his ministry of outreach, smiling in a grubby caftan, promising to make everything better when nothing could make anything better, proclaiming that everything was all right really when nothing was.
I went out of the room for a cigarette and a cup of coffee and watched Hugo on the monitor set up in the ward. It was then that I saw another image of Christ before me - Christ crucified - nailed on the cross, scourged, bleeding, ruined. It wasn't difficult to make that connection - Hugo was 30 years old, in terrible shape, beyond any conventional help. What did seeing the crucified Christ in Hugo mean? There was no great theological insight to be derived. I'm aware of the necessity of doctrinal propositions; I want to see these things hang together, I want the images to cohere. But, that night, what was in evidence? A dying man's suffering, his wit and strength, a group of friends, around him, a gentle exchange, a taking leave. And it was in these things that Christ was truly revealed, through them came comfort and confidence and calm. Not a cheap, fingers- crossed wish against wish, but the grace of God; grace in the arms of catastrophe, unmistakeable and overflowing. He died the next afternoon.
I came away from the hospital not with another image to add to the gallery, nor with a radical new Christian discourse about the theological aspects of Aids. I came away having found the courage to love someone, having allowed myself to be loved, and having shared that experience with others. These are very simple, mundane and inexpressibly precious things. In them we find Christ, who shares our suffering and with whom we share consolation, his abundant grace liberating us from what binds us and setting us free, if only we'll let it.
Broadcaster Richard Coles is a former member of 'The Communards' pop group. This article is abridged from a talk given in BBC Radio 4's 'Contemporaries of Christ' series
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