Rev Richard Coles: 'I don’t have any concerns that God is cross with me for being gay and eventually the Church won’t either'
Rev Richard Coles, the nation’s most pop-culture-friendly priest, on the Church, homosexuality – and how he feels about celibacy.
Catching the Rev Richard Coles from some distance across the floor of the Royal Festival Hall, one can't help but be reminded of the kind of priest Rowan Atkinson has immortalised in film. He looks slightly gawky and out of place, and because he is looking for me, someone he has never met before, his facial features appear to have been arranged as if to resemble a question mark.
Tall and portly, with horn-rimmed glasses balanced on his nose and held in place by a pair of, shall we say, emphatic ears, he stands out largely because of the dog collar, but also because he is striving to make eye contact with passers-by, just in case one of them happens to be me.
I bound over, more eagerly perhaps than I ordinarily would to a man of the cloth, and introduce myself. Immediately, the question mark melts into an expression of palpable relief. "Oh good," he says. I buy him an apple juice, my treat, and we repair to a small table where, over the next hour, he will work his genial magic on me with a skill he seems to exert upon everyone he meets. It is impossible not to warm to the man.
"Someone once told me I was trembling on the brink of national treasuredom," he tells me at one point, blushing. "I liked the 'trembling on the brink' bit, but frankly I don't think I cut that sort of mustard, do I?"
Perhaps he does, for Coles is surely the nation's only showbiz priest – and certainly the only gay showbiz priest. You might sum him up in a single word: unconventional. When he isn't orating from the pulpit of his parish in Finedon, Northamptonshire, he is popping up with increasing regularity on radio and TV shows (Have I Got News For You among them), tweeting incessantly (almost 53,000 tweets so far to more than 40,000 followers), and for the past couple of years has been the co-host, alongside Sian Williams, of Radio 4's Saturday Live, the aural equivalent of a mug of Ovaltine.
While he admits that, on the show, "We frequently sail perilously close to the banal," it is consistently lovely radio, full of cockle-warming human-interest stories. Coles is mellifluous, erudite and witty on it, offering further proof that his reputation as, to quote one observer, "the atheist's favourite priest", can only grow.
"I just hope I don't fuck it all up," he says, deflecting the compliment as if fearful it may restore his once not-inconsiderable ego. "I suppose I could do so at any moment, couldn't I? It could happen here, now, with you."
Well, we'll see, shall we?
Coles was born in Northamptonshire half a century ago, the son of shoe manufacturers. He grew up in Kettering, then Wellingborough – "Splendid places both, but not the sort of places where you have a choice of opera houses, if you know what I mean." His family wasn't particularly cultured, so his artistic bent was instead nurtured by kindly schoolmasters at the local minor public school he attended, where he was introduced to classical music and poetry. He was a chorister, played the piano and the violin, and generally excelled until puberty came along and ruined everything. "Things went Pete Tong," he deadpans, "very Pete Tong."
What happened? "Well, my sexuality, I suppose." The realisation he was gay in an all-male school in England in the 1970s wasn't, he suggests, particularly easy. He came out to his parents aged 16, and when he recounts to me now how he did so, tears spring readily to his eyes. "I played Tom Robinson's song 'Glad to be Gay' four times in a row. Afterwards, my mother turned and said to me, 'Are you trying to tell me something, dear?'"
He concedes that this was not perhaps what they most wanted to hear, "but they were unfailingly loving and supportive".
Yet he still felt thwarted. He yearned for more excitement than either Kettering or Wellingborough could deliver, and so moved – not to London, but to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he briefly toyed with the actor's life. His overriding ambition, he confesses, was simply to be famous. "My grandfather made shoes for Adam Faith, for Georgie Best, and I was dazzled by such people, and their fame." Why? "I think I felt rather swotty, and gay, and lacking in prestige and class. I was yearning for something more ambitious, albeit in an unfocused way."
An unlikely stroke of luck befell him when he was involved in a car accident, and awarded £2,000 in compensation. Suddenly flush, he headed for the capital, now intent on becoming a pop star. A viable way in, he reasoned, was as a session musician. He bought himself a soprano saxophone, and put himself about. Guesting on a single by Bronski Beat, he hit it off with the group's lead singer, Jimmy Somerville. Then, when Bronski Beat split, he and Somerville formed the Communards, a pop act with jazz – specifically soprano sax – inflections. I ask whether they were ever in a relationship. Behind his glasses, his eyes grow wide.
"Oh no, no! I was rather weirdly chaste and nervous, while Jimmy was anything but. Our relationship was not…" He frowns. "Do you know, I can't remember whether we ever had sex." If he was chaste, then presumably they didn't? He laughs. "Yes, well, but you know, the occasional slip…" Would Somerville remember whether they ever had sex? "No, certainly not. Anyway, whether we did or we didn't do was immaterial to our friendship. We were young gay men in the 1980s, a very political time, and we had a common purpose: to bring Margaret Thatcher down with pop music."
This they may not have achieved, but they did enjoy huge, if short-lived, success. Their cover of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "Don't Leave Me This Way" was the biggest-selling single of 1986. At the age of 24, Coles was famous, his dream realised. But the dream soon soured.
"Jimmy was prodigiously talented, a star, and that was difficult for me. I was consumed with jealousy, and I had a very pronounced ego. When you hang around proper stars, that ego can feel terribly compromised."
The band continued, but the pair argued perpetually and grew increasingly apart. The Communards never officially split; they simply ceased to be. Coles, then in his mid-twenties, fled to Ibiza, initially on holiday, but then neglected to leave. What did he do with his time there?
"I took just about every drug you could find," he says. "You find you have a lot of friends when you are rich and idle." This was the late 1980s, the era of Ecstasy. It was no coincidence, he suggests, that Ecstasy was so big on the gay scene. "We were dealing with so much horror in our daily lives, friends contracting HIV, dying of Aids-related diseases, all of it so terribly awful. So, yes, there was much taking of drugs. It was a jolly experience, mostly."
But also a finite one. "Oh, things got messy, of course they did. If I hadn't quit, I'd have died." He returned to the UK, confused and conflicted, and sought advice from a psychiatrist, who suggested he see a priest. The idea appealed, he found, on a gut level. "I suppose I've always had a very genuine curiosity about religion. I loved the atmosphere of churches, the ethos; I adored Evensong. Trouble was, I couldn't connect positively with the content, not at all."
But that changed. He took a degree in theology, and discovered that religion was indeed his natural habitat. He became a priest, first in London (becoming one of the inspirations behind the glorious BBC2 sitcom Rev), now in Northants, and continued to dabble in broadcasting. Over the years, he has done shows on Radio 5 Live, then Radio 3, "but it's only since I've been doing Radio 4 that anyone has really sat up and taken notice. Saturday Live is a lovely job. I enjoy it enormously."
But it is religion to which he remains most faithfully betrothed. The Church of England must love him, I say, his profile a PR boon for an institution in which such a thing is so often lacking. "The bishops have been enormously supportive and tolerant of me," he says, nodding. "I think they probably think it's good to have someone identified as a clergyman participating in the mainstream."
But he also finds himself having to be an at-times uncomfortably public defender of an organisation that seems hellbent (bad choice of adjective, granted) on remaining so antiquated, so out of step with the modern world. The matter of his being homosexual, for example.
"I certainly don't have any concerns that God is cross with me for being gay," he says, "and eventually the Church won't either. We'll get there in the end."
But when? Coles himself is in a long-term relationship (his partner, David, is also a priest), and is mandatorily celibate. "It's preposterous, of course," he admits, "and it just expresses what a hopeless mess we've made of all this, and that it will have to change." But for the time being he abides by it? "We didn't always, it's just turned out that way, so, yes, we both live in a way that is consonant with the recommendations of the House of the Bishops of the Church of England."
It seems rude to press him further on such a personal subject, but it is a fascinating one, and, besides, he seems happy to talk. Does he, I ask, remain celibate willingly? His expression remains blank as he responds: "Well, it's just how it is."
His ego might largely be in check these days, but that doesn't mean he has relinquished all ambition.
I wonder whether, in tandem with his rising media presence, he harbours greater priestly ambitions, too? He shakes his head. "No, no, definitely not. I'm 51, and in a same-sex relationship. And without wanting to sound pious, I think God is perfectly happy with me being where I am, in Finedon. I know I am."
It's time for him to leave, so we stand, shake hands and say goodbye. He pootles across the Festival Hall and out into the sunshine of the South Bank, tweeting earnestly as he goes, smiling benevolently at passers-by just as they smile benevolently back. How couldn't they?
'Saturday Live' is broadcast on Radio 4 each Saturday from 9am
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