Revved up: Richard Coles, a very modern vicar
Heavens! Drugs, speedboats, documentaries promoting homosexuality – the Reverend Richard Coles' journey to the seminary is enough to make a bishop blush. Now he's safely in the bosom of the Church, shouldn't this former pop star be appearing on 'Thought for the Day' rather than 'Have I Got New For You'? Not a chance...
Sunday 10 January 2010
When Richard Coles was applying to train for the Anglican priesthood, the form asked whether he had ever taken non-prescription drugs. He confessed – with appropriate candour given his vocation – that he had. It was all part of being one half of the hugely successful 1980s pop band The Communards and, as he puts it now, "being 27 and having lots of money and no work to do".
He was in a BBC studio a few days later – after the band spilt, he had carved out a successful career in the 1990s as a radio and TV presenter – when a Church of England medical officer called him to ask precisely which drugs he had taken. "And I couldn't remember the proper names. I only knew their street names and he only knew their pharmacological ones. It was a very long phone call."
The story – told with great gusts of laughter by the 47-year-old Coles as we sit in a cramped study at the back of St Paul's, Knightsbridge, where he has been a curate for three years – neatly illustrates the before and after, what he refers to as the "spending and sniffing" of his pop-star years and "the seemliness" now required of him as a priest.
The celebrity who finds God is a familiar figure, but Coles doesn't fit the Cliff Richard mould. For starters, he went the whole hog and swapped the limelight for a dog collar. And though he took a break while he was in the seminary, Coles has returned to broadcasting not in the traditional God-slots, but in the secular mainstream, hosting Radio 4's very unseemly Saturday Live, perched on the Newsnight Review critics' sofa, and guesting on Have I Got News For You.
What about Thought for the Day? "No," he objects vehemently, as if I had just suggested stone-cladding one of the elegant crescent of Georgian town houses that frame St Paul's in this exclusive corner of central London. "Partly because so many could do it so much better than I could," he explains, then pauses for a moment, trying to decide whether to be honest as well as modest. "And, well, I just don't like being preached to over my boiled egg. I can't bear it. I really can't."
There are, of course, many – clerics included – who prefer to keep their religion low-key. Tony Blair famously said he had kept shtum about his belief in God when in office in case he was taken for a "nutter". So is Coles another who hides his light under a bushel? "Not at all. I wore my dog collar on Have I Got News For You," he protests. He must have been tempted to take it off to blend in a bit better? "No, being in a dog collar was three-quarters of a way to a laugh."
He is joking, but he is also touching on what makes Coles a unique figure in broadcasting today. He's the reverend who is irreverent. He isn't, for example, one of those trendy vicars who prefers an open-necked shirt and a discreet cross on his lapel. Save on his days off, in the basement flat behind the church which he shares with his pet dachshund, he wears full clerical uniform. Today he is sporting a full length Derek Nimmo-style black cassock with padded buttons up the front. "The dog collar is fascinating to people," he reflects, "when it doesn't repel. I've got used to being shouted at in the street." When I express surprise, he brushes it aside. "What is really boring is when people greet me with 'More tea, vicar?'" So why not go round in mufti and save himself the bother? "Because I'm a priest." But aren't you a priest regardless of what you wear? He looks genuinely puzzled at the suggestion. "What I wear identifies me as a priest. I don't agree with all this trying to appear 'normal'. If you want that to be normal, don't take off your dog collar and then put it on again, because what you're doing is playing along with the view that wearing one makes you odd."
Religion, in Coles' eyes, is "normal", often funny, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. So however unseemly and satirical he is being on air, he always insists on being introduced as "the Reverend Richard Coles" – what he calls "the oral dog collar". "I am loathe to say I have a strategy in the broadcasting work I do, but I do think it is possible to be a priest who has something to contribute to mainstream media as long as you aren't completely mad. Or if you are just mad in a different sort of way. If you look at most people in dog collars who are representatives of the churches in media, they do what they do in ways that, for all kinds of reasons, aren't attractive. I may be flattering myself but I hope I can do it in a way that might not be unattractive."
Coles' embracing of religion wasn't the Damascene experience often favoured by celebrity converts. His family background in Northants was Anglican, though "in a typically ' twice-a-year sort of way". He was a chorister at his public school, leaving at 16 for an arts-based college in Stratford – "basically a finishing school for delinquent teenagers". Was he delinquent? It is hard to imagine. Perhaps it's what he's wearing, or because we are talking in the vicarage, but he has the sort of gentle, good face you would pick out of a crowd if you were in trouble. "Oh yeah," he replies, with a mock world-weary laugh, "in a fairly lavender sort of way. I didn't go to prison. It was just smoking dope a bit – and I did inhale, lustily."
He arrived in London at 18 wanting to be an actor. "I was bloody awful. I just looked preposterous. It would be King Lear and I'd walk on with Cordelia's dead body in my arms and the audience would hoot with laughter. The only time they didn't laugh was when I was doing comedy." Part of Coles' charm is his self-deprecation, albeit done without the traditional flagellating humility of religion.
With compensation money he received after being injured in a car accident, he bought a soprano saxophone and started working as a session musician. "I was really bad at that too, but the soprano sax had just got interesting. Jimmy Somerville and I used to go to the same pub and then I found myself working with him in a Channel 4 documentary called Framed Youth [featuring gay and lesbian teenagers conducting vox pops about attitudes to homosexuality]. Then we recorded something together in a urinal because we wanted the reverb – or was it someone's bathroom? – and that became a Bronski Beat track. As a side thing, Jimmy and I started doing something jazzy, and it became The Communards and we were huge – for about a week."
Three years to be more accurate, and they included 1986's biggest-selling single, "Don't Leave Me This Way". Coles isn't the kind of former pop star who constantly harks back to the glory days, but I can't help wondering what Somerville has made of his former musical partner's change of direction. "We never fell out but the end of a band is like a divorce. We lost touch a couple of years ago. Partly it's being 47. Your address book slims."
Coles' life during and after the band was, he says, chaotic. "It's all a bit of a blur, mercifully. I think I bought a speedboat in Ibiza, but I'm not sure." He started as a broadcaster reviewing films on an all-night LWT programme, graduated to being Emma Freud's agony aunt on her Greater London Radio show, produced by the then-unknown Chris Evans, and then won a Sony award for the Radio Five – "before it was Live, Radio Five Dead" – show The Mix.
It was while he was in Edinburgh in 1990, reviewing the festival, that he felt the pull of religion. "I wandered into St Mary's Cathedral and they were singing choral evensong, and I just wanted it. Something released within me. At the same time, I hated wanting it because it didn't fit with anything else."
Back in London, he sought out a psychiatrist. "He said, 'You need to see a priest,' which I thought was very sensible, but I didn't know any. A friend of a friend was married to a priest, so I called her."
She was the award-winning novelist Sara Maitland, then an Anglican vicar's wife. She directed Coles to a High Anglican – or Anglo-Catholic – parish where the combination of bells, incense and music drew him in. "I realised I wasn't a spectator but a participant." He began a theology degree at King's College, but quickly felt the pull – as do many High Anglicans – of Catholicism. Yet unlike many of those Anglicans who in the early 1990s "went over" to Rome, Coles was a supporter of women priests and bishops. "I asked myself what's the point of being a Catholic if not a Roman Catholic and, if I am honest, I loved the novels of Evelyn Waugh and thought there was something rather smart and brilliant about pope-ing."
It was not, as he implies, a good reason to become a Catholic and, after he did in 1992, he came to regret it. "I missed the Anglican liturgy and I always felt a stranger, which I started off liking and then began not to like so much." His return to the Church of England fold finally came in 2001, by which stage he felt drawn to priesthood.
As an openly and unapologetically gay man, this presented Coles with a few difficulties. Though not as condemnatory of homosexuality as Catholicism, the Church of England is hardly at ease with same-sex relationships, especially among its clergy. "The difference between Rome and the Anglican Church," Coles says, "is that with us, it is not a policy, it's an argument and one that is currently deadlocked. I don't know where we are going, but I know that we have to be patient." His tone is regretful but not angry.
What about the routine homophobia of some Anglican bishops, especially those from the African provinces of the Church? "There are a lot of things I don't like about Britain," he tries to explain. "I don't like the fact we get involved in stupid military adventures all over the place, but I'm British and I don't want to be French. There is a parallel there with churches. There is no perfect fit. I needed the sacraments and everything was secondary to that. I knew there was a huge tension in that, but there's a huge tension in anything you try to do, whether it be charity, commitment or fidelity. Sexual orientation is just another one."
Coles has a service coming up for parents whose children have died. We need to finish. Does Coles ever feel that between the pulpit and the recording studio he is living a double life? "I don't see it like that. I don't want to sound pompous, but all points in life are equidistant from God, aren't they?"
Today, he will make a rare venture into religious broadcasting by hosting a Songs of Praise special. Isn't that precisely what he's been trying to avoid? "I'd never have thought of doing it," he says, "but they're doing a poetry special and it gave me an opportunity to talk about the place of poetry in Christian tradition and particularly in hymnody, which I was very keen to do." So it was that same element of taking religion out of its box that persuaded him to say yes.
Coles is, critics say, a natural broadcaster. He laughs off the praise. "It is just showing off. Radio is showing off, but no one recognises you on the bus. My life is mostly about showing off. The refrain of my childhood was my mother saying, 'Oh Richard, stop showing off.' Even the dog collar means people see you." Is that the link, I suggest, between being a vicar and all that has gone before? "I'd like to think," he replies, going through the door, "that there's a little more to it than that."
The Reverend Richard Coles presents 'Songs of Praise' on BBC1 today, and 'Saturday Live' on Radio 4 on 16 January
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