Interview: Michael ‘Spike’ Wellspriest, jazz musician

by
11 March 2009

I have two names on my answer­phone — “Fr Michael Wells” and “Spike Wells”. From my point of view, they are the same person, but I have different customers, on church business or in the music business.

I began playing as a professional jazz drummer at the age of 22, when I left university, with the Tubby Hayes quartet. After five years, I qualified as a solicitor and practised law for 22 years.

I was deaconed at 49. When I was 50, I took early retirement from the bank where I was working as their in-house legal adviser and became a stipendiary curate.

I had lessons with Philly Joe Jones, a black American drummer, when he was in London, and I was also very influenced by another young black American drummer, Tony Williams. He died very young, as many used to in the ’40s and ’50s when it was fashionable to use heroin to auto-destruct. It doesn’t happen so much nowadays.

I was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School — that’s how I got into music. Then I stumbled across an EP (remember EPs?) by Dizzy Gillespie and found that very exciting — and I took it from there.

I drifted away from faith in my teens, as you do, and I took up law during that time. I had a kind of reconversion experience in my early 40s, followed very soon by a strong sense of vocation.

I like to hear jazz in church, and I’ve heard some good jazz masses and settings, but I don’t think it will ever be more than a minority art form. It’s too honest — too raw, too demanding, not broad enough in its appeal — for worship by people of all backgrounds and tastes.

I thought I could be a worker-priest on the French model. Actually, I found that the textbook model didn’t work out in practice. The cor­porate atmosphere was either em­barrassed or even hostile. When I became a Christian again, I felt quite uncomfortable working in the law.

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I was helping people in asserting their rights, instead of asserting the gospel imperative to let go of entitle­ments and grievances.

I always found music far more wedded to my spiritual experience than law ever was. The time I spent as a stipendiary curate at St Peter’s, Brighton, was quite challenging and fulfilling, but I carried on with my music and that was still important to me; so I went into non-stipendiary ministry.

Playing in a group with collective improvisation demands love and generosity: it’s one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life, making music together.

My conversion sprang from a colleague at work who brought me back to faith and the Church. Music achieved a different dimen­sion. I felt enormously grateful for the talent which I had taken for granted, and making music became a kind of offering. It’s not an ego­tistical thing.

I very sincerely believe God has called me to do both. I’m happiest when I’m lost, wrapped up in my job offering the sacrifice at the altar, or sitting behind the drums playing with three congenial companions. As a priest, in persona Christi, it doesn’t matter who you are: it’s the job that matters. And the same in the band. It’s abandonment, losing yourself — that’s the key to happiness and fulfilment.

I’ve been a priest for 13 years now, and always worked in a city. The most challenging and satisfying part of my job is trying to get people to forgive themselves and feel themselves loved and valued by God. Most people are carrying so much guilt.

Brighton is cosmopolitan, vibrant — there’s a big gay community, lots of students and young people. It’s an exciting place to live. And there has been this long tradition of Anglo-Catholicism there. They say there are more churches and pubs per square yard than anywhere else in the country.

A lot of people are drawn by the beauty of ritualistic worship. I suppose there’s a numinous element — smells, bells, choreography — which can lead them to God in a way in which a more informal, down-to-earth worship doesn’t. Young people are intrigued and drawn to it.

I never really fancied being an incumbent, because it’s becoming more and more of a managerial chore. It will destroy the Church if priests are required to spend their time being managers. If that’s the case, the Church isn’t worth preserving. There are other people in the Church much more able to do the administration and finance. It saps the essence of priesthood if we are distracted by such things.

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I’m married to someone 19 years younger than me, and we’ve been together for ten years. I also have two precious daughters and two grandchildren from my first marri­age, which sadly ended because of my becoming a priest.

I suppose the most important choice I have ever made was to offer myself for ministry, knowing that it might cause me to lose my marriage. She felt a sense of be­trayal. We had been married a long time, and shared a healthy agnos­ticism. I suppose she thought she was losing me, and had always associated the Church with the brainwashed, born-again look. She couldn’t bear to think that would happen to me.

I certainly had pipe dreams. I was always keen on cricket, though not very good at it, and I was mad about the cinema. I had fantasies about being a film director. But jazz was the love of my life. I would love to know what would have happened if I had dropped something and concen­trated on one thing. . . I seem im­pelled to hedge my bets. I suppose it’s a kind of insecurity.

I certainly have made mistakes, and there’s been sadness, but I’m not sure I can say I have any regrets. It sounds a bit holier-than-thou, but whatever has happened, I can see God’s grace and providence at work.

I don’t want to be remembered for anything too grandiose. What would make me happy is if I’d managed to touch one or two people by my playing, preaching, or pastoral care.

It’s nice to live in a place where people want to come on holiday. I’m not very keen on holidays, myself. I hate airports, and find sunbathing and sightseeing very boring.

What I like most is travelling on trains. I went with a friend recently on a train through France and Germany to Poland. We stayed in Krakow and visited Auschwitz. Of course, that was mind-blowing, but I really loved the train journey. Actually, I’m quite happy to stay at home most of the time.

The Scottish saxophone player Bobby Wellins is a most inspiring soloist and improviser. I’ve been playing with him for over 30 years now. And do you remember Father Andrew — who worked in the East End in the Blitz and wrote lots of books and poetry? And I’ve always admired Fr Trevor Huddleston’s work in South Africa.

I read a lot of Ken Leech. And I like John Dalrymple’s books very much. And I recently read John Pridmore’s book about his ministry in Hackney. It’s wonderful to read — he’s a priest with such a sense of humour, and is not afraid to admit that his ministry was hopeless in many ways. I find that really inspiring.

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I buy Fairtrade chocolate and oranges and bananas.

If I was on Desert Island Discs, I’d say that, of all the Bible, if I could only take a bit, it would be the prologue of St John. But I find all the Johannine writings full of theological insights. For sheer boredom, the mili­tary history of Kings and Chronicles — I can do without that. I can’t see its being of any use to anybody. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Paul. I love most of his writings, but not Romans so much.

I last felt anger about the moral depths to which banking has sunk, having worked in it for 20 years as a lawyer. (If you had asked me that before, I would have said GAFCON.)

Part of my prayer life is about my own relationship to God, my faults — impatience is one — and praying to share Christlike qualities. On the in­ter­cessory front, man’s inhumanity to man, in its various guises.

One person I’d love to talk to (now dead) is Fr Arthur Stanton. He was curate for many years at St Alban’s, Holborn. I’ve got books of his sermons, and I’d love to talk to him about the art of preaching, because he had a simple, magnetic passion, which comes through even on the printed page. But if it has to be someone alive, then Pope Benedict. I find him such an enigmatic figure. I would love to understand what makes him tick. I read his book on Jesus Christ, which was quite marvellous and inspiring, but I find his right-wing ecclesiological views quite frightening. I would love to see how the two tie up.

The Revd Michael Wells was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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