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Chaperoned by dachshunds

28 November 2014

Richard Coles, priest and ex-Communard, tells Hugh Rayment-Pickard about writing his autobiography

I HAVE been interviewed by The Times, the Gay Times, and now the Church Times." The Revd Richard Coles greets me with the humour that has made Radio 4 audiences take him to their hearts. His magazine programme Saturday Live, on Radio 4, has two million listeners who tune in every week for a mix of Coles's banter and gentle interviews.

Coles is on the media circuit to promote his new memoir Fathomless Riches, the story of his transformation from a life of sex and drugs (as a member of the '80s synthpop duo the Communards) to respectable Anglican priest. Inevitably, we end up talking about bishops and sex, but only once we have discussed goats and the Epistle to the Ephesians.

Coles is telling me stories about an eccentric Anglican vicar - after I suggest that he himself might be one. "I think some of those eccentric figures dancing at the edge of [church] culture are rather fascinating. When I was a boy, there was a vicar down the road who fell out of love with humanity and substituted it with a love of goats. And, in the end, the goats moved into the rectory.

"A friend once called on him, and the face that appeared at the door was a goat, and not the rector. Not exactly a model that the Ministry Division would recommend."

As he speaks, I am looking for traces of the former Communard. Skinny jeans, perhaps, dark glasses, an unconventional piercing? It is uncanny, but there is nothing in Coles's appearance that gives away his former pop stardom. He stands and speaks in every respect like the middle-aged country parson he now is. He has been totally "converted" - not only spiritually, but sartorially.

IN THE 1980s, Coles was a left-wing gay activist, with the outfit and hairdo to match, surfing a wave of fame. His memoir is full of stories about his tantrums as a pop prima donna, about being so off his head that he cannot remember whether he had bought a speedboat, about offering lines of cocaine to 19-year-old sopranos, about casual sex and its consolations, about pretending he was HIV-positive to win sympathy from his friends. Not exactly the preparation for priesthood that the Ministry Division would recommend.

"I like weirdness, and the Church should be weird, really weird," he says, "because we preach a very strange, topsy-turvy gospel. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. If you want to have anything worth having, you've got to give it all away. And you've got to die to live.

"These are really weird and paradoxical statements. We always look a bit weird. The trick is to look the right sort of weird."

I can see why the idea of a topsy-turvey gospel would appeal. His own life was turned upside-down by a Damascene conversion that "pierced his soul": "Light flooded in, and I could see. And I wept and wept." And yet - and this is another curious thing about Coles - he had been aware of a calling to the priesthood long before his conversion. "From about the age of eight or nine, I could imagine myself [being a priest] . . . in a very unformed sort of way. I was always fascinated by clergy. I think a lot of people are. People who find religion baffling and inconsequential find people who make commitments to it fascinating."

AS WE are talking, I discover that we share a love of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Is the "divine plan" referred to in Ephesians discernible in the twists and turns of his own life? "Some of the more vivid episodes in my past are not things that I would entirely repudiate, because they got me to where I am. And I know that it - I? - wouldn't have thought my way here; I wouldn't have worked it out. It was only by being dragged kicking and screaming to the marriage feast of the Lamb that I would ever have sat down and eaten."

He goes on: "What's interesting about Ephesians is that you are dealing with people who shared that extraordinary sense of excitement of the immeasurable and unsearchable grace of God.

"But, further down the line, the poetry of Damascus becomes the prose of Ephesus. We are all just trying to live our lives now. And I think that's one of the reasons that Ephesians is particularly dear to me: it's how you try to take that moment and live in the light of it, once things are more ordinary."

Perhaps one of the things you do when life is more ordinary is to take time to reflect upon the past, I say. "I realised I was writing a confession," he replies. "I would look at John Newton for example, another Church of England parson with a dark and difficult past - he was a slaver - and yet amazing grace sought him out. More than anyone, the Christian figure I am fascinated by is Paul: the figure of Paul, the problematic of Paul."

There is certainly something of Paul's lacerating self-criticism in Coles. In the book, he reproaches himself for envy and vanity, thoughtlessness and self-obsession, cruelty and irresponsibility: "My sins are scarlet."

But St Paul was a murderer, and had a great deal to be guilty about. Isn't Coles's story more a tale of youthful excess, not so unusual for a gay man in the '80s? "I'm nothing so special . . . neither so good nor so bad." But he wanted to write the book to convey "something of the grain and the darkness of what got me to where I am today.

"When I took a copy of the book round to my parents, I made them promise to take beta-blockers before they read it. My mother said it was 'charming when not garish', and my father said he thought it was 'a little hysterical'. I genuinely didn't set out to shock or startle people, but I thought there is no point in doing this unless I do it with a measure of candour."

THERE is certainly no shortage of honesty in the book, which offers the reader an unvarnished summary of Coles's sexual history, at least up to the point when he started training for ordination. I wondered whether his openness about sexuality had ever put him on the wrong side of those in the Church's hierarchy?

"They have been uniformly supportive," (Coles holds his hands open in gratitude), "the bishops in particular. My own bishop has been unfailingly pastoral, wonderfully supportive. . . I went into this with my sexuality as a known quantity - in so far as one's sexuality is ever a known quantity - and so I've never felt vulnerable in the way that people might do if they wanted to keep it entirely private. And, of course, we all live in a world where being gay is no longer remarkable . . . nobody really cares any more."

Except that some people really do care whether the clergy are gay, and some bishops are less than "pastoral" in their approach. What advice would he now give to a gay ordinand?

"I wouldn't want to minimise the iniquity of the Church of England in its treatment of gay people, but it's complicated. I just don't think we should slam doors. Get to know the people who find you intolerable, the people who think you shouldn't be there. Try to understand where they are coming from, and why it's difficult for them. If you can do that - and I try to do that - that's no bad thing.

"We should not forget that the bishops need praying for because they are in an impossibly difficult situation. I do feel for them. . . Somebody's got to do it. And I do trust that the Holy Spirit will guide and direct them to the ways of truth and peace and love."

I am slightly taken aback at Coles's sanguinity. The Holy Spirit surely needs help sometimes in challenging those in power.

SO, IS it out of obedience to his bishop that Coles and his partner are celibate? Is this their own lifestyle choice? Or perhaps just the waning of desire? "It's all those things. Sex life faded away and became physical intimacy, and that coincided with a degree of clarity from the Bishops about what their expectation was about how clergy should live.

"Not that I think that's a good thing. I don't. But, none the less, that's where we've got to. To be honest, we've got so many dachshunds in bed with us that it's impossible for anything except companionable sleep to take place."

Coles communicates daily with his 70,000 Twitter followers about the activities of the dachshunds who share his rectory: Horatio, Audrey, Willy Pongo, and Daisy Mu-Mu. As I write, Coles has just posted a winning photograph of him and his partner with the dogs. Underneath is the caption: "Two Vicars. Four dachshunds."

This is not quite the face of a goat at the parsonage door, but it is also not - or I should say not yet - a model envisaged by the Ministry Division.

Fathomless Riches: Or how I went from pop to pulpit is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and reviewed here.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is Director of Development at IntoUniversity.

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