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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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