Bringing in the Sheaves: Wheat and chaff from years as a priest
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20
Church Times Bookshop Special Price £17
RICHARD COLES tantalised readers of his first autobiographical volume, Fathomless Riches, by concluding at the point of his ordination. Bringing in the Sheaves takes a whimsical and episodic stroll through his subsequent years in ordained ministry, using the church calendar to structure this survey of his clerical and media pursuits (Feature, 11 November).
Listeners to Radio 4’s Saturday Live, which Coles co-presents, will recognise his tone: unfailingly polite while gently probing, and betraying a fascination with those fleeting moments when ordinary lives become extraordinary. Coles captures the way in which priesthood offers privileged access to such moments — and he does so while never failing to expose the need for clergy to be able to laugh at themselves.
Church Times readers may both smile and wince at some of his observations concerning the Church of England. A diocesan conference prompts the following: “You will know them by their knitwear: the Anglican clergy between them must have more jumpers than the Baltic Fleet”; “Thank you, Jesus, for the loaves and fishes, but is there a gluten-free alternative?”; and “Very soon, someone will play the flute, very slightly flat.”
Remembering a service at which the Bishop of London presided, held in a London parish church, Coles observes: “His presence, his personality, his very voice, seemed barely contained within the comprehensive splendour of St Paul’s Cathedral, so to see him at work in some of the less noble spaces in his diocese was like coming across Kiri Te Kanawa in Poundstretcher.” It is for lines such as these alone that Bringing in the Sheaves is worth reading.
Like many clergy, his best stories revolve around death — whether that means the circumstances around his officiating at Mo Mowlam’s funeral, or his unexpected ride with Jeremy Beadle’s earthly remains in a funeral ambulance.
Poignantly, he recalls a night-time visit to a dying parishioner whose hospital room happened to be directly opposite that of his own father, also dying: “I have my kit with me so I anoint him, making the sign of the cross on his forehead with holy oil, thinking that if he was conscious he would flinch with embarrassment at this ‘palaver’. And then I kiss him on the forehead. I haven’t kissed him since I was eight years old.”
The book’s structure means that no topic is dwelt on in detail, but occasion after occasion prompts thoughts and questions about priestly ministry, and how it relates to an England so seemingly disaffected with organised religion. For the growing numbers who profess no faith or belief, Coles is an inviting and engaging evangelist.
He seldom preaches at the reader; rather, he freely admits the sheer preposterousness of Christian claims, not least those concerning the incarnation: “It is the unlikeliest thing, which is one reason to find it persuasive, I think. There is never a good time to get a dog, never a good time to have a child. There is never a good time for God to become incarnate.”
Coles offers an engaging portrait of the lived Christian life in a way that speaks openly and intriguingly to both cradle Anglicans and cagey agnostics. Bringing in the Sheaves does not offer a last word on any of the topics it considers, but it deserves to prompt some genuinely good conversations.
The Revd Christopher Landau is Assistant Curate of St Luke’s, West Kilburn, and Emmanuel, Harrow Road, in the diocese of London, and is a former reporter for Radio 4’s World at One and PM.