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High-profile ministry of presence

05 August 2016

THE Revd Richard Coles didn’t quite make it to the semi-finals of Celebrity Masterchef. It was his Queen of Puddings that let him down. The meringue was a bit mushy, and the fruity goo was not as jammy as Gregg and John would have liked. (It also looked a mess on the plate.) He had done pretty well up to that point; cracking the meat out of lobster claws with flair, and presenting a spectacular recon­structed haggis.

The Revd Richard Coles is a media phenomenon. But he also re­pre­­sents a way of being a minister that is out of fashion these days. It is the ministry of being everywhere and everything; not talking about Jesus, but simply being around people — a personality, a persona. His sharp intelligence and quick- fire wit is offset by a slightly toothy, self-deprecating way of being present.

Media stuff, he says, is “just showing off”. And, as if to prove it, he shambled on and off the kitchen set of Celebrity Masterchef, stooping a bit, his clerical collar peeking out from under his chef’s jacket. There is no doubting his celebrity status. Some will disapprove, of course, and assume the high public profile is evidence of clerical vanity and egoism.

There is more to the personality vicar than meets the eye, however. The word “parson”, after all, comes from “person”. The vicar was, trad­itionally, a “person” who filled a role, the one reliable sign of the presence of God with his people. He (and it was always traditionally a “he”) was meant to be all things to all people. The point was not how learned he was, or even how devout. His commitment was all about pres­ence.

The Reformation scholar the Revd Professor Diarmaid Mac­Culloch argues that Christianity was from the beginning a person­ality cult around the figure of Jesus. Perhaps we should not be surprised when we find that those who seek to follow in ordained ministry are a bit larger than life. The Methodist min­ister and broadcaster Colin Morris used to say that, in a religion based on the incarnation, we should expect big, vibrant personalities to repre­sent the Lord.

I have to say that all this makes me slightly uncomfortable. I am one of those who need their time off, and although I wear the uniform with pride and delight, I also like to slip into privacy and anonymity. (And, yes, that means watching Celebrity Masterchef at home with my feet up, gin and tonic in hand.) I wonder whether Fr Coles ever indulges in such a thing as a day off, and, if he does, whether he keeps his collar on. Perhaps he could let us know.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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