IT BEGAN with a call from my agent. Some people wanted to meet to discuss a new documentary about the history of BBC light entertainment.
And so it came to pass that, one afternoon in the spring, I went to a hotel in central London and there, discreetly sequestered on the top floor, met two executives.
But it wasn’t a documentary about light entertainment they wished to discuss: it was light entertainment’s crown jewel. “Would you consider being on Strictly?”
I thought it over carefully for about two seconds. “I’d love to.”
When the confirmed offer came through a couple of weeks later, I sought and obtained the blessing of my bishop, and the consent of my churchwardens, and was given a code name. “Everyone’s a Greek god this year,” the producer said. “You’re Zeus.”
As the launch approached, cars would appear bearing that divine name to take me to wardrobe fittings, to film pre-title segments, and to have a medical (“You’ve arthritis in both knees, high blood pressure, tinnitus, and you’re astigmatic in your right eye — you’ll be fine”). Chunks of my online diary turned blue and were marked ZEUS in capital letters, like a name carved over a pantheon.
WHAT has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What is a parson doing in sequins and spray tan, attempting the Argentine tango alongside soap stars, pop singers, comedians? I wasn’t the only one who wondered. “I felt I had to write,” said one acquaintance, unnecessarily. “I tell you this in love,” said another, approximately.
And from many: “How do you manage to fit it all in?” — a mildly phrased but barbed question.
I am a half-time cleric, free to make the rest of my living in secular employment, which happens to be in the media; so I am accustomed to neglecting important things and disappointing people (like every other cleric I know).
Also, priests are always getting mixed up in dubious enterprises, with the military, or in Parliament, where warfare and realpolitik, no matter how we try to insulate ourselves, test our faithfulness to the calling.
BBCLooking good, if briefly: the Revd Richard Coles with his Strictly partner, Dianne Buswell, a dance professional
In show business, perhaps like politics, another figure from classical mythology springs to mind. Doesn’t glitter and glam feed the Narcissus in us, better starved for the necessary self-effacement of our calling? ‘“Necessary self-effacement’ is not the most obvious hallmark of your vocation,” said my partner, David, “but it means you can go places other cannot go, and reach a lot of people, and maybe make faith look possible in some way. But it’s hardly a persuasive way to fend off the ‘celebrity vicar’ accusation, is it?”
It’s a status that even I know is both etymologically inaccurate and ontologically dubious. I have never thought of myself as a celebrity vicar. I am definitely a vicar, the 59th of Finedon: it says so on the list of incumbents going back to Magna Carta. And I suppose I am a celebrity, if by that you mean I appear on television programmes with that word in the title.
But for a job description I would prefer to put “mission priest”. Most of what I do as a parish priest is, of course, not reported in the media; but part of my vocation is, I think, to go to places where I can almost uniquely go because of the peculiarities of my curriculum vitae, to try to witness there to the love of Jesus Christ, to seek out those in need of his love and give them the good news — and simply to be a person with a public commitment to a life of faith in a place where you don’t often see it.
Of course you don’t often see it, a correspondent wrote, because it shouldn’t be there. Christ lived among the poor and the outcast, and was not to be found on a Saturday night doing the cha cha in Herod’s palace.
But we must go to where people are. In the 19th century, mission priests went out from the shires to the empire, paddling canoes up rivers to the sound of drums, wondering how to be faithful to where they came from and intelligible where they were going. I have a certain fellow feeling for them, even if the chances of dying in the line of duty are for me merely figurative.
Strictly is not without shadow as well as light, but it is hardly the heart of darkness. It would be if you got your way, another correspondent implied, when I mentioned in an interview that I would like to see a same-sex couple dancing on Strictly one day.
FOR ME, a haphazard assembly of the ill-matched dancing anticipates how we might come together in the Kingdom: a rag-tag-and-bobtail reconfiguring into something new. The sheer joy of it — until judgement and elimination arrived — was like returning to the parts of childhood you miss in age.
A new book, Playful Awakening, by the drama therapist Di Gammage, looks back from care-bound age to the boundless delight that we knew as children when we played, and asks what we lose when we put away childish things. As I read it, I immediately recognised my experience of Strictly: a return to the joy of play, only with magnificent toys and remuneration.
It was a brief return. I danced more like Hephaestus than Zeus, and after only three weeks the British public and the judges thought it charitable to send me home. I departed holding the “death flowers”, as the evictee’s farewell bouquet is unofficially known.
It was a test to leave so early, to a parish where the florist had done up her window especially in my honour, where the children at school had learned a cha cha, to see hanging in the vestry the stole specially made me for me by a diehard Strictly fan.
But I would not have missed it for anything. The esprit de corps of my fellow contestants, the dazzling skill of the professional dancers, the professionalism of crew and band and wardrobe and hair and make-up, and being part of something that, perhaps uniquely, draws people together on a Saturday night in delight and fascination was just wonderful.
And there are worse things than making a fool of yourself, especially for the narcissistically inclined.
The Revd Richard Coles is Vicar of Finedon, in Northamptonshire.