Saints and singers
The radio presenter Revd Richard Coles talks to Stephen Tomkins about music, media and surprising saints
As a member of the pop group The Communards, Richard Coles was part of the bestselling single of 1986: “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. When he returned into the public eye in the 1990s, he had unexpectedly become a vicar. He is now known as the presenter of Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4, and has recently published two books telling some of the stranger stories of the saints: Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints, both published by Darton, Longman and Todd.
Medieval hagiography is gloriously bonkers, isn’t it, from a modern point of view.
How seriously do you think people took these stories?
Very seriously. The saints were central for Christians’ way of life, and I think people had a very powerful sense of the active presence of saints in their lives. They were economically useful – there are sleepy villages in the poor south of Italy where they were able to stand on a wider stage than they would have done because they had some great levitating friar in the 19th Century. They had all kinds of uses.
If they’re impossible for us to take seriously, does it give you a sense of a huge distance between us and our Christian forebears?
Not so huge sometimes. Some still take them very seriously – in parts of Catholic Europe or the Orthodox East, people have a very lively and unstraightforward relationship with the saints of their traditions.
For us I think it’s a bit harder. But one of my favourite saints is from well into the enlightenment, the 1740s. He was a beggar in Rome who was charming and used to levitate so regularly in churches that the vergers used to wait for him to levitate so that they could sweep under him. Clearly there’s some desire for saints doing spectacular things well into the enlightenment.
What are your thoughts about the truth of such stories?
I don’t think they’re true. I don’t think people levitate. But I think that people try to tell the truth about saints using the tools at their disposal. Those stories were what you did to say: “This person is important.”
Are saints important to your own faith?
Oh yes. I think that at the heart of all these stories you’ll find a pearl, something irreducibly significant about these people – that their lives were compelling. I think what a saint does is anticipate the life of heaven, living in a way that only makes sense in the context of God’s eternal bliss. Saints show you on earth a pattern of what might be, for you, for everyone.
I wouldn’t recommend some of their austerities though. Rose of Lima rubbing chilli peppers into her face to remind her of the sufferings of Christ, that’s not a discipline I’d advocate.
So they’re just not wacky stories?
No, though I do like wacky stories. Christianity is a wacky story. I don’t shy from wackiness.
Does sainthood itself appeal to you?
I think God wants us all to be saints, but I wouldn’t put money on my own canonisation. If we just let God do God’s work then we will all be saints; the thing is we put up so much resistance to the programme – and priests are notorious for putting up excessive resistance.
Why is that?
If you deal every day with the stuff of faith, you have the danger of becoming rather pedestrian about it. I think where it goes wrong for priests is not so much lapses into egregious sin, as lapses into colourlessness and boredom. Saints are never colourless and never boring.
Can we talk about your background? Was there much religion in your upbringing?
In the background, yes. My mother came from a very low church Anglican background, my father came from a very indifferent Anglican background, so I can’t say that it was rigorous. But I was a chorister from when I was about eight – loved the music, loved chapel, but didn’t believe any of it for a second. So a very Anglican start – I liked the smell, but I didn’t really want to be part of it.
Would your parents have had any inkling that you might end up where you are today?
None at all. I remember my father urging on me with unusual force not to get ordained. So I’ve been a grave disappointment to him.
Do you get where that attitude comes from?
Yes, I do. He’s a very gentle man, and the worst I’ve ever heard him say about anything is: “It’s a bit weird,” and he thinks religion is a bit weird. He goes, and receives communion, but doesn’t like enthusiasm or waving your arms around – in religion, in politics.
Do you look back on yourself as a young atheist and feel there was something you were missing then, or was it just a different stage of your life?
There was definitely something missing. There were gaps in my life that accumulated into a real hole. And that’s where faith took a home. I realised that I hadn’t been living fully before, because it’s difficult to live fully without some kind of spiritual life. I do think it’s good for people. Sometimes it can produce very bad things, of course, but it brings a richness and a depth of reflection to life. I’m not saying it’s the only way you can get it, but it’s the only way I can get it.
Your pop career happened thanks to a car accident.
Yes, when I was 19 I was run over, and with the compensation money I bought a saxophone. I was already a pianist, but the saxophone was my entry to the pop world, which is bizarre when you consider how bad I was at it.
It was a pretty rapid career trajectory.
I was lucky in that I knew Jimmy Somerville, and hitched my wagon to one of the most prodigiously talented singers of his generation, so I never had to do that thing of going up and down the M6 in a van, we went straight in with a chart topping single. In a sense I was lucky, though it’s not always good if things come too easy. It was like winning the lottery. These things do change us.
Yes, on the whole. It was incredibly well rewarded and I would not hand it back. But I never really liked being a pop star. I wasn’t cut out for it. Jimmy and I had a rather difficult relationship, and I don’t miss that.
In what way were you not cut out to be a pop star?
I didn’t really like pop music. And there’s something awful about compulsory fun that makes me want to go and drink White Lightning. Also, who was I trying to kid? In videos the record company made me stand at the back and move the lights so they didn’t fall on me at all. A great face for radio, as they say.
And I had preposterously grandiose ideas of pop music being at the vanguard of a revolution, and pop music is at its best when it’s honest and authentic, which was Jimmy.
But there was a political dimension to pop in the 1980s, wasn’t there, which is completely missing under today’s Tory government.
I think you can hear it in some music of black origin. What’s different about the 80s is that “Smalltown Boy”, Bronski Beat’s first hit, was in the charts at the same time as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and George Michael, so there was something about pop and sexuality that was very potent. I’m glad that we had an opportunity to put into the mainstream a different version of what gay people were like. That was a good thing to do. People like that sometimes had a very significant effect on the lives of people who were coming out in places like Kettering where I come from.
Tell us how you became a Christian.
When I got to the end of pop music there was a lot of soulsearching. We had that great success and vindication, but it coincided with the arrival of HIV. All of a sudden people in our circle of friends were getting terribly ill and dying in ways which were completely unimaginable. It was then that I discovered this hole in my life that was calling out for something to fill it.
I started getting religious twinges, so I went to see a psychiatrist which was, I thought, the place to take that sort of thing, and he told me to see a priest. As soon as I got over my reluctance to walk through the door, I realised it was my natural habitat, I felt completely at home there.
I had had a year of mad drug-taking and getting into scrapes, and that made me look an idiot. It was rather humiliating, and that was good, because pop stars need humiliating. It made me think: “I’ve got to learn the rudiments of discipleship”. And once I’d decided to do that, it came very quickly.
You have a parish ministry. Do you also see it as a ministry to represent Christianity in the media?
I’m much more comfortable trying to represent it in parish ministry. If you’re in the mainstream media, people want you to be Derek Nimmo or the Vicar of Dibley. And that’s not what I want to be. You have to think of ways to be authentic to your tradition, but not completely unintelligible.
What do you want to be that’s not Derek Nimmo or the Vicar of Dibley?
I want to look like someone who’s living a life that everyone else is living – with commitments and principles, enjoying the things that one enjoys, enduring the things that one has to endure – but with a public and obvious commitment to the Gospel. Which is becoming an increasingly unusual thing in the world in which I live.
I know how to do it – it’s about having your priorities right and maintaining a life of prayer – but it’s quite hard sometimes.
What do you think of the public profile of the Church today?
It’s an interesting one. The more media part of me switches on the news and my heart sinks when I hear the latest clumsy debacle that we’ve got ourselves into. But there’s a more thoughtful part of me that doesn’t mind it so much, because I think the Church will always look weird, especially when mainstream values are so far from the values that we would want to sustain and cherish – the capitulation to materialism that is such a hallmark of our culture, and endless consumerist self-absorption – all of which I manifest in my own life. Christianity’s got something very powerful to offer as a correction to that. That’s inevitably going to make us look weird, but it’s being the right sort of weird.
Was there any concern about the “weirdness” of having a priest present a non-religious programme such as Saturday Live?
It doesn’t seem weird to me. But yes, some people deeply resent the fact that there’s someone in a dog collar on the telly doing these sorts of things. I do what I do now because I saw other people make it look possible; I like to think that by doing this I might make it look possible to others.
What about the Church’s attitude to gay people?
Well, poor old church, in a way, coming from a long history where the notion of homosexuality is so difficult. I don’t share that view, but I hope to be patient; and there’s a lot of opportunity for creativity in the tension between those two, provided people aren’t unspeakably foul to each other. I do think it’s important that we model, even in our most intense disagreements, a way of seeking reconciliation, a way of acknowledging the God-given dignity of those with whom we disagree.
In Britain, I think more and more people are getting used to gay people just being around. It’s been a really rapid change, and rapid change isn’t always easy. I’ve been very moved: if you can, with honesty and sacrifice, move from a position which is cherished to you, that’s very impressive. Christians from a conservative background have moved far – way beyond their comfort zone sometimes – and that’s greatly to their credit. It’s a different world, for me, from what it was even 10 years ago.
The way forward, to use an ugly expression, is never to abandon reconciliation and to be decent to each other.
This article was published in the February 2014 edition of Reform.