An evening with Richard Coles at Milton under Wychwood Village Hall
Lucid, well-grounded, comfortable and confident in his faith, an articulate and entertaining raconteur, fascinating, happy to respond to challenging questions, liked him more than I expected: these are just a few of the comments which followed Richard Coles’ visit to Milton Village Hall on March 8th. Invited by Wychwood Circle to address the topic “Christianity for grown-ups”, Richard spoke of his own rejection of his father’s and grandfather’s Anglicanism and of conversations with people who did not appear to have developed their ideas of God beyond what they picked up in childhood.
He touched on his wild (and godless) career in pop music and the glory and celebrity which he enjoyed as a young man: life in the Communards, he said, was bound to ‘feed the bonfire of your ego’. And he was frank about the emptiness and the need he found in himself subsequently. In Edinburgh for the Festival one year he felt drawn to St Mary’s Cathedral and experienced what he called a hunger which he later identified as being met only by the church’s sacraments (such as the bread and wine within the eucharisitic liturgy). He went from psychologist to counsellor to the colour and drama of St Alban’s in Holborn where he was greatly inspired by the priest there and by participation in the worship and rituals of high-church Anglicanism.
Though not naturally inclined to do so, he felt he should enrol at King’s College, London, to study theology and later went to theological college and spent time in an Eastern monastery. For such an urbane and public person, broadcaster and inveterate user of social media, it was intriguing to find him talking about the prayer discipline he learned at Mirfield, about the wonder and mystery which he experiences in the traditional liturgy, devised in previous generations to try and clarify or express that mystery.
Whatever his past and present celebrity, he comes across as natural and down-to-earth, open and humble, quietly confident and comfortable in himself and with others. Speaking to him individually before or afterwards, you felt that he was looking straight at you and giving you his full attention. You find yourself envying his parishioners. “He exemplifies religion as something one does, more than a set of propositions one believes”, commented one member of the audience, “with his emphasis on living a life of prayer and service to the community”.
The community he serves is a vast one. Vicar of an ordinary parish in Northamptonshire which he shares with his partner and 4 dachshunds, he says he likes to go out and enjoy day-to-day contact with the people of his parish. But he also has 70,000 followers on Twitter and posts daily on Facebook: he sees himself as a ‘mission priest’ and his virtual parish must extend all over the world. The only moment in his talk when he seemed to be trying to convert anyone was in his enthusiasm for social media and its potential to communicate and explore ideas widely.
As someone who is a church-goer said afterwards, ‘Perhaps he needs to come again so we can consider further just how we might grow into grown-up Christians!’ Others, whatever their worldview and however sceptical, will nevertheless remember his sincerity and his professed ‘hunger’ for the sacraments. Richard quoted Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going, which includes these lines:
Since someone will forever be surprisingA hunger in himself to be more serious,And gravitating with it to this ground,Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in…