NEWS13 March 2019

Reverend Richard Coles: politics, pop and the Church of England

Impact 2019 News People Trends UK Youth

UK – The church should forget thinking like a brand and focus less on getting young people through its doors, according to the Reverend Richard Coles, in an often comic and sometimes controversial conversation at MRS Impact 2019.


Coles also talked sexuality and celebrity, pop, politics and youth engagement in a wide-ranging discussion with Alison Camps, deputy chairman, Quadrangle.

Introducing the Reverend’s keynote session, Camps said Coles had the “ultimate portfolio career”, highlighting his BBC broadcasting duties, his stints on celebrity shows, his time as an ‘80s popstar in both Bronsky Beat and The Communards as well as his vocation of parish priest.

“Sometimes the church offers a half-life rather than the fullness of life”

When asked whether the Church of England was a brand and whether companies could learn from it, Coles said no, though said there was temptation to “make sure we give the right kind of message” to address the haemorrhaging of numbers.

“Someone said we needed a mission statement,” he said. “But what we do is so different to our [wider] culture values. We have problems, and I kind of like that. I like that we’re seen as hopeless and bumble around; that we’re not afraid of failure.

“Mary Magdalen went to the graveyard expecting a body in the tomb but she found a life transformed. That’s really what we’re for and I don’t think that that is something we can easily articulate.”

In a similar vein he cautioned against a drive to bring more young people into the church. Instead, they should go out and live life to the full – the church will be there for them later, as it was for him.

“As a vicar I spend a lot of time with older people but recently I have spent a lot of time with young people and they are stimulating in a different way. Younger people don’t know their limits yet. It makes them exciting, risky and bold.”

Why music was personal and political

Speaking about his own early life from public schoolboy to popstar via the gay pubs, clubs and social scene of 1980s London was equally revealing – he loved it, but wouldn’t want to go back.

“That was then – this is now,” he continued. “The thing I most miss is the vindication. We were runaways. As a young gay man in Kettering in 1978 I knew there was a richer life somewhere else.

“At the time a gay man was seen as clandestine, almost criminal or mincingly mad. There weren’t many opportunities so we made our own. We discovered music but it was more than being in a pop band, it was a vindication of who we were and what we stood for… Music was a personal and political inspiration – a purpose to galvanise people. From a branding point of view we were trying to change perceptions.”

He spoke about how lucky they were to come after the first generation of gay liberation and how the punk revolution gave them the energy and edge to build on the societal and political ambitions of the previous generation.

“We thought as young gay men we were part of a wider movement: feminism, the left – a rainbow coalition. We were wrong about that but there was a change in attitudes around sexual politics.”

The end of “grand narratives”?

He believes that the particular type of political energy is missing – or at least different – today. “I don’t think that there are grand narratives any more. There are stories. For us, then, political parties came with a backstory and I don’t think it does in the same way today,” he said, citing a young parishioner who switched alliance from Ukip to Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn at the last election.

It is partly because of the rise of social media and how people today get and spread their information and ideas from. An avid Twitter user, he believes social media is both addictive and tends towards the extremes of opinion rather than the middle ground, and suggests that etiquette online, or an ethical framework, has lagged behind the technology behind it.

Being a vicar in the age of celebrity

Perhaps best known today for his stint on Strictly Come Dancing or his BBC radio show, Cole admitted that his celebrity gave him a very different, but oddly complementary, aspect to life as a parish vicar.  

“The definition of celebrity today is so diverse. There are so many celebrity [TV] formats that they have to cast the net wider. I did one the other day where they chomped through celebs,” he said. “Someone said they were from Love Island – I actually thought that was a place! As a celebrity today you can be a parish vicar or a Love Island love rat and find yourselves together in Salford. The format is the thing and celebrities are the items in it, the churn.”

Celebrity gives him an edge as a vicar and allows him to enter the “mainstream conversation”. “I feel like a mission priest in a way, to make sense of things to people who have very little understanding of who vicars are.

“Being a popstar you get to stand in front of lots of people at a time in their life when they are particularly engaged and involved in experiencing things for the first time. I can be part of the soundtrack of their lives.

“As a vicar you can open the door in other ways. Religions have been around for a long time. They might be irrelevant for a lot of people but many still go to church for Christmas once a year and they experience something significant. You sense that they connect with something deep, a powerful story that was there before them and will be there after they’ve gone.”