‘Fathomless Riches’ by Richard Coles

FR(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I’ve met Fr. Coles twice, before he was ordained, and thought he was pompous and snobby. I read this book too quickly and felt sad when there was no more to read (a sequel, please?) and I now realise that his outward manner was hiding insecurity so I have warmed to him. Pun intended, ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ (Though, literally, the cover is an unsuccessful attempt to imitate Gilbert and George – or, less likely, Pierre et Gilles.)

As a teenager ambling along the sea front on a Sunday night, I remember the Salvation Army starting up around 8.00 and people giving their personal testimony. One was a prostitute with a drug habit until she got converted. I always felt they were more interesting before they got God. This book is written in that style. However, the absorbing, non-pious bits are quite a large section which deals with the Communards and Red Wedge. There is a harrowing section about the era of AIDS called ‘Auntie Ada’. It includes a good funeral conducted by the Salvation Army where there is no coy cover up of gayness nor the cause of the death – which was rare back then. A poignant account of another funeral: coffin carried by friends who did not have much to lift by the time the virus had finished with him.

However, there is much that is life-affirming in the recounting of AIDS stories, such as the real goodness of so many people.

Someone in our book group is thinking of suggesting this book for one of our future meetings. I wondered whether some people might be put off my the amount of religion but it’s not until page 197 (of a total of 278 pages) that it starts in earnest and, even then, there are plenty of other topics like being a radio presenter.

Pete Bennett of Big Brother fame, gets a mention as he was bought by his mother on one of their tours.

The author’s childhood is revealing. At age 6 he had a reading age of 12 and his mother told him off for showing off. He was an accomplished liar and referred to as a ‘peculiar little boy.’ He was the last to be chosen for team games, like me, and, also like me, had plaster busts of Bach and Beethoven.

Like me, he stayed up late at night until into his forties.

As a choirboy, he sang canticles by Dyson, Stanford and Noble which were also in our repertoire when I was in a choir. His choirmaster insisted that the Oxford Easy Anthem book was hidden behind a cover so that the word ‘easy’ wasn’t on display.

I think I was an atheist before he was. It seems to be a good rehearsal for doing theology later on. Indeed, people who believe in everything tend to make mediocre theologians.

He has good taste in men, judging by the photo of Matthew. (Though his first sex was late, at age eighteen)

He mentions Jennings and Darbishire, of whom I had never heard, which shows that he’s more middle class than me.

When he is warned that masturbation can make you go blind, his eyesight is so poor that he decides to risk it.

There are various allusions to Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (a couple didn’t simply get married, they were ‘joined together in Holy matrimony.) and the King James Bible (her son was ‘not as other men are’) throughout, which will probably be lost to younger readers.

There’s a few good literary allusions, like ‘feasting with panthers’ (Oscar Wilde, for those who don’t recognise the phrase.) And ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar (of Communism.) – Matthew Arnold.

Of Jimmy Somerville: His sexual appetite was immeasurable, his bedpost, had he notched it, would have whittled away to a lace bobbin in a fortnight.

I loved this account: they lived in Kensington in a squat shared with some drag queens, one of whom, while dressed as Norma Desmond, stole a vacuum cleaner from Barkers in Kensington High Street, grabbing it by its nozzle and dragging it behind him out of the store, running as fast as his size eleven sling-backs allowed

I had to look up ‘Mivvi’ – ice lolly. Not posh, though I later had to look up croque-en-bouche = a French dessert consisting of choux pastry balls piled into a cone and bound with threads of caramel. I’d never heard of Boden but I now know that it is a brand name for a certain type of clothing.

Coles at his poshest: and I was sent on a Diocesan Or­dinations Day, when I rather misinterpreted the instruction to bring a packed lunch by choosing a lovely jar of chicken liver parfait with brioche and dessert of a tarte aux fiaises des bois and a half-bottle of Sauternes. Everyone else had Dairylea sandwiches and a packet of Quavers.

He describes the era in which there was no long a ‘one size fits all’ gay identity: We were not like our immediate gay predecessors, with their moustaches and leather caps and hanky codes, at the Colherne and Copacabana in Earls Court; we rejected the look, the culture, the woefully inadequate politics.

I enjoyed: It was the generation before ours on London’s gay scene that were the real pioneers, the founders of Gay Sweatshop and Gay News, and one of the most able of the pioneers was Andy Lipman. He was a blond nice Jewish boy from Leeds, grammar school alumnus, clever and driven, who had gone to Oxford to read Law, dated an aristocratic girl, very sketchily, and then came out as gay. He went home to tell his mum. ‘Thank God,’ she said, ‘I thought you’d married a shiksa.’

I well remember the era when ‘the personal is political’ and this working out thus: We were all sleeping together, even me, though nervously, in the spirit of Walt Whitman’s ‘army of lovers’, and the intensity of those relationships tell on the screen. To sleep with someone was not only to form an attachment, however fleeting (some very fleeting indeed): it was an expression of autonomy, of freedom — the personal really was political — and while today we might think the bedroom door a good place to check our ideological baggage we brought it right in with us then.

I also remember the left of the time with its ever increasing schisms: I had started going to Socialist Workers Party meetings, a Trot­skyist group on the hard left, immensely active but also notorious for the ruthlessness and relentlessness of its politics and for fielding about ten students for every proper worker on its demos. I once took Lorna along to a meeting in West Hampstead but she was denounced for offering to pay for some literature by cheque, an act of collusion with the military—industrial complex that dismayed the comrades. Other friends of mine were involved with the International Marxist Group, who ran jolly camping weekenders when everyone fell out; the Spartacists, whose slogans were almost as long as manifestos; the Workers Revolutionary Party, which seemed to appeal particularly strongly to artists; and then the Revolutionary Communist Party, which I seem to remember split, with the frequency of boy bands, into the Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency. It had an annual conference which one year, with commendable ambition, was called ‘Preparing for Power’. It seems a very distant world now, not least the passionate conviction of both left and right, and the bloodthirstiness of the revolutionary impulse. The violence was a bit theoretical for me until, on an SWP outing to the picket lines at Eddie Shah’s newspaper printing press at Warrington, where the NGA, another powerful union, was taking on a rising press baron, I discovered that I was not cut out for the front line. I chanted beautifully and pushed to the front, but when I was confronted by police officers with batons I changed my mind and got caught trying to retreat in the push forwards, whacked a few times and then caught under a crush of falling comrades. Unable to breathe I panicked and screamed, letting the side down, and was chastised for this in the minibus on the way home by a solemn and righteous young woman. Armchair socialism was more my thing…

He narrowly missed the pleasure boat Marchionness, which sank, because of a serious water leak in his flat.

His experience of High Mass at S. Alban’s Holborn is almost exactly the same as mine, though I was an adolescent in a small town anglo-catholic church when I had mine. The elevation of the consecrated host, by sacred ministers wearing damask vestments, surrounded by clouds of incense and attended to by torchbearers is wonderful for those of us who love drama. It was John Wesley who said that Holy Communion was ‘a converting ordinance’ though he was only used to Cranmer’s rite conducted from the north end of the table. I’m not sure that Coles is right to describe it as a ‘protestant’ conversion, not least because it was a shared experience in community rather than an individual surrender in a private room or a ‘going forward’ at some evangelistic rally.

Some people that I know personally feature. The diligent master of ceremonies at S. Alban’s is remarkably patient despite his perfectionism. (And I loved this bit: On Palm Sunday, which marks the beginning of the week that culminates with Easter, there was a procession round the parish, everyone carrying palm crosses as a reminder of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Our trium­phal progress round Holborn was led by the Master of Ceremonies, who used a special stick to indicate piles of dog shit imperilling our seemly progress.) Sara Maitland is exactly the sort of person to point Coles in the right direction (once she has stopped talking) and Fr. Gaskell has been a blessing to countless numbers of people.

I am not sure I liked his ‘outing’ of some gay clergy (unless they were already out and/or had given him permission to do so. Coles tells his own story built I am not so sure that he should tell stories that belong to others.

I enjoyed: AKC, as Associates of King’s College, though unofficially those initials are said to stand for Another Kinky Clergyman.

I too, as a fresher experience: and told him I was going off to college. `What are you studying?’ he asked. I said, ‘Theology.’ He said, ‘Ge­ology?’ I said, ‘Theology.’ He said, ‘Geology?’ It took me three goes before he got it.

But I loathe Karl Barth so cannot agree that he was: the greatest theologian of the twen­tieth century

I have an atheist friend who regularly goes on retreat to Buckfast Abbey and who will scream with laughter when I tell him that it is nicknamed, because of its business acumen, ‘Fastbuck Abbey.

I loathe dogs but was moved by: One day there was a commotion outside. Billy’s dog was on heat and she had got out onto the roof terrace and from there saw another dog walk­ing down the street, a temptation so irresistible she jumped off the terrace to fling herself at him in a moment of pheromonal madness. She hit the ground and howled in pain. Billy and I ran out into the street to be confronted by a familiar predicament in four-legged form, disabling pain following the reckless pursuit of an unsuitable attachment.

I’ve heard Coles tell this story before and thought his reference to the shoes (and, in another place, white socks, to be snobby, though I fully agree with his comment about people being welcome: I sat at the back as others worshipped, connecting with nothing. After it fin­ished a man offered me a cup of coffee, but he was wearing grey slip-on moccasins and I thought, as Nathanael thought, that noth­ing good could come from that. I made my excuses and left. It was not only that I disliked the aesthetics of that place. The Christian Church was the enemy; in a general sense, the defender of reaction, obfuscation and distributor of opium to the people; in a specific sense, the most implacable enemy of gay liberation, the most consistent in opposition to the liberalisation of law and culture, and not a place of welcome. How I hated, and still dislike, those signs outside churches saying All Welcome, when actually some of us were, and are, as welcome as Typhoid Mary at a parish lunch.

The recent synod on the family, which voted against welcoming homosexuals into the church, will lead to a perpetuation of his experience in confession of a priest focussing on homosexual ‘genital acts’ rather than in helping him ‘to be more attentive, more forbearing, more clear-sighted, more just, more loving, in my relationships with other people’.

I think that we Anglicans do confession better – maybe because there are fewer punters so we can take more time on it and go into more depth than just a shopping list of misdemeanours.

I was aware that Ephesians was probably not written by S. Paul but not that is it probably not an epistle, nor that it wasn’t meant for Ephesus. Now that I think about it, it lacks the traditional salutations and some manuscripts omit reference to that city.

I didn’t know there was a gay porn star called Harry Enfield in addition to the bloke on the telly.

To those people who think gay clergy just enjoy dressing up, there is a description of one: in the inner city, crunching discarded syringes underfoot as he went from vicarage to church, just trying to keep things going.

Coles was unfortunate in having a migraine at his selection conference (he describes the procedure by which would-be ordinands are screened very well) and a heavy cold just before his ordination.

His descriptions of Mirfield, especially during Holy Week, brought back fond memories for me, though I don’t think Peter Allen would like to be described as ‘short and silky’. I was sad to see that a coterie choose ‘names in religion’ (drag names) for new students. I thought that only happened at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford. Same with alcohol – but now I can see why Coles thought that a cocktail cabinet was essential equipment for a seminarian.

I can better his account of a student and guest noisily having sex on Good Friday. When I was there, some years previously, a couple had sex on a single bed on the guest wing. The legs collapsed and the bed crashed on to the stone floor during the greater silence before the Easter Vigil and the whole wing was awake.

I had forgotten how liturgically fussy the place was, where errors of choreography or speech/singing were jumped on. I remember the late Brother Dunstan interjecting, ‘That’s the wrong reading’. And it’s not as if anyone was going to preach on the text during a weekday evensong.

Literally food for thought: We were put on endless weekly rotas to take our turns in various duties and in the first week mine was clearing away dinner and lunch with our Zimbabwean ordinand, Luke, a lovely quiet and reserved man from a country far away that was falling apart under Mugabe’s increasingly mental rule. After supper, scrap­ing spuds into a black plastic bin, he seemed more than usually quiet and I asked if he was OK. ‘You have just thrown away more than my family sees in a month,’ he said, without any emotion.

A challenge to our stereotypes comes from his visit to: Bangladesh I remember most vividly, visiting a tribal village that we could only reach by walking through jungle, and being woken up in the morning with a just picked mango brought by a Bangladeshi who shyly asked me if I could answer a question. I said I would try As the sun rose on the bustling jungle and the fresh mango fizzed on my tongue he said, ‘How do you account for the pessimism in the novels of Thomas Hardy?’

I had an interesting interlude finding about what a Dieux du Stade calendar was.

His feelings about Uganda and the Anglican Communion are a lesson for some of us: I thought of a community of Old Etonian Eng­lishmen in cassocks living quietly in a monastery in Yorkshire in the fifties and sixties, so outraged by the iniquity of apartheid that they devoted their lives to fighting it, and loving its victims, and getting arrested and imprisoned and exiled for their troubles. And whenever I hear of the Church in Africa mistreating gay people, and think `screw the Anglican Communion’, I think of Aelred and Steve Biko and Trevor and a fifteen-year-old boy crying because someone he had never met gave him a trumpet.

(I remember reading, in the 1960s) about the boy Hugh Masekela getting a trumpet from Fr. Trevor Huddleston and hadn’t realised he was still alive. Reading about Steve Biko’s widow was also good. So maybe the Communion is worth preserving after all.)

Coles was the first to visit the vestment sellers setting up stalls in the college. Why doesn’t that surprise me?

After an unsuccessful religious broadcast, someone denounced Coles as ‘the worst thing to happen to Christendom since Charles Darwin.’ That’s very far from the mark since a friend of mine who works in schools says that the only priest that most of the kids approve of is Richard Coles. Whither mission to a new generation if clergy like him are to be demonised?

The C of E‘s most vociferous killjoys, a group ironically called ‘Reform’ have stated, ‘The promiscuous behaviour, it seems, was not seen as sin leading to lostness from which he needed salvation, but a positive part of Coles’ spiritual journey, affirming him as a good and attractive person, from where he felt able to move towards God to satisfy the hunger in his soul. He says this: “Do I think it was consistent with a Christian calling? No. We are called upon to be faithful. But it was extremely healing for me. Would I repudiate it? No…I can’t.”….. A much more serious problem is the ‘Gospel’ he is promoting, whereby sexual excess liberates the soul and affirms the believer in his or her identity and self worth, leading to closer encounter with God and eventual settling into domestic “faithfulness”. Some are no doubt thinking that this Gospel could become popular and even arrest the decline of the C of E, asking why we haven’t thought of it before. Will Church leaders, ‘faithful’ in the true sense of the word, dare to speak and act against what is an ancient and destructive heresy?

Well, the ‘destructive heresy’ is that promoted by Reform – they seem completely unaware of the spiritual classics’ take on desire. They are also aware of the lives of the great saints. Reform, need to repent of the false god, which is an idol that they have created in its own image.

There is more spiritual wisdom in this encounter: Advent is traditionally a time for repentance, so we went off to see our spiritual directors, monks of the community, one by one. I sat with mine, in a little room with a box of tissues and a clock in his sightline but not mine. ‘How’s it going?’ he asked. ‘Really bad,’ I said. I told him about what had been going on, which I was sure he knew about, and let rip about the foolishness and unkindness of some of the people who I had to live with and work it out with. `Go on,’ he said. I paused and thought and said: ‘I’m not as kind as I thought I was. I’m not as brave as I thought I was. I’m not as toler­ant as I thought I was. I’m not as clever as I thought I was. I’m not as honest as I thought I was.’ There was a pause and he said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’

And it was. The problem was not the awfulness of others, the problem was the awfulness of me, so stuck in my self-regard that I had not seen how marginal my angst was to what was happening all around me. And the only thing I could do about it was deal with my own awfulness, because the awfulness of others was for them to deal with and, besides, how could I even begin to see straight until I had cleared my own eyes of obstruction.

There are a few errors in memory – Gay Sweatshop did not precede but succeeded Consenting Adults. Gay News was monthly, not weekly.

Compline does not come from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its English form is from the ‘deposited book’ of1928

I wish there was an index. I wanted to find mention of bassist David Renwick (pp. 81, 104)

The book ends with his diaconal ordination with a lovely anecdote: Nicky, vicar of the church down on the estate, where lives could be as rough as any lives anywhere. … told me that the bishop had been recently to confirm some of her kids and asked them before the service if they had any questions. There was silence, apart from one girl who said, ‘I’ve nicked this top from me nan, but do you think it shows too much tit for church?’

A wonderful book that made me reflect upon my own life; a life and experiences similar in some ways and different in others. I was moved to tears after reading some chapters and one of those who rarely ‘allows’ tears.

return to the home page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: