Richard Lloyd Morgan is warm and welcoming, insisting on offering tea and biscuits before we start. We sit across a coffee table in his comfortable room overlooking King’s College Chapel.
He describes the Chapel as "one of the greatest buildings on Earth", but to find out how he ended up here, I begin by asking about his upbringing. He describes a "wild, outdoors existence". “My father worked in the colonial service in Nigeria, and we lived there from a very young age.” He was sent to boarding school in England at the age of eight. “It suits some children; it doesn’t suit others. It didn’t suit me, but there was no alternative.”
It was at school that he came to love music and theatre. He tells me: “I took a choral scholarship at Trinity, here in Cambridge, on shocking A-Level results. I studied English, and loved it.” He went on to become a teacher, though over time he began to do less teaching and more part-time singing, until he eventually went full-time.
Trying to understand why this successful opera singer decided to get ordained, I ask him whether his Christian faith was always an important part of his life. He pauses. “Yes, insofar as I thought about it at all. My parents both had strong, unspoken faiths. We were taken to church as children, and at boarding school we were shoved into chapel most days of the week.”
At Trinity, his Dean of Chapel was Harry Williams, a radical theologian. It is clear that he left a lasting impression; his name comes up several times during our conversation. “He was a quite astonishing man, with great passion for his faith. But also great anger, and great sadness, and great depression, actually. But somehow his faith shone through it. He was quite extraordinarily inspirational.” Would he have been surprised to learn that he would go on to be ordained? The answer is confident: “Yes – astonished. And frightened.” And what changed?
“My partner, one of the most important people in my life, died very unexpectedly. I remember thinking, ‘Is that it? Because if that’s it, I’m not impressed. And if that isn’t it, then what is there? Where do we go from here?’ It wasn’t a revelation, like the road to Damascus. Very slowly – and it took years – I began to think, ‘What about ordination?’
“The people who I found impressive as Christians were the mavericks, who asked the awkward questions, who were a pain in the side of authority, who didn’t take 'yes' for an unchallenged answer. And I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll go with that.’"
He was ordained in 1998, and joined King’s in 2003. “What I’m not good at is buttonholing people and saying, ‘Are you saved?’ I don’t think it’s up to me to say you’ve got to accept the Lord as your Saviour by the time you take your finals. I think that’s nonsense. He may want you to go through all sorts of other by-ways and tributaries, before you come back. You might not be interested in exploring the Christian faith until you’re fifty."
He begins to speak more slowly. “I was in my third year as an undergraduate when things became very difficult. I had an elder brother who died, and suddenly writing an essay for the English Tripos seemed of absolutely no consequence. I spoke to one of the Chaplains, who never said, ‘Shall we pray about this?’ He just realised that somebody was having a bad time.
“It doesn’t occur to me, if someone comes to say they’re having a horrible time, to say, ‘Do you believe in God?’ Or, ‘Shall we just offer this up in prayer?’"
There is a rumour I would like to verify: has Richard Lloyd Morgan really been on Ready Steady Cook? He laughs. “Yes, it was fun,” he says, before adding, “And I won. The application process is full of questions like ‘ten people I would most like to invite to a dinner party’, and it’s always going to be Nelson Mandela, or Winston Churchill, or Oliver Cromwell, or Jesus or something. So you can send it up, and if they think you sound lunatic enough, they ask you to come to an audition. I was with Anthony Worall Thompson, and we cooked steak, Savoy cabbage, and a Mars bar, I think – it was something ridiculous.”
He has also appeared in sketches with French and Saunders, and Victoria Wood, in his opera singing days. More recently he auditioned for The Great British Bake Off. “They whittled it down from 13,000 to 250, and I had to take my specimen bakes down to Bristol. Well try trundling two cakes down from Cambridge to Bristol, on a train, without it all falling to bits. And I did have to 'fess up, when I was being interviewed with my cakes, that I had actually bought the puff pastry for my pie. They looked so traumatised that I thought, ‘Well that’s blown me out of the water.’”
Aside from his culinary interests, what does he do to relax? “Conservation. Before his death, my partner was a wildlife vet, working at London Zoo. We spent time with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. It was extraordinarily moving. My heart is infinitely nourished by wildlife. I’m lucky.”
What are his musical guilty pleasures? “I suppose, to hear really good, grown-up opera singing. It’s overwhelming. If you listen to the great Verdian sopranos in their prime, it is the voice of God.”
Richard Lloyd Morgan, it strikes me, is a man who allows himself to be affected: by music, by the beauty of King’s College Chapel, by nature, and by people and their stories. His story-telling is infectious; I found myself completely drawn in. Even if you disagree that the great Verdian sopranos count as a guilty pleasure, you cannot help but be moved by someone who is moved as much as him.
In the print edition we reported that Richard spoke to Christopher Ryan following his brother's death. This was incorrect. He spoke to one of the then Trinity chaplains. Christopher Ryan was Dean of King's when Richard joined in 2003.