Reverend Richard Coles: It is not “difficult to reconcile” homosexuality and Christianity
Tonight’s motion revolved around celebrity fandom, and you described your own work as an entertainer as “just showing off”?
I think I probably didn’t know what I was talking about. To do what I do, I think there is an element of performance to that and there is a kind of fuel for that performance, which is the kind of bonfire of narcissism, where you derive those images. I feel deeply conflicted about it, but I think it’s a good opportunity to shine some light in places where it otherwise wouldn’t go. I think it’s very interesting to see what celebrity status can give you in terms of reach. For example, when I’m on a panel show, I get to do religious ghetto stuff, which I never wanted to do, but it’s 10 million people, to whom I can present things they wouldn’t come across at all, if not for those 3 minutes on Friday mornings. That’s the price worth paying for inflating the narcissistic elements within you, which aren’t necessarily part of being a performed, but that’s usually a constant.
You seem to be outspoken about these “narcissistic elements”. Is that why you opposed the motion?
I think there are similarities between celebrity fandom and religious association, but they are, actually, very different things, indeed. So why did I do it? I guess I wanted to meet Katie Price. Who wouldn’t?
You’re an openly gay man, and you were a former Roman Catholic. Those used to be mutually exclusive, which has only changed very recently. Were these two aspects hard to reconcile, or has something fundamentally changed within the Church?
Not for me; I’ve never found it personally difficult to reconcile the two, but then again, I never had any doubt that homosexuality was a variation of the universal theme of sexuality, and God has no problem with that at all. The Church does, historically, for obvious doctrinal reasons. What I liked about being Roman Catholic was that you had to work through that stuff. I enjoyed its rigour. After a while, I realized that I actually didn’t, and felt that there were constraints on living a life of integrity. I stopped being a Roman Catholic and returned to being Anglican, and discovered I was more Anglican than I thought I was. One of the things I like about Anglicanism is what used to annoy me about it, which is the reluctance to be doctrinally rigorous, the haziness of it, which can be very frustrating sometimes, and in the end becomes a benign fog, in which people can live. I met someone, and wanted to share my life in a way that wouldn’t cost me too much in terms of integrity.
Unfortunately, many still view these aspects of life as fundamentally different and mutually exclusive. Do you think your role as an openly homosexual, Christian public figure has had a positive impact on young religious people who are still coming to terms with their sexual orientation.
God, I would hope so! I don’t know for certain; occasionally people say nice things about me, but some will also detest me and find my display objectionable. I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a gay Christian. I stopped thinking about myself as much of anything, really. I really like the acts of the apostles, which talks about people who are “in the way”, who follow the way, and I think of myself as that. My sexuality, which seems less and less interesting to me, though it is still, what it is. I spoke to a young man in his twenties today, and had to ask him what being gay was like today, simply because it is entirely different from the time when my sexuality was important to me. However, I don’t think about it much in terms of how it forms my identity.
Do you think the Church has changed, especially since the Western world, at large, has begun to legalise homosexual marriage?
I think some of it has. Unfortunately, some still view it as a place they are not willing to go, and it must be agonisingly difficult for them, but more and more people are less and less bothered. Now, there are still exceptions. I was at an assembly in a primary school today, and one of the kids asked, if I was gay. I said, “yes”, and felt a little shudder run down my spine. It reminded me that it wasn’t that long ago that it would have been dangerous to say that, whereas now that is fine, and nobody batted an eyelid, but that does tell you something about the distance we still have to come.
Speaking of young people, what advice would you give to them?
Don’t listen to advice from people.
It shouldn’t be offered, and it also shouldn’t be asked for. You have to make your way in the world, get out the door, engage. Be authentic. Just don’t listen to advice. People always ask for it, and it is always wrong.
If advice isn’t the way to go, should young people then seek role models in celebrities, or religion, or, perhaps, neither? Or both?
I heavily disapprove of role models. I think they are like heroes – they fade. I admire many people for what they have achieved, but I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want to meet them.
Well, you did say that you wanted to meet Katie Price…
Me and my big mouth. The mystery of existence and perception… just make yourself aware of that mystery. I love that story about Jeremy Hopkins, when he was in Dublin. Every time he would look at a fly, people would think he was stupid, but actually, I think he was absorbed by the mystery of existence.