Live postcards from the PurpleBeach Experience 2017

By Richard Davies

From Popstar to priest

Date Posted: April, 6 2017

“If I didn’t know this was real I would think it was the work of a fantasist.”  That was one extreme reaction to Richard Cole’s CV.  Having been a founder member of 80s pop bands Bronski Beat and The Communards, Richard is now a Church of England priest, living in the same village in Northamptonshire where he grew up. Two of his ancestors were vicars in the very same church and Richard said he sometimes feels like he is “standing on their bones”.

Growing up gay in Kettering in 1978, there was “only one way to go and that was out”.  Richard came to London when both Margaret Thatcher and Ken Livingstone were in power - a time of churn, creativity and dynamism. With his stable middle class background, Richard always believed that “life was meaningful and that there was a rising arc to it.” But his life was permanently changed when he met the talented Jimmy Somerville, then a “young gay runaway” from Scotland, but blessed with a unique and extraordinary voice.  With Bronski Beat and later The Communards, the pair created some of the defining pop music of the 80s while at the same time helping to redefine what it meant to be gay. Richard saw pop culture as a way to “engage people and switch them on to ideas of change.”

When the Communards broke up, Richard’s life “crashed and burned”. He spent a year doing a lot of drugs and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. But having fallen off the rails, he landed on another set of rails, which eventually led him to becoming a Church of England vicar.

Today he sees his church as the place for him to be, a place that is both “crunchy and interesting”. He describes with relish the diversity of his congregation, which includes an eccentric parishioner who often turns up naked or as recently, in a charity shop wedding dress, kneeling in communion beside a Tory MP.

Through his “adventures in the corporate world”, Richard has become fascinated with new ways of working, in particular how companies can make people feel good about coming to work by investing in their environment and welfare. Similarly, by his involvement with a local Housing association, he has seen how important it is for modern companies to measure people’s wellbeing – something that the Church has been doing for the last 2000 years. 

According to Richard, the Church of England has a form of  “ecclesiastical personality disorder”. Churches that embrace wi-fi, thrash metal and high tech living side by side with other churches that appear little changed since the counter-reformation.  He characterises this as being a bit like start-ups and corporates, observing how often people are attracted to the energy of start-ups until they burn out, eventually turning to the “enduring history” of those churches with a stronger sense of mission through time. Richard considers it ironic that it is often the traditional churches who adopt a more socially liberal approach to issues such as the blessing of same sex union.

Richard is a big fan of social mobility, but regrets how often people who go to University never return to their home communities. Having presided over many funerals of elderly people who have lived all their lives in his parish, Richard believes there is a lot to be said for “staying put” – people whose lives are as full of richness, complexity and struggle as those people who have travelled the world.

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