by Tessa Coombes, University of Bristol
The Reverend Richard Coles of Radio 4 and ‘The Communards’ fame, presented this year’s Policy and Politics Annual Lecture, the 21st in the series. The theme of the lecture was same sex marriage and the church, delivered by the Reverend as a ‘ramble down memory lane’ and very much part of his own personal life story.
The lecture was, by turns, amusing, informative and challenging as well as saddening. It veered from funny anecdotes to tales of tragedy; from personal life events to big questions of principle. Overall it was a brilliant piece of oratory with just the right level of information and challenge, as well as being more than sufficiently thought provoking.
Richard’s life story is well documented in his autobiography “Fathomless Riches: Or How I Went from Pop to Pulpit” published in 2014. It’s a colourful story of a young gay man from middle England making his way to London and becoming part of an ‘alternative gay culture’. In his presentation he described London in the 1980s as a polarized city: a place where Thatcher and Livingstone epitomized the ‘twin poles of values in the battlefield of London”. He saw it as a city where post-punk democratization was evident and an alternative gay culture was emerging, one with a ‘hard-left’ basis and a tribal culture, with a political common purpose. He told us about his involvement with the lesbian and gay support for the striking miners of South Wales, recently depicted in the film ‘Pride’. He describes the mid 1980s as a time of experimentation, creativity and excitement, when he found himself surrounded by a small group of people that came together to epitomize a significant cultural and political moment in gay history.
One of those people was Jimmy Somerville, with whom he joined forces to create the band, ‘The Communards’, experiencing commercial success with their single “Don’t leave me this way” in 1986. They saw this as a vindication of what they stood for and a way of articulatingpolitical resistance. Popular music was perceived as a powerful force for influence, and in a world where it seemed impossible to access the Westminster elite or policy-makers, music was seen as an alternative opportunity for influence. It was a way of representing gay men on their own terms, and of creating a different type of role model. It provided a way of presenting themselves how they wanted to be seen rather than how they were often depicted, negatively, by others.
Despite this positivity and change, there was still significant opposition and negative commentary about homosexuality, with actions such as Section 28, introduced in 1988, banning local authorities from portraying homosexuality in a positive light. At the same time, the arrival of HIV and AIDS signaled a dark and terrible time for many in the gay community. It was a time of unforeseen tragedy leading to a reassessment for Richard, which left him and many others having to deal with the spiritual and mental consequences of such devastation. It was at this point that the Church made a surprising intervention in his life. Many of those who volunteered to help at the London Lighthouse, the first unit set up to support people with Aids, came from the Church. They were some of the first to offer a sustained sympathetic response where it was most needed.
The debate about homosexuality in the Church of England is still resistant to achieving equality. Whilst the introduction of Civil Partnerships in 2004 has undoubtedly moved the debate along in society generally, the Church is still very much behind the times. As Richard sees it, the Church has seemingly retreated to seeing sexuality through the lens of fundamentalists who interpret the Bible as the literal truth: being about man and woman, even though it is clear that lots of people do not fit that particular model. In his words, things will change when church members start to understand and perceive that “the fruits of the spirit are clearly evident in the relationships of gay people”. He suggests there may well be a tipping point for the Church, once it realises that the cost of resisting change is greater than the cost of accepting change, and that continuing to hold out against equality of treatment will create a critical moment. That critical moment will require a more equitable response where pragmatism may well prevail over high principle. He pointed towards the notion that it was unthinkable for many that the Church of England would endorse and bless gay marriage, but that things are only unthinkable until we begin to think them. The challenge is there for the Church to move on, as the debate has moved on and now views gay marriage as, well, just ‘marriage’.
In summary, while acknowledging the highs and lows of carving out a personal sexual identity against the backdrop of a tough political and social context, Richard talked inspirationally about the potential for marginalized groups such as gay people to align themselves with a specific politics to become a significant force for change, as he experienced in his own life story. To tell such a difficult story with such aplomb and style, made it a delightful evening of entertainment for those of us lucky enough to be in the audience.
I hope the people in the parish of Finedon know how lucky they are!
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