A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I know a priest who, after he had shut up shop on Christmas Day, would get into his pyjamas and take a bottle of vodka alone to bed, watch The Sound of Music and cry.
That’s the first line of the first chapter of Fathomless Riches, the Reverend Richard Coles’ account of his life from birth to ordination. The story doesn’t start with his birth, however, but with a particular Christmas: one of those comfortable but dismal post-lunch stretches, somewhere “between falling out of pop music and getting ordained myself”. Coles is suffering with a migraine; his father and brothers are sleepy and silent; his mother, bright and supportive. Later, Coles drives out into the cold rural night and picks up a stranger in a layby. The stranger, as a nice festive touch, has festooned his balls with tinsel.
There’s a lot of sex in Fathomless Riches; not graphic in the anatomical sense, but raw, messy stuff. It must be severely disconcerting to those who are troubled by Coles’ sexuality or his Christianity or both. And yet the sexual frankness, the merciless examination of shattered relationships, missed opportunities and misdirected love, is only part of this book’s startling candour. Coles’ excoriating self-awareness makes for a book that is difficult, in the right way, and uncomfortable – sometimes very much so.
Reviewing it is a challenge, because there’s so much of significance. The febrile, exalted atmosphere of creative life at the junction of LGBT activism and socialist politics; the creeping horror of AIDS, the friends and lovers and comrades dying one after the other. The rise of the Communards and the painful disintegration of a great friendship and unequal partnership. Money and fame and drugs – enough of those to necessitate a long and awkward conversation with the Church of England medical officer. Coles even manages to be passing through Moscow as the USSR collapses.
All this is, to a greater or lesser extent, a matter of public record, with famous names and a cast of thousands. But there’s another strand that emerges some way into this book, and that is the story of Coles’ conversion. There is a moment when his burgeoning interest in Christianity brings him to attend Mass in an Anglo-Catholic church in Holborn. At the elevation of the Host, something happens.
And then it was as if iron bands, constricting my chest, broke and fell away and I could breathe; and a shutter was flung open, and light flooded in and I could see. And I wept and wept.
It is like turning on a tap. Coles makes a fair peregrination in the following years, moving from Anglo-Catholicism to Roman Catholicism and then, as his vocation to the priesthood becomes more and more concrete, back to the Church of England again. What stays constant is an acute sense of his own theology, plus an extraordinary feeling for prayer. These are unarguable; through personal upheavals and patched-up relationships, institutional disillusionment and ideological shifts, they shine like gold thread and illuminate everything.
In the response to Fathomless Riches by reviewers and interviewers, there is frequently a sense that Coles is a living oxymoron: not just a gay Christian, but a gay priest. This isn’t limited to journalists; the C of E hasn’t quite got to grips with it either. (Coles lives in a civil partnership, which is permitted, but is required by current policy to remain celibate.) But to Coles himself there is no contradiction. It would be foolish to confuse his institutional affiliation, and the compromise he has chosen to make, with his sense of where he stands in relation to the God he believes in.
Orion, 288 pp., ISBN: 9780297870319. I read the Kindle edition: ASIN B00K5UFGLI.