Reverend Richard Coles
The Reverend Richard Coles is a musician, journalist and priest. He had a number of top ten hits with his band The Communards in the eighties. After leaving the band, he gained a BA in Theology at King’s College London before being ordained a priest in 2005. He is often referred to as being a very ‘modern vicar’, helped by his hosting slots on BBC Radio 4, regular television appearances on shows such as QI, his open support of things like gay marriage and his passion for science.
I could identify most British butterflies, I think.
On first encountering science
The first time I remember getting interested in…it was the natural world, actually. I had a kind of strange phase when I was a boy of collecting stuff, as boys do. And I started getting fascinated by butterflies, so I used to look out for butterflies and then got interested in the processes whereby butterflies came to be butterflies. And at one point I was pretty good. I could identify most British butterflies, I think. And it was the 1960s and the 70s where there were still many more butterflies to be seen than there are now.
So I think I got interested in looking at the natural world, fascinated by creatures. And also I think…just that thing about trying to sort of see patterns of things and lists of things. Um, yeah, so that was the first time. I think I was interested in the sandpit, and water, at school as well. Moving piles of sand around and pouring water into channels, that sort of thing.
On the path to priesthood
I think I’m a victim of the two cultures that so bedevilled anyone like me doing the sort of things I do. And I think I specialised, early on, in humanities, and also I was a chorister when I was a boy, so from the age of seven or eight I was singing church music, although I never believed any of the content at all - I thought it was obviously a fairy tale - I did kind of like the atmosphere, and through that got into music. And by the time I was in my teens I’d already made definitive choices about where my fields of study lay.
Also, I’m practically innumerate, and I’m not just saying that as a sort of, ‘oh, what a klutz I am’, I have real difficulty with maths. Which has been a lifelong regret because I feel that much in science is hopelessly beyond my reach now and I feel the lack of that more keenly every day.
On the marriage or science and religion
Well I mean, it’s nothing, it’s never seemed a problem to me in that I’ve never felt that to be curious about science has meant I need to be less curious about theology. And of course there are lots of scientists who have been religious, that’s such an obvious thing it needn't be said again. I think we live in a time of cultural war and I think if I were a scientist in America and I was trying to assert the rights and responsibilities of science in a culture which is mentally hostile, that and also insisting on literal standards of truth about the Bible, then I would absolutely line up with the scientists and not with the religious people, but at my end of the church, actually we’ve been on good terms with science for a pretty long time.
On science in the US
Well, I think the answer lies in the Bible, Pilate says to Jesus, what is truth, and the truth is standing in front of him, and I think the truth will prevail. And in the end religious people will have to come to terms with a richer, more powerful understanding of the world. And once we do that, then that might in fact revive and give colour and depth and complexity and more dimensions to your experience of faith, which would be a wonderful thing.
On the literal truth of the Bible
I say I don’t think the Bible is literally true, I think its truer than that. I think the sort of standard of literal truth that people insist on is rather narrow and rather beggared. In fact, I think it’s much better to bring to the Bible our best reading, our most critical attention, and everything we can to allow it to be what it is which is this incredibly rich and complex and vivid and conflicting account of humanity’s struggle to be in relationship with God.
On getting objections from scientists
I’m friends with Richard Dawkins on Twitter: he and I have an interesting relationship, we get along very well - I think we do - but sometimes obviously other people follow that conversation, which is the nature of Twitter, and sometimes I get shouted at, mostly by people in America who are in the front line of that cultural war. But I do think a bit of patience and forbearance and a bit of exchange, then perhaps more sympathetic conversation could evolve, I hope so.