The Rev Richard Coles has said he is retiring from parish duties because the Church of England increasingly “excludes” gay couples.
The parish priest, who announced his decision to step down in January, is one of the most famous vicars in the UK thanks to his other roles as a musician, journalist and broadcaster.
However, after Easter, he will no longer be vicar of St Mary the Virgin, in the village of Finedon, in rural Northamptonshire – a role he has held since Jan 2011.
The Rev Coles, who is a regular host of BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme, has previously spoken about how the death of his partner, the Rev David Coles, in Dec 2019 prompted his retirement.
However, the vicar, who was ordained in 2005, has now also spoken out about his concerns for the future of the Church amidst his concerns about how gay people “are not welcome” in some churches, as well as the sustainability of the parish system.
He claimed that the only churches growing in number and income are those which are “conservative, punchy and fundamentalist” and that he can no longer “accept second-class citizenship in the household of God”.
Regarding the Church’s stance on same-sex relationships, he told The Sunday Times Magazine: “I see change shifting more to exclusion than inclusion” and that “the sin lies in accepting anything less than equal inclusion”.
Fears over the Church’s sustainability
His fears came as the Church faces a crisis regarding safeguarding the future of the institution amidst dwindling church and congregant numbers, which have been further damaged by the pandemic.
The Archbishop of York, the Most Rev Stephen Cottrell, is responsible for Vision and Strategy, his blueprint for the Church’s future over the next decade which aims for it to be “simpler, humbler, bolder”.
Last year, The Telegraph revealed that multiple clergy and laypeople had voiced fears over the “collapse” of the Church of England in rural communities.
Months later, a leaked document suggested that the pandemic has provided an opportunity for “radical change” within the Church, which could result in the loss of the parish church model in a bid to remain “financially sustainable”.
The report, sent to the 42 diocesan secretaries, warned clergy to prepare for changes and cuts as officials prepare to overhaul the system, sparking fears that churches in rural towns and parishes will not survive.
Speaking of his concerns regarding the future of the Church, the Rev Coles said: “As more parishes tip into unviability, the trouble for me is that the least viable are the ones I like most.
“The Church of England I love is a church of liberal sympathies, of broad inclusion, beautiful worship, wise preaching, dog-friendly with Fairtrade biscuits, and when it comes to orthodoxy would rather its members were not Goneril or Regan, proclaiming their zealous devotion, but Cordelia, confessing her love.
“The churches that are viable – by that, I mean growing in numbers and income – tend to be conservative, punchy, fundamentalist in matters of scripture, rigorous in matters of doctrine, and about as likely to offer choral evensong as I am to do the 400m hurdles.
“Some of my friends, and many faithful Christians, are at home in churches like these. But if the future Church of England looks exclusively like that, I cannot see myself in it [...] because they are places where gay people are not welcome, and that rules me out.”
The Rev Coles added that it is “not only me”, saying: “In the past few months, I have had a growing number of inquiries from same-sex couples dismayed to discover their relationships do not qualify for a blessing, or asking for reassurance that their kids in church schools will not be made to feel awkward for having two dads or two mums.
“The former I am not permitted to do [the Church of England does not recognise same-sex marriages]; the latter I am unable to, I am sorry to say. Things change, we are told; play the long game, and I have. But now I see change shifting more to exclusion than inclusion.
“Such churches protest that all are welcome, asserted on their websites and noticeboards, but that welcome would be on their terms, shaped by a conservative reading of Scripture, and require me and others not only to renounce the intimate life we were made for, but also to accept second-class citizenship in the household of God.
“I mind this not only because who wouldn’t, but because I simply do not, and cannot, believe that relationships that are open to grace and holiness and healing can possibly be contrary to the will of God.”
He continued: “Same-sex relationships are all those things and more, just like everyone else’s; a fact so obvious it cannot be denied, and therefore the sin lies in accepting anything less than equal inclusion.
“I appreciate reconciling my view with the Church’s traditional teaching on sexuality is problematic, to say the least. But nowhere does Jesus indicate that loving and serving the Gospel is neatly done.
“What I will miss least, once I have retired, is having to pretend that it is legitimate to delay or deny justice in this. That and photocopying.”
The Rev Coles has previously said that he plans to spend his retirement volunteering with prisoners following the death of his partner from alcoholism.
The Church of England was contacted for comment.