It’s been said that ‘The Church is the Fifth Gospel’ and in our services we sometimes include an extra Gospel reading – from the Gospel of this Church. On Sunday March 4th we heard The Gospel According To Adrian, who thought he was going to become a priest. But was wrong. 'When I was young I was sure I was going to be a priest. In fact in my teenage years I couldn’t think of anything more wonderful to do with my life.
That might seem a little odd when you learn I’m from a poor, working class family in Newcastle. My mates only ever thought of football. My brother, for example, he was one of the lads but I was never one of the lads. I was an avid reader and our school had a fantastic library which I just read my way through. I especially loved poetry and my favourite Aunt, Nellie, introduced me to opera and classical music. A family friend even took me to the ballet.
I knew there was something different about me to everyone else in the family. I had this feeling that I would have to get out and get away.
With my mother being a devout Catholic, I also really loved church and the drama of serving as an altar boy. Someone mentioned I might like to visit this Catholic Fayre in Newcastle where all the monasteries and religious orders were getting together. That’s where I came across the Passionists, who had this wonderful junior seminary, Blythe Hall, 120 miles away in Ormskirk. The photographs of this beautiful C16th mansion in its own grounds, were so unbelievable compared to where we lived that it seemed almost too good to be true that a boy could go there and be trained as a priest.
My mother was over the moon when I passed the exams. I was her favourite and there was nothing she could want more than for me to become a priest. My dad was less keen. He’d always been suspicious of me. Why was I always in a book? Why did I want to go to the ballet ? Given this was the 1950’s and I was so fond of the arts, I think he’d earmarked me as a homosexual. What else would you think in those days ? I’m sure he was glad to see the back of me.
For six wonderful years I was taught by these bright, university-educated Passionists. I was the sacristan, I did all the flowers, I was in the choir, I loved the gardening, the football, the cricket. I loved the books and I loved all the other boys. Pete Postlethwaite was one of my friends, plucked, like me, from working class obscurity. The two of us were in all the plays together. The heroic Father Aidan, our English Master, used to write a brilliant Christmas pantomime and one year we were the ugly sisters. In fact I think I played women the entire time I was there.
I was very devout. I was in church every morning and I loved Holy Week because there were so many services. We all knew we were going to be priests and I saw a fantastic life ahead of me full of gardening and reading in the week with a bit of singing and doing communion on Sundays. Perhaps some stamp-collecting on the side. That’s how I thought of it.
But as I got older, a problem emerged. Girls. They started to look more and more attractive and I began to doubt that I could live a celibate life. It was after leaving Blythe Hall, on the night before I was due to start seminary and train as a priest, that everything changed. I was staying in a Worcestershire village with Auntie Nell. I was serving in the village petrol station that they ran as the late summer sun was falling over the hills, when walking down the road towards me came the most extraordinary vision. Jenny Proctor was a peroxide blonde in a polka dot dress and petticoat. Without thinking twice I abandoned the petrol pump and walked with her, right up to the top of Snows Hill where the view took in seventeen counties. We lay down, side by side, on the grass and talked all evening until the stars were twinkling in the dark sky above us.
I never laid a hand on her but when I got back to Nell’s I knew I wasn’t going to seminary the next day. I knew I wasn’t going to be a priest. Nell insisted I rang my mother who told me not to bother coming home again.
But discovering the priesthood wasn’t for me started me on the path to discovering what was. I had a job with Dunlop and when I was transferred south I got in to AmDram and then, another lucky break, a part in Treasure Island at Birmingham Rep, while I was in my first year at Drama School. After that you couldn’t stop me. I learned everything I could about theatre and I could do a lot of things quite well: I could sing, I could dance, I could act. I could do Shakespeare or comedy. Before I’d stopped to catch my breath I was in London, it was the swinging 60’s and I was starring in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at The Ambassadors in the West End.
Being an actor and then director in London in the sixties and seventies wasn’t really compatible with churchgoing. I fell by the wayside as the Catholics would say. I didn’t go to confession because the priest would tell me to stop doing so much partying… but I couldn’t. I stopped going to church instead. Not that I was closed down spiritually, not even in my wildest days. I was active in politics, in demos, campaigning - maybe social justice was how my faith was expressed then. The trouble with being a Catholic is that you can stop going to Church, but you can never really stop being Catholic. Sometimes I’d just drop into a church and sit there. I was always so moved by these places.
By my mid-forties I was having a ball, living in my Highgate flat, earning good money, directing documentaries and commercials. There were any number of girlfriends but never that special person. I was sometimes a little sad thinking I’d never met the one special person, that the time for having a family had passed. But then I had to pitch a script to this very attractive, high-powered, woman running her own company. She was quite different to the other women I’d been drawn to - not least because she wouldn’t let me get my own way. Twenty five years later I still can’t get my own way with Bridg and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She changed my life again and gave me two wonderful children, the family I never thought I’d have.
The strange thing is that for nine years we lived three minutes from St Luke’s without ever going in but when Ellie and Luke came along there was a school we wanted which insisted on a religious connection. They didn’t care what kind so we thought maybe even that church up the road might do. Malcolm Doney was preaching on our first morning and I remember after the Bible reading he said, ‘Well that doesn’t make any sense does it?’ That was it for me. This was my kind of church, where people can admit that sometimes even the Bible seems odd. The people were so friendly too. We never left. That was ten years ago.
Finding St Luke’s was like coming home, like completing an arc in my life, coming back to Church after all that time. But this time I’d found a community where I could be more honest about faith, where religion wasn’t about guilt but more about supporting each other, not about heavy doctrines but about friendship. I’d always loved the singing and drama of church but less so the catechism but here you don’t have to worry if you have all the right beliefs. It’s helped me find faith in a new way and it’s hard to imagine how that might have happened anywhere else.
People always tell me I’ve been lucky in my life, that I’ve had a lot of really good breaks and it’s true but I’d rather use the word blessing. Even though I wasn’t cut out for the priesthood, I’ve always felt someone was clearing a path for me through life, I’ve always felt blessed, that maybe God has travelled with me, even when I wasn’t aware of it.'
More like this in The Gospel According to Everyone.