Gerald Coates has been one of the most influential leaders within the new church movement and far beyond, for many decades, and in many nations. His contribution to faith and the landscape of non-religious Christianity in the UK has been extremely significant. Gerald is sometimes accused of referencing his friends in high places. But the fact is there are friends in high places. In this extract from his new biography, Pioneer, we get a fascinating insight into the life of an advisor to the great and good.
Gerald and Cliff Richard first meet at a concert sometime around 1978, where both are guests of someone else. A conversation follows when the two realise they are close neighbours. Cliff doesn’t need friends in the sense of new people to meet and spend time with, but he does need friends he can confide in and pray with. And in this small-statured pastor with a large personality, Cliff feels he has found someone who can help him. As Cliff himself puts it, Gerald has a ‘no frills’ honesty that Cliff finds refreshing. Perhaps unusual too, in the celebrity world Cliff inhabits. Gerald can keep a confidence and at the same time is not overawed by celebrity culture. A friend and a pastor rolled into one.
Over the months that follow, the friendship builds. As much as possible, Cliff makes Cobham Christian Fellowship his home. Usually, he turns up just as the meeting begins in order not to bring attention to himself. So much so that one time, a visitor complains that they have to sit next to a ‘Cliff Richard look-alike’.
As well as Cliff performing at Kingdom Life Bible week and similar endeavours, when he can, Cliff, along with his manager Bill Latham, attends Gerald and his wife Anona’s New Year bashes. Through Gerald, Cliff gets to know Sheila Walsh well and, as a result, singing collaborations and tours follow.
Cliff Richard gets a phenomenal postbag each week, the majority of it fan mail. But interspersed with the fan letters are pleas for help, people asking about Cliff’s Christian faith and seeking guidance. Cliff has felt unable to deal with these, and it is through his friendship with Gerald that he can decide what to do. Gerald sets up administration within the church to answer them, offering spiritual guidance to those writing.
Gerald is a call-to point for prayer as well, on one occasion taking a well-known Christian healer with him to pray for Cliff’s back. The results are immediate.
Cliff clearly enjoys Gerald’s company, as witnessed by watching movies together – Cliff is in tears as they watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ – and they share many meals together. But when asked to recall moments in their relationship, it’s not tears that come to mind. Cliff thinks first of the times of laughter.
On one occasion, Gerald and Anona are Cliff’s guests at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. As midnight approaches, Cliff asks Gerald what they should do. Gerald stands and raises his glass. “Ladies and gentlemen, to the King and his Kingdom.” Cliff’s guests stand and repeat the refrain. Then, to the amazement of Cliff’s party, the whole restaurant – full of the rich and powerful – stand together and repeat the toast. Do they know what they are saying? Probably not. But at one moment in time, God breaks in, in an amazing and somewhat humorous way.
Rick Parfitt of Status Quo is also a friend of Gerald. Gerald, who got to know Rick through a mutual friend in the Moody Blues, is there for the most tragic moment in Rick’s life.
One morning, Gerald gets a call from Marietta, Rick’s wife. Can he and Anona come over to the house straight away? There’s been a tragedy. Their daughter Heidi, who plays with Gerald and Anona’s youngest boy, has fallen into the swimming pool and drowned. Rick thought she had been with Marietta; Marietta thought she was with Rick.
As Gerald and Anona make the short trip to Guildford, they pray. Gerald recalls it as feeling like one of the longest drives of his life. When they arrive, they find Rick curled up in the corner of the hallway, tears streaming down his face. By now the family have arrived, but Rick and Marietta need the spiritual help Gerald and Anona can offer.
Gerald and Rick read scripture together. Sitting together in the corner of the hallway, they seek out the comfort that comes from God’s words of life – words of life in a moment of tragedy.
Boy George has been interviewed by The Guardian. In the interview, he explains that he has become a godfather and went on to describe the baby’s christening. He explains in the article how dull the service was, expressing that he feels it should have been a moment of celebration. There should have been a party.
Gerald is impressed by what he says and writes to Boy George to thank him for the article. One of the members of his band is a Christian and observes the effect on Boy George as he reads the letter. It turns out that sadly, some so-called Christians have also written to Boy George, expressing in strong language their views that because of his lifestyle he has no right to be a godfather to any child. In contrast, Gerald’s letter is a delight and surprise to Boy George.
Move on a couple of years, and the same band member has invited Gerald and Anona to a concert. To the surprise of all, part way through the concert, Boy George announces, “We have someone really big in Christianity with us tonight.” He goes on to dedicate the next two songs to Gerald and Anona, singing versions of This Little Light of Mine and Down by the Riverside. After the concert, Gerald and Anona are invited onto the gleaming and giant tour bus. There, they spend an hour or two talking with Boy George. At one point, one of the organisers comes into the tour bus to remind Boy George that some fans are still waiting for him. “But I’m with my friends Gerald and Anona. They’ll just have to wait.”
Words of life in surprising settings. All because of a letter.
It is through Cliff that Alvin Stardust comes into Gerald and Anona’s lives. Cliff brings him along to a church event. Alvin has been to church before, but nothing quite like this. A few of the others in the congregation notice he is there – hard to miss with his trademark sideburns and swept-back hair. What they may also have noticed is his increasing nervousness as the preach goes on.
Is this for him? Has the preacher prepared a special talk just for him? It feels that way. As Gerald speaks, every word lands in an open heart. At the end of the sermon, there is an invitation to respond, to accept Christ as Lord and Saviour. One of the first hands raised that night is that of the pop star. A special moment and one that profoundly changes Alvin Stardust for the rest of his life. He goes through many problems in years to come but never loses his faith. At his premature death from cancer in 2014, he is recorded in the many obituaries as a godly man and one of the kindest people in the pop industry.
As the service ends, and the TV news item shows a final picture of the coffin, Gerald reflects on how God has been able to use his words, and make of them words of life.
One of the most remarkable connections remains Gerald’s link with the royal family of Romania. Gerald’s long-term friend David Taylor was a conveyancer. In the early 1970s, sitting next to Gerald in a meeting, a well-known preacher with a prophetic ministry lays his hands on David and says, “You will have a ministry to the Royal Family.”
Gerald is concerned. David is a middle manager in a solicitors’ practice. Surely such a word, if it is correct, should be for Gerald himself? After all, Gerald is the full-time pastor. David has just come along to the meeting as a friend. Perplexed, the young and somewhat arrogant Gerald dismisses the prophecy as a bit of a wild word, and no more is said.
Move forward 20 years. Gerald gets a phone call. It’s David. “Gerald, I’ve just seen an advert. Princess Margareta, Prince Charles’ cousin and the Crown Princess of Romania, is looking for a UK representative for her charity. Do you think I should apply?”
“This is the prophecy, David. This is it. Of course you should go for it.”
David gets the job.
Over the next few years, Gerald gets to know Princess Margareta by way of various charity functions. Then there’s a Youth with a Mission conference in Geneva and Gerald is the guest speaker. David decides to come along as well.
“David, why are you coming to this? You hate conferences.”
“I want you to meet Princess Margareta’s parents, King Michael and Queen Anne. King Michael is a cousin of our Queen. They live in Geneva. I want you to pray for them.”
“I know they live there. But David, you know full well that’s not how it works. You don’t even touch a Royal unless it’s a handshake. You certainly never lobby a member of the Royal Family – and asking to pray for them would be lobbying.”
David smiles. ‘Let’s see.’
The flight is on time. As Gerald stares out of the window on that short trip to Geneva, he has time to reflect. How did he ever get to be speaking to royalty in the way he now is? And politicians? And even the Archbishop of Canterbury? He smiles. God is fulfilling his word, making of Gerald something that in his wildest dreams Gerald could never have imagined.
He’s travelled to many places, spoken in many countries. He’s travelled to several parts of Africa, to South America, and through most of Europe. He’s spoken at or led major conferences in France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Malta, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
Not that these travels have been without sacrifice. Many a time, he has had to leave Anona behind as their young sons were growing up. Gerald remembers one set of meetings where he clearly was feeling some conflict with having left his family on their own over a weekend, and this comes out in his preaching that night. At the end of the meeting, an old man moves towards him. There’s a determined look in his eye. Waving his walking stick in Gerald’s direction, he says, “Young man, I have a word for you. You know, young man, God is a perfect Father, and he has many wayward children. Do you think you are going to do better?”
It lifts a load from Gerald’s mind at a crucial moment when travel is picking up. His boys will be cared for by a father who has a greater love than Gerald can ever have.
As the years go by, Gerald begins to get better at managing the travel and his family. His boys have done well. Anona has appreciated Gerald’s ministry. And the miles apart have always brought about a greater appreciation of their marriage and family whenever Gerald has returned.
The plane lands. Two hours later, David and Gerald are in the Geneva home of the Romanian Royal Family. The room they are in overlooks the lake. The majestic mountains in the background and the manicured lawns outside the window create a beautiful picture.
It’s a mid-morning meeting. They wait. And wait.
Forty-five minutes later, a flustered Queen Anne comes into the room. “I’m so sorry to keep you. So sorry.” She is closely followed by King Michael. It turns out that they have had some troubling family news that morning and have been trying to deal with it.
“It’s not a problem, ma’am, we can go.” Gerald and David get up to leave.
“No. No. Stay. Please, sit down.”
An hour’s meeting turns into two. Then three. They stay for a light meal. David is struggling to believe what is happening. The Royal Family of Romania never change schedules. They never ask people to stay. But here is Gerald being asked to stop for the whole afternoon.
The talk is general, but as Gerald and David make to leave, Queen Anne asks Gerald to pray for them. He does so. A pretty general prayer, but with a few extra words under his breath. ‘Lord, please change their lives.’
As Gerald gets up from the beautifully embroidered armchair, he gives the couple a book by the theologian Ravi Zacharias. Both the king and queen are strongly academic so Gerald reckons they may well read it. As an afterthought, Gerald also leaves them a copy of his autobiography, An Intelligent Fire, because David is mentioned in it.
Three weeks later, Gerald gets a call from David.
“Queen Anne wants a meeting with you. She’s getting permission from Queen Elizabeth to enter the country and will come to your house.”
“But why, David? What for?”
“I’m not sure. She hasn’t told me.”
A week later, David, his wife Carrie and Anona are in the house praying. Gerald is in the garden, sitting under the oak tree with Queen Anne. She speaks for a while of family matters, as well as her concern for the British Royal Family. But Gerald knows there must be more.
“Excuse me asking, ma’am, but why is it you have come? How can I help?”
“It’s your book. I’ve read it twice in the last three weeks. I didn’t realise. I never knew. I always thought Christianity was to do with rules and dogma. And I hate rules and dogma. But it’s not like that. He cares. He cares for me. His friendship is for simple people like me.”
That day, in Gerald’s garden, he prays with the Queen of Romania to find a new faith. A friendship and faith for simple people. Like Queen Anne.
Another week on, Princess Margareta calls Gerald.
“Gerald, what have you done to my mother?”
“What do you mean, ma’am?”
“She’s different. She’s speaking of her faith. She seems to have found her vocation.”
While Gerald is on a speaking tour, out of the blue Queen Anne contacts him again and asks if she can join him. What do you say to a queen when she asks to speak on your preaching tour? “Yes” is the only possible answer, of course.
The meeting hall in Bristol is packed. Gerald hasn’t told the congregation about his special guest, but part way through his preach, he stops to introduce her.
“I have a very special guest tonight. She’s going to talk for a few minutes. Please welcome Queen Anne of Romania.”
The congregation hesitate. Then applaud. Did he just say, Queen Anne? There’s a queen speaking?
For a few minutes, she tells her story: of driving ambulances in the Second World War; of supporting the exiled French Army; of being thrown out of Romania by the Communists: of how the country has been devastated as a result; and of how healing is coming. And then she says: “I just want to say to you God is real. I have found God to be real in my life, and there’s nothing I want more than to live minute by minute for Jesus Christ.”
A quiet murmur goes through the building. People begin to clap. The applause gets louder. People are standing on their feet cheering. A queen and her faith. A simple friendship for, as the Queen herself puts it, a simple person. A life changed, and a vocation found.
Pioneer is published by Malcolm Down Publishing and is available in all good bookshops