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A Quietus Interview

The Rockin' Vicar: Rev Mann Speaks About Stryper, Slayer And Satan
Joel McIver , September 2nd, 2010 08:25

Son of metal Joel McIver meets Lady Of The Cloth Rachel Mann who has decreed: listen to metal! Amen, say we... Photographs of Rev. Mann by KatyBPhotography.co.uk

The Church of England clergy are not known for their fondness for heavy music, or indeed their willingness to discuss the subject in the public forum, but Manchester-based vicar Rachel Mann made national headlines this week thanks to her comments on that very subject. Writing in the Church Times, the reverend explained that in her view Christians could learn a lot from heavy metal and that its “liberative theology of darkness” offers a new and valuable perspective. A poet, historian, musician and priest-in-charge of St. Nicholas’s, a church in Burnage, Rachel clearly has both a refreshing viewpoint of matters spiritual and the courage to express it. Could this be the moment where heavy metal and God finally gain some mutual respect? The Quietus asked the frankly ace Reverend Mann to explain…

Which metal bands are you into, Rachel?

Rachel Mann: Where do we start? Let’s go back to the classics. Of the Big Four of thrash, I especially love Metallica. I also love Slayer. My all-time love affair, which started on the Piece Of Mind tour in 1984, is Iron Maiden. Of the more recent stuff, I like Tool and Mastodon. System Of A Down are fantastic. I also love music that brings a smile to my face, like Turisas. How can you not love a metal band that has an accordion player? How cool is that? And Bigelf, who aren’t necessarily metal but they’re the love child of Deep Purple and Metallica. And there’s lots of stuff in between.

You play guitar and sing in a band called Kingdom Of The Blind. What sort of music do you play?

RM: There was one band called Sick Vicar – ha ha ha! – and another one called Corrosion, and they shared a couple of members, so when those bands stopped, Kingdom Of The Blind emerged. We’re writing stuff at the moment. We’re mixing bits of Tool and Metallica, punk and even Jethro Tull, believe it or not.

Are you into Christian metal?

RM: I’m not a huge fan, because Stryper came along in the 80s and just made me weep. They were desperate. There are Christians active in metal bands; Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden, for example, but I’m uncomfortable with any style of music where there’s a preaching agenda and it’s about conversion. Stryper were using metal as a vehicle for the gospel, and that doesn’t interest me. I saw on the Metal Hammer feed on Facebook that there is a metalcore band called Underoath, and I noticed in the comments that a lot of people were basically saying "Eff off, Christians" and that others were saying, "This is just crap music" – and for me, the priority is the quality of the music.

How did you come to write your much-quoted article on metal and Christianity in the Church Times?

RM: I’m a writer on various religious stuff – generally much too dull to be of interest to the world! – and I’m a military historian as well. I’m also the poet-in-residence at Manchester Cathedral. But I have a huge love of rock music, and metal in particular, and I was at Sonisphere this year and I thought, ‘This needs to be commented on’. The Church Of England, with all its stuff about sexuality and bishops, has got too serious, and it needs something to wake it up – and for me, metal is one of those things that wake us up. It brings a smile to our faces, and it can also teach us some interesting things.

What, specifically, can Christians learn from heavy metal?

RM: My original phrase in the Church Times article was that there is a serious gospel lesson to be learned. It’s partly about the power of darkness. What can happen in Christianity’s Protestant wing – although the Catholics do it as well – is that it gets a bit obsessed with personal holiness. That can bring with it a certain kind of seriousness and sobriety and a condemnatory attitude, whereas life is not all about the light. You’ve got to recognise the dark: maybe that’s also a place where people can learn and grow from. I don’t want to get too pompous about it, but for me the Christian faith is all about wholeness. It’s about being a human being, not just being holy, and to be a proper human being you’ve got to have light and shade. Metal is not afraid of the dark, whereas most Christians are afraid of the dark. Not all, but most.

Doesn’t The Bible tell its readers to avoid the dark side at all costs?

RM: Yes, but The Bible is not a consistent book. I don’t trust Christians who tell you that there aren’t contradictions in The Bible. The Bible also tells you that God is found in the dark as well as the light: Psalm 139 says that there is no place you can go to where there isn’t God. But certain sorts of Christianity, which are obsessed with holiness and purity, will say, "No, you can’t go there" – and they will draw out, particularly from the writings of Paul, evidence of that. But Jesus wasn’t afraid of the dark. He wasn’t afraid to sit with people who society condemned. In fact, he was an outsider, and that’s the reason he got nailed up, in my view. Respectable people couldn’t handle the fact that this guy was saying, "Accept people for who they are". People can use The Bible for anything, as any of us who have ever stood on a doorstep while a Jehovah’s Witness quotes it at us will know.

The Church Of Satan states that man is an animal, and that he can only be true to himself if he acknowledges and embraces his animal side. Is that a reasonable view?

RM: Well, you have to remember that the Church Of Satan has a huge element of theatre. A better example is evolution: you’ll find some Christians saying that it didn’t happen. Now, I believe in evolution, and if it’s true then we are animals, and we have to be honest and real about sex and gender. I had a friend who is a Wiccan, and for him sex seemed to be a way of life. I’m a bit more conservative than that, but recognising our animal and sexual dimension has got to be part of being a full human being. Any tradition within the Christian faith – or any faith – which says that we have to cut off our passions has got to be misguided.

How controversial are your views within the Christian community?

RM: I know that I stand at the liberal to radical end. Theologically, I come from a feminist perspective, which is not the standard position of most people in the church, but it is a respected position. I’m lucky in that I’m based in a city which is not only liberal but socially progressive as well. My priorities are more to do with working with the poor and trying to bring a modicum of peace to the world: those are the important things to me, not getting hung up on what people do with their private lives. The message that I seek to preach is one of inclusion, love and respect: it’s about people using their own brains to think.

Surely the definition of a church is diametrically opposed to independent thinking: it’s a place where people voluntarily think as one?

RM: You’re always caught in a bind in any organisational context, and I don’t think this is a religious thing as such, it’s to do with human institutions and society. Inevitably, in inviting people to want to think for themselves, and work things out for themselves, you’re offering advice and guidance. The question is, where is the leeway and where is the freedom? We all have a sense of where we draw the line. I want people to use their intelligence and their discretion and their judgment as much as possible, because at its extremes, religion can be a bit cultish and seek to control people’s perspectives, and I can’t bear that.

What do you make of the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed Ronnie James Dio’s funeral in order to air their views about all gay people going to hell?

RM: If they’re right, I don’t want to go to their heaven. Their whole agenda has gone beyond religious conservatism into psychopathic self-hate. They just hate human beings: there’s a total lack of humanity and respect there. Lunatics. There’s about 60 members and they all belong to one family: it’s terrifying.

Are there any similarly deranged church groups in the UK?

RM: “Not that I’m aware of, although there is Christian Voice, which is led by a guy called Stephen Green who seems to me to be primarily fixated on sexuality. He famously tried to organise a picket of Jerry Springer: The Musical because it was offensive to Christianity. I don’t think the guy had even seen it. It was like a throwback to the Pythons and The Life Of Brian, which was condemned for being blasphemous. It’s one of the finest critiques of religion, and a very intelligent work about human delusion. I’m so embarrassed about that. But that’s what can happen in churches: people want to react instead of thinking. The problem with Christian Voice, who represent a very small minority of conservative, evangelical Christians, is that they have a huge voice, which means that they get represented as the mainstream Christian perspective.

The clergy don’t usually go on the record to espouse heavy metal. Why are you in such a minority?

RM: Part of the answer lies in the fact that people in the clerical profession are largely from a middle-class background. I grew up in a working-class home in the West Midlands, which is a metal heartland. In my opinion, the Church of England still remains the church of privilege, and its clergy reflect that fact. I’m not saying that any of that means that you can’t like AC/DC, of course.

Surely metal is middle-class music these days?

RM: I’ve also come to feel that. I think it’s shifted, but in its origins metal was about people trying to escape the trap of industrial Britain. In my case, I grew up in a Christian household, but in my teenage years I rejected God enormously and metal was part of that rejection.

So where does metal become offensive? Presumably you’re not troubled by the line "Satan laughing spreads his wings" in Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’?

RM: No. For me, it’s partly about the theatre and partly about poetry. People write fiction to tell the truth, and you can make a serious point about something without necessarily being factual. With lyrics, as with a play or a film, you can tell human truths.

Norwegian black metal is founded on blasphemy. Do you like any of it?

RM: It’s not something which floats my boat, partly because the vocals don’t thrill me. I grew up listening to Ronnie James Dio and Bruce Dickinson. For me, black metal is just another step in music’s development. All interesting arts such as music push at the edges, and black metal is one of the ways in which a bunch of artists do that.

So where do we draw the line?

RM: There are one or two bands who consciously cultivate a Satanic image and make it their fundamental agenda, and that’s not for me, but I don’t want to say that people shouldn’t listen to it. Here’s an example: I really like Slayer, especially as a live band. They are awesome: they turn your insides to paté. Tom Araya is perhaps my favourite frontman ever. Now, I was listening to them in 1985, and people might have said to me as a teenager, "Stop listening to that". And yet here I am at 40, and I’m an ordained minister in the Christian religion: it hasn’t turned me into some sort of shabby human being. So I don’t want to exclude things: I’m not into censorship.

If a parent from your congregation came up to you and said, "Rachel, I’m worried because I heard my son listening to ‘Fuck Your God’ by Deicide the other day", what would you say?

RM: Ha ha! Things like that do happen occasionally. But telling people that they’ve got to stop doing something often pushes them further into it. I would hope that in most cases, people would be mature enough so that you could discuss the pros and cons in that situation.

But if that person asked you if that song title was acceptable, what would your answer be?

RM: “Well, you have to ask people what their priorities are. There was a Christian festival called Spring Harvest not long ago and a really respected speaker got up to speak in front of five or six thousand people. His opening line was "Don’t you think our faith is a complete fucking waste of time?" or words to that effect. As you can imagine, people started to shout at him and walk out, at which point he said "Why is it that you are getting so angry about me using a swear word, when a lot of people have died through poverty since I started this talk?" So if someone is offended by lyrics or swearing, I like to say – in the kindest possible way, because I don’t want to preach at them – "Here are some things to think about that might show you the way through this.”

Is it the case for someone in your job, who witnesses large amounts of suffering and misery on a daily basis, that these issues are pretty trivial?

RM: Yes: these things aren’t huge priorities for me. You know, helping somebody who has lost their baby tragically, or who is dealing with bereavement or unemployment or depression, is much more important – as is celebrating times of joy. In my work I’ve met a number of people who are living a life in hell, in a sense, which has often been imposed on them, sometimes through religion and often through the abuse of power. To lump heavy metal in with that is a joke.

What are your views on the afterlife?

RM: “I don’t believe in the existence of Satan or the existence of hell. I can’t bring myself to believe in a God who would condemn people to hell. I’ve had a very strong experience of God in my life, and I can’t believe that he gives up on people at the end of this life. I also can’t bring myself to believe in heaven in the sentimentalised, Hollywood sense. Anyone who tells you what heaven is like is selling you snake oil. But I do believe that we journey on into God’s greater love.

Surely some of your parishioners will find that view hard to grasp, coming from their local vicar?

RM: Well, maybe. In any congregation there is a range of ages, and some people have black-and-white faiths. But they know me here: I’ve been here for a number of years and they know my views. Most of them have seen me perform with my band and sing songs like ‘War Pigs’, and they live with it because they see beyond that stuff. People respond if you show them love and respect, and that’s what I try to do.