Goth Week continues goth vicar the Reverend Alex Gowing-Cumber tells us about his life living with a serious disability, faith, setting up a church in a Soho sex shop, and how mainstream Christianity can learn a lot from alternative cultures. As told to Luke Turner.
In our recent Goth Week podcast devoted to a debate as to whether Disintegration or Pornography was the greatest Cure album, my tQ co-pilot John Doran said that, for him, goth began with a childhood and youth spent in church. This makes sense: while it might superficially seem that the gothic has more to do with the Horned One than it does the teachings of Jesus, the gothic and Christianity have a lot in common – and we’re not merely talking in terms of the shape of church arches or an enthusiasm for wearing black clothes and using incense. Both goth and Christianity have at their core a human quest for transcendence against the inescapable certainty of death. They also embrace the complexity of desire and sexuality and, while the church has traditionally been hardline and moralistic on these matters, more progressive elements, often within alternative cultures like goth, are starting to make that change. Perhaps both Christianity and goth also share the problem that outsiders frequently perceive them as a bit weird, conformist and increasingly niche. Look deeper, however, and more nuanced pictures emerge – this is none more so than in the case of Reverend Alex Gowing-Cumber, ordained priest, chaplain to the goth community, and social campaigner.
Reverend Alex was born in Epping, Essex in 1972, was a Christian from birth and became a goth in his teens. The two strands were never opposed, but became the core of his life’s work as, after time at bible college in the 1990s, he became a vicar who ministered both to the goth community and vulnerable members of society in London’s Soho. Alex has the disability hereditary spastic paraplegia, a degenerative disease that first appeared in his family records during the 1850s. His own symptoms of the illness appeared around the age of 12, and his condition began to deteriorate in his 20s. He has an autism diagnosis but prefers to describe himself as “neuro-queer”. Alex Gowing-Cumber has been a consultant on TV series Rev and was a trustee of the Inclusive Church organisation that seeks to fight discrimination on the basis of sexuality, race and disability, Alex lives on Canvey Island, Essex, and this is his story:
My interest in goth culture began when I first noticed punks and new romantics on Bournemouth beach on holiday as a child and it continued when my mum got me a second-hand leather jacket. When my first pet rabbit died I spent ages arranging and photographing the body. Goth came later, but I think I was always a Christian. When I was a few weeks old my mum took me into All Saints Woodford and Len Thurlow, the verger of the church, placed me on the altar and prayed over me in tongues. After I was ordained, mum shared that on that day he told her that I would become a minister. When I was a junior school child I heard the astronaut James Irwin talking on the radio about being on the Moon, looking down on Earth and having a conversation with God. From that moment on I understood that there was a two-way conversation with God.
My school was run by Quakers and my church by Evangelical Anglicans. As a teenager I I went on the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham. It’s a village in Norfolk that has a famous shrine built on the site of one of the earliest ‘Marian Visions’. Richeldis de Faverches, an English noblewoman, saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, three times in 1061. There are several Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox shrines, chapels, tea shops and retreat centres all next to one another. I met some monks and priests wearing black Levi’s jeans and that encounter led to me finding a more mystical side to my faith. I also discovered the music of the Taizé community through friends sharing tapes. Through other friends I’d found The Escape Club in Greenwich (which played punk and industrial music with anything from Throbbing Gristle to Bang Bang Machine) and the back streets of Soho, so life became a mixture of Anglo-Catholic candle-lit beauty and the sleazy city.
I remember as a teenager drawing a picture of who I hoped to be and slowly becoming that person. I got into goth perhaps accidentally or maybe as a result of my personality. I was an outsider child, neurodiverse, rather withdrawn, anxious and obsessive. I went to a boarding school that was quite brutal and abusive; it broke various parts of me, as well as giving me a creativity, sensitivity, spirituality that had to be resilient to survive. Goth was a suit of armour as well as a matter of heart and mind. One night in a club someone asked if I was a goth and I thought, ‘you know what? Yes I am’.
I’ve always had an interest in the darker end of jazz and early rock and roll, and I enjoyed but wasn’t obsessed with the likes of The Mission and The Cure. I enjoyed Dead Or Alive as their lead singer Pete Burns resonated with me, the same went for Erasure, The Communards and Depeche Mode;I loved The Alarm and their socialist politics. Poetry, art and literature that I could get lost in were as important to me as music, as was excess in architecture.
I was blessed to get into theatre school as a 16-year-old and spend time with liberal and open-minded people. I was running the youth work at a charismatic evangelical Anglican Church in a conservative London suburb so life was full of contrast. Psalm 40 and the Gloria (especially as expressed by U2 – as much as any goth singer, Bono was a hero to me – helped a lot. The story of faith that comes through the pages of the Bible seems full of excess and rather dark and gothic. Ezekiel presents us with God in a gold wheelchair. He is so unwell that he’s tied to his bed and has carers, yet seems to design a city through visions. I was friends with a blind theology professor called John Hull who got me into disability theology through exploring Ezekiel.
Apparently as a child at playgroup I told the leaders I wanted to be Archbishop when I grew up. Later in life I realised that as a vicar I could wear black, drink coffee and be kind to people. I’d been a youth worker and part-time lead railman working for London Underground at Mile End, and applied for a post as director of a Youth for Christ Centre. They had never employed anyone in this post without a theology degree so I went to a Brethren bible college. They were training people to work as missionaries underground in areas of the world that were then unreached by Christian people – my friends were going out to the Middle East and parts of Europe, some were taken hostage and that kind of thing.
My dissertation looked at gothic culture and the church from mid-Victorian times to the early 90s. It went from the culture that lead to the dramatic excess of the Oxford Movement, via art, architecture, music and liturgy through to those of us who discovered our common faith and goth identity in our teens and twenties as we met places such as the Whitby Goth Weekend, Greenbelt (a Christian music festival) and the Asylum church, now Asylum Chapel, in London. That had begun in the 1980s when a young punk felt that God called her to stand in Carnaby Street and give faith literature and practical support to alternative people she met. Asylum had strong links with Dual Edge Records in Rupert Court, Soho – I used to buy my vinyl there from a Greek Orthodox man called Andy. Sadly, Asylum placed itself under the leadership of Kensington Temple, quite a conservative Pentecostal church. Even then in the 90s the views that church held around gender, sexuality and lifestyle started to alienate many of the goths, especially the more androgynous gender-neutral types and their friends. As this happened, various new things emerged.
Just as other people from my bible college went to work as missionaries overseas, I similarly went to work within goth culture. My mission statement was to showcase a century of the church embracing dark culture. My masters had given me the skills to use art therapeutically with people. I became immersed in Soho as an area in a more thoughtful, spiritual and pastoral way, bringing together anyone and anything from LGBTQ+ safe spaces, the local Church of England school, alternative clubs and music venues and those for whom the street was their home. As a chaplain to that community I had many joys and challenges. I offered the normal sacraments and pastoral support of the church, but dealt with many questions that most church leaders won’t, don’t and can’t address.
I celebrated communion in St. Stephen’s church in Purfleet where Bram Stoker, the actor Henry Irving and their theatre troupe spent weekends, with the actual communion set that was in use during their visits – someone got it out of a bank vault for me for the service. During the service in place of the gospel an extract from Dracula was read – the part where Van Helsing is hiding communion bread in cracks in a wall. We did this for fun for the 120th anniversary of its publication!
I ended up starting a church called Spiritual Space which met at Coffee, Cake & Kink in Soho, an erotic art dealership that also served light refreshments. It was odd how I found the venue. I had been in a pub in Wardour Street when I happened to read a leaflet on the table that turned out to be a map of where people could have their fetish needs met. I felt drawn to this place and went to find it; outside the pub was a traffic warden who gave me excellent directions. I told / asked the owners that I needed to run a church in their building, and for the next decade this amazing faith community blossomed. An older vicar called Ken Leach who had worked in Soho helped guide me. The worship was very traditional, with communion as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer.
One church member decided to help a sex journal called Forum run a feature on what we were doing. I was summoned to the bishop, but it ended up being OK as he pointed out that the person who’d grassed on me had been reading the magazine, so…
Later the church moved to the Fifth View cocktail bar on the top floor of Waterstones Piccadilly, which cost me a fortune in staff tips, and still later moved to the members lounge at the Royal Festival Hall. It constantly reinvented itself, but ultimately slowing down as my health slowed me down.
In 2014 my heart stopped, two surgeons called time on me but a third brought me back – the next morning he sat by my bedside in intensive care telling me of the adventure. Last November, my body was seriously struggling with a number of issues and my wife Kat was taken into a side room In the hospital and told to prepare for my death. We were both scared and were for weeks afterwards. Now I’m in a limbo somewhere between ‘Am I recovering?’ or ‘Am I just maintaining life?’ I’m far more frightened of death than I expected to be. In my student days, knowing I was carrying a degenerative disability, my theology and wider interests certainly helped. I studied cyber feminist theology and wrote the cyber feminist Eucharist for Greenbelt 2000. As time has passed, that has enabled me to integrate technology into myself in order to get around and communicate – the cyborg tropes I once read about in William Gibson novels have become my day to day reality. Many years ago, Stephen Hawking came to my college chapel. He shared the Peace and complimented me on my boots – it gave me a huge confidence to prepare for my future.
Goths tend to live to excess and many of my goth friends have died young as a result. My goth experiences have pulled me from excess to remarkably clean living with the occasional cigar. As a result of all this I’ve found the nature of Holy Communion very hard – it can be divisive, a meal that excludes addicts, people with swallowing problems, allergies and so on.
An inspiration in this has been the Franciscan Richard Carter who is now based in London but was for years on the Solomon Islands. On those islands alcohol is sometimes taboo as it has been so abused in the past, therefore at weddings they give gifts of shells. When interpreting Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana they decided to see it as an abundance of shells, and in time their communion has become gathering shells off the beach and sharing them.
Goth culture and Christian culture have a realism of brokenness and pain. I see my body as broken with the blood poured out, but sustained by the body and blood of others – the vampire narrative fits in with the medical practice of blood transfusion. During my last transfusion I was so excited and full of vampire stories that I thought the bemused doctor would section me, but I was like Sonia Blue the modern-day vampire of Nancy Collins novels.
Mainstream Christians pray simplistically for my healing but don’t grasp the fact that in my brokenness I am complete and experiencing Christ. Being an ageing, broken goth enables me to be a missionary in a subculture that people find hard to experience and understand from the outside. Could I have taken a lighter path or was the road less travelled destined for me? Perhaps I need to re-read Anton LaVey and Mark’s gospel over the rest of Lent and find the beauty In both the ashes and the Last Supper while learning to deal gently with the stupidity and hypocrisy that seems to be at the heart of so much of the church. I hope for an inclusive church and society at every level.
The mainstream church in recent years has not engaged well with issues of polyamory, gender, kink, BDSM and so on any better than it has engaged with abuse survivors, ethical finance or many other issues. The alternative people alienated from the mainstream church – not all of whom were outwardly goth and some were very conventional – pushed me spiritually to develop ethical and theological frameworks for issues that were taboo in the mainstream.
A memory that sticks out is a couple marking an anniversary who asked me to bless the celebration. On the day the man had his penis pierced, then swam through a river to a disused remote chapel where his wife of 40 years and I met him. He knelt soaking wet on the floor and they made their wedding vows, reversing the words of the Book of Common Prayer so that he vowed to obey and submit to her. Afterwards, they took me out to dinner at a Michelin Starred restaurant. Now, if you read this in the Old Testament you’d think ‘wow’, but if it ended up in a modern tabloid newspaper, it would possibly end up with the celebrant being barred from the mainstream church.. Yet I feel it is a story of beauty and integrity.
I’m also reminded to tell you about a homeless rent boy called Wesley. He was the son of a Methodist minister and the most Christ-like person I ever met. He was sleeping across the doorway of a disused building at the time and would find safe shelter and clean needles for the other young people in a similar position. He was so kind and so broken all at once – maybe that is the true nature of the gothic.
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