Rev Kate Bottley spoke with Catherine Larner about getting older, being on TV, writing a book, and the freedom of wearing a dog collar
Still known as the Gogglebox vicar even though she left the reality TV show in 2016, Rev Kate Bottley is now an established and much-loved broadcaster. She presents Songs of Praise, hosts BBC Radio Two’s Sunday Hour and is a guest on a huge variety of TV panel shows. She no longer runs her own parish but acts as a supply vicar, and she’s just had her first book published, called Have a Little Faith: Life lessons on love, death and how lasagne always helps (Penguin Faith).
CL: Why did you decide now was the time to write a book?
KB: I have to say that as a working-class girl, the ambition to write a book seems a solidly middle-class activity. I had no desire to do it but at every Women’s Institute gig, every church-speaking gig, people would ask: “Have you got a book?”. It was a bit like ordination – enough people said it to me that I thought I should take it seriously.
CL: You regularly contribute to BBC Radio Two’s Pause for Thought – couldn’t you have just produced a compilation of your best bits?
KB: I’ve got to the time of life when the depleted oestrogen has taken me solidly into the ‘wise woman of the village’ category. To my dismay, people are starting to look to me for advice. You look back down the mountain and assess what you’ve learned thus far, so I thought I should probably try and write that down.
CL: The book is divided into different themes – from success, love and confidence to conflict, loneliness and grief. How did you settle on these?
KB: When you become a Christian, it’s not a destination you arrive at, it’s a process that you go through continually; these are my observations along the road. I actually wanted to leave half the book empty for people to write their own thoughts at the end.
My bishop is constantly confused by me but lets me get on with it
CL: Who do you think of as your readers?
KB: It’s solidly written for the “I’m not religious” bods – people who stop me in the street and do this apologetic “I’m not really religious” thing and seem to feel bad about it. I always say, there are a lot worse things you can be than ‘not religious’. But I wonder if these people stop their builders or hairdressers and say: “I don’t really plaster” or “I don’t really cut hair”. This book is for people who are on the edge of faith.
CL: There are certainly more people outside the Church than in it these days, aren’t there?
KB: The number of people wanting to profess to any organised religion is falling. But people tell me that they like to light a candle if they’re in a church on holiday, or they say they believe there’s ‘something more’ or they hope their mum’s in a better place. I tell them: “That all sounds a bit religious to me.”
I see myself as a curator of faith conversations because culture and Church are getting ever wider apart. I somehow sit in that gap and at the moment I feel part of my vocation is to try and interpret for both groups.
CL: Why might people listen to you on TV and not seek the Church?
KB: Every person has a story of how a church wouldn’t christen their baby, or a vicar got a name wrong at a funeral. Those things happen. I hope I bring warmth and that one positive against ten negatives to weigh things out.
Did I ever think anybody was going to fall on their knees and give their life to Jesus in front of the TV? Definitely not. I don’t doubt what God can do, but if would be a very weird afternoon if me appearing on Steph’s Packed Lunch led anyone to give their life to Jesus. But I hope it adds a warmth to those of us who are religious. It’s always been my hope that we just humanise it.
CL: Is faith undermined by being on television?
KB: I think there’s a bit of snobbery about the telly. Sometimes people mistake taste for holiness. They seem to think there are things that are holy and serious and proper, and things that are flippant and silly. I don’t see it that way. God is present in Love Island. We might have to look a bit harder but I think God’s there. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Other people do and why should the name of God be excluded from that place?
We pray for our nurses, doctors, police officers, MPs and rightly so, but nobody’s praying for Kylie [Minogue]. One of the things we learned during the pandemic is that entertainment is really important. We need culture and arts.
CL: In the book you also share aspects of your life story, including becoming famous. How do you find being recognised all the time?
KB: When I was a vicar I could never get around Co-op, I could never go to the pub without someone wanting to talk to me, so it’s like that just a bit bigger.
The great thing about being in the public eye is that people already think they know me, and they know I’ll be kind and warm. They’ll come with open hearts and be ready to listen. And that’s lovely. The responsibility of that is that I have to be nice and never have a bad day.
I think celebrity and fame are considered dirty words. But as I recall there was a bloke in sandals with a beard who attracted a big crowd from time to time.
CL: How are you perceived by other clergy do you think?
KB: My bishop is constantly confused by me but lets me get on with it. During the pandemic I was made honorary canon at Southwell Minster, which is like getting a gold star off the headteacher. It felt like a stamp of approval and that’s always nice. He’s my line manager, though; I hope the ultimate boss thinks I’m doing a good job.
CL: How do you feel the Church is responding to the needs of people today?
KB: I always try to remember that we’re the Church of England so what does England want and need? And it’s that thing of ‘both and’. We need to stick to tradition and ritual but we also need to modernise and move with the times. We need to be quiet and reverent but we also need to be loud and ‘out there’.
I think at the heart of it is authenticity. People can spot fakes a mile off. And there’s nothing worse than a vicar trying to rap who can’t rap. We feel it, don’t we?
CL: You never seem to shy away from or trivialise your faith – how do you do that?
God is present in Love Island. We might have to look a bit harder but I think God’s there
KB: I think part of that is the gift of the collar. People expect me to talk about my faith and be a bit religious when they see me. It gives me permission to talk about the stuff of faith.
There are TV shows pitched to me that I’ve refused. This isn’t fancy dress. This is real. Of course I’ll get it wrong from time to time but I want to use it as much as I possibly can. I still see myself as a priest; I’ve just got an unusual, different-shaped parish with a weird pulpit.
CL: You became a Christian at school when you met Graham, the son of a vicar, who became your husband. How has your faith changed since that time?
KB: I’ve grown up a lot. I came to faith in a solidly evangelical charismatic tradition where everything was black and white, right and wrong. There was nothing to be figured out. You just needed to read it and believe it.
Now rather than saying I became a Christian at 14, I talk about stepping into my faith. God always had me. My faith was always there. I genuinely think the moment of my baptism as a baby was a huge moment for me, even though I wasn’t aware of it. That’s where my vocation started. I genuinely believe that.
My faith has become much more nuanced and beautiful and chaotic and difficult to measure. It’s more complicated now but, heavens above, it’s more beautiful.
CL: Where do you go for spiritual refreshment and support?
KB: I have a great parish priest. I’ve got a spiritual director who I see every few weeks, and who doesn’t pull any punches. I’ve got really good mates who tell me to wind my neck in and I’ve got a great diocese. I read, I go to Greenbelt, which is my spiritual home, so get topped up there. And my work does it as well.
Every time I go on telly, every time I do a job, I find church there. We’ve often had to break in filming because I need to go and say a prayer. It happens on Songs of Praise, on the radio, on Blankety Blank, for goodness’ sake. God goes before us, beside us and behind us.
Have a Little Faith: Life lessons on love, death and how lasagne always helps (Penguin Faith) is released on 14 September.