While it has nothing strictly to do with Thelema, I couldn’t resist including this one… “It isn’t exactly Derek Nimmo, is it?”
The Church of England is preparing to ordain a former Satanist. Damian Thompson finds out how an Old Etonian hunt saboteur and drug-taking punk was truly ‘born again’…
(6th October 2003).
‘I felt the attraction of the dark side’
The Church of England is preparing to ordain a former Satanist. Damian Thompson finds out how an Old Etonian hunt saboteur and drug-taking punk was truly ‘born again’.
After centuries of preaching that anyone can be redeemed by the love of God, the Church of England is about to put its principles to the test – by ordaining its first former Satanist.
It’s hard to say how many firsts the Church will notch up when Ravi Holy, 34, becomes a priest. He may not be the first ex-hunt saboteur to be ordained, or the first former private detective, though it’s a fair bet that no one else will have done both. The first former punk rocker? That depends how you define the term. We are not talking about someone who listened to the Sex Pistols in his bedroom, but the real thing: a speed-snorting yob with a purple Mohican who lay on the pavement swilling cider and swearing at tourists.
At least he went to a decent school. Holy is an Old Etonian former Satanist, which doesn’t sound quite so sinister. And – evangelicals please note – he is definitely not gay: he is happily married with twins.
He has been a Christian for 15 years. Even so, it is a brave step for the Church to ordain someone who, after sliding miserably into the darkest reaches of the occult, tried to sell his soul to the Devil.
“To begin with, I thought Satanism was a fairy story invented to scare people,” he says. “So calling myself a Satanist was a way of expressing total disbelief in the Devil. But, as I got more and more into the dark stuff, I began to count myself as evil.
“One night, lying in bed, I said: ‘Satan, I would like to discuss the exchange of my soul with you’ and I invited him, and for some reason Jesus as well, to meet me on the astral plane to discuss the deal. I wanted to live to 100 but never age past 30. I wanted everyone to love me, and the power to do anything – with special reference to women. With hindsight, I was asking the Devil to relieve me of the human condition. And, needless to say, it didn’t happen.”
We are talking in the drawing room of Trinity College, Bristol, the evangelical Anglican seminary where Ravi has just finished his first year of studies. Once a slave trader’s mansion, the building bears the scars of its own conversion: the corridors are blocked by fire doors and the billiard room is now an ostentatiously plain chapel. It is easy to imagine its former principal, Dr George Carey, bustling through on his way to Bible study.
Holy does not blend into the surroundings so easily. Today, he is wearing a black shirt with a dragon motif that makes him look as if he hasn’t entirely renounced his occult past. He is half-Indian, with an Ali G goatee that changes shape when he laughs. He has found a soul mate in the college receptionist, who shares his un-evangelical sense of humour. He asks her if the drawing room is free. “Yes, dear, but it’s booked for lap-dancing later,” she says.
Ravi folds his arms behind his head, tilts back his chair and starts to tell me his story. His life began to unravel when he won a scholarship to Eton. “My father drove me very hard to get there, and as soon as I was off the leash, I stopped working. I didn’t fit in. I was relegated until I was bottom of the bottom class.
“I was rusticated for drinking, smoking, being out of bounds, hanging out with girls in Windsor. In the end, the school told my parents: if you don’t take him away, we’ll expel him.
“Soon after being thrown out of Eton, I was thrown out of the house by my parents, re-housed by social services, then thrown out of there. I had been a hunt saboteur at Eton, so I drifted into the anarchist punk scene. For a time, I was very ideological: a vegan, passionate about animal rights and pacifism. But in the end, I grew tired of all that dreary super-Marxism. I began to see anarchism differently, as a licence for hedonism.”
A bust of John Wesley gazes prudishly down from the bookcase. “The Cambridge skinheads wanted to kill me,” continues Ravi. “They were fascists, active members of the British Movement and the National Front. They hated hippies, Pakis and faggots. In reality, I was only two of those things, but it’s hard to convince a skinhead you’re straight when you’re wearing make-up.
“One night, a Transit van full of tooled-up skinheads turned up at the squat where I lived and banged on the door saying: ‘We’ve come for the Paki.’ Fortunately, the rest of the Cambridge punks lived there too, and everyone was in, so the skins didn’t get into the house. If they had, I’d probably be dead now.”
Ravi discovered the Glastonbury festival, in those days still a lawless medieval village where punks rolled screaming in the mud. Here, in between chemical buzzes and rushes, he experienced the power of the occult. He met a coven of witches, who invited him to a ritual in which they danced naked in the moonlight.
Did he join in? “I can’t honestly remember, but it was a warm July night, so I might have done,” he grins. Now he plunged headfirst into what sociologists call the “cultic milieu”, the cosmological soup of underground beliefs in which any motif rejected by intellectual orthodoxy can be combined with any other – lost civilisations with alien abduction, Nostradamus with astral projection, shamanism with urban myths.
“I was into the occult, but the world of Wicca was too po-faced and politically correct. I wanted to take drugs and have fun. I began to feel an attraction to ‘the dark side’ “, he says, wiggling his fingers to signify inverted commas.
“I imagined that the things society describes as evil were precisely the opposite. The watchword for me was chaos: anarchy in the metaphysical realm. I started to practise magic. I remember being arrested for busking at Piccadilly Circus. My solicitor told me I’d probably be remanded in custody, because I was of no fixed abode. When I was on my way to court, I called on the Lords of Chaos to stop me going to prison. And it seemed to work. Everything I did was a sacrament of chaos – even scaring tourists in church.”
This last comment refers to the time Ravi and his girlfriend crept into the Round Church in Cambridge and defaced the visitors’ book with the eight-arrow chaos symbol. A group of Americans walked in.
“We leered at them and I said ‘God bless you’ in a murderous voice as they walked past. One of the tourists came up to me afterwards and told me I was going to hell. It got to me, but I wasn’t giving in.
“It was Holy Week, and there was a picture of Jesus Christ on the cover of the Radio Times. Back at my girlfriend’s house, I set light to it and dropped it, still flaming, into the street below.”
Although by now calling himself a Satanist, Ravi did not actually worship the Devil. “For me, Satan was the dark side of human nature, repressed by morality and religion – which is in fact the teaching of most so-called Satanist groups,” he says.
“But they say you can no more dabble with Satanism than you can with heroin, and perhaps this flippant flirtation of mine did invoke demonic forces. I don’t know. What I can say is that, under the influence of hashish, I saw what appeared to be demonic spirits.”
But committing his life to Satan – however he chose to understand that concept – did not produce the feeling of liberation that he hoped for. Two of his friends died suddenly; it felt as if some sort of curse was at work. “I thought: my friends keep dying. Drugs and magic seem to be the road to destruction. I was heading for a mental hospital, babbling about demons and Freemasons.
“On 26 April 1988, I was in a pub in Cambridge. I’d had enough. If I’d had a decent bone in my body, I probably wouldn’t have had the gall to turn to God after everything I’d done. I found myself saying to him: if you help me now, I will serve you for the rest of my life. I expected him to say: you must be joking. But he didn’t. Since that day, I haven’t taken a drug or a sip of alcohol, nor had the desire to do so.”
It was a couple of years, however, before Holy was prepared to describe himself as a Christian.
“Christianity is social death in the punk scene,” he explains. “It was the last religion I would have chosen – I would have gone for something more fashionable, like Buddhism, that could be dressed up as a lifestyle accessory. But this was the God who had saved my life, and since the punk creed is ‘do whatever you think is right’, I became the one thing I had sworn I would never become, a born-again Christian.”
Holy spent the next few years as a private investigator and computer salesman, attending a large Pentecostal church in London. He formed a band, and adopted the surname “Holy” as a stage name. “Say ‘Ravi Holy’ quickly in a cockney accent and you’ll get the idea,” he says.
If he had gone ahead with his plan to be ordained as a Pentecostal pastor, he would have been – wait for it – Pastor Ravi Holy. The name caught people’s imagination, and he adopted it officially: his wife and children now bear it.
The Pentecostal world in the Nineties was almost as exotic as the occult circles Holy had left behind: services were frequently disrupted by hysterical laughter and strange miracles – holy oil dripping from the sky, the sudden appearance of gold teeth in the mouths of worshippers. “After the years of drugs and magic, Pentecostalism was a sort of decompression chamber in which I needed to spend time before I could emerge into the wider Church,” says Holy.
His call to the Anglican priesthood came unexpectedly, while he and his wife, Nicky, were at a health farm.
“I had been thinking about the full-time ministry for years,” he says. “Two vicars’ wives were staying there, and they were the ones who persuaded me that the Church of England was the right place for me.”
After careful reflection, the Church of England accepted Ravi for ordination training. It knows that he experimented with Satanism, but it also believes that, if it screens out every candidate who has an embarrassing past, it will rule out anyone who has experienced the power of redemption.
And, besides, there are advantages to employing someone who has experienced the terror of addiction at first hand: Ravi has recently been on a placement to a women’s prison where the vast majority of inmates have been drug users.
The surprising thing is how recognisably Anglican Holy has become. “My understanding of the Church has gradually become more inclusive and liberal,” he says.
“I no longer believe that God is at work only in the lives of Christians, though I do believe that Christ is the ultimate, unique revelation of God.
“As a Pentecostal, I was encouraged to think of the C of E as a dead institution, but now I can see the virtue in the Anglican balance of scripture, reason and tradition. I like the idea of the Elizabethan settlement, of a Church for everyone in which Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals and liberals work together.”
One of his favourite lecturers at Trinity was Dr Jane Williams, who has now left the college to take up the equally demanding, if less cerebral, role of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife. “She’s probably the closest person I’ve met to a saint,” says Ravi.
This is a man who has travelled a huge distance, intellectually and morally: something has transformed him from an angry, anti-social menace into a responsible citizen, husband and father. But one can’t help wondering – bearing in mind all that acid he dropped in the Eighties – whether he ever suffers from flashbacks.
“Funny you should ask that,” he says. “This Easter, I was sent as a pastoral assistant to a parish in south London. On Good Friday, we processed out of the church and stood on the lawn in front of three crosses. There were 40 or 50 of us, including lots of old ladies.
“And I had a sort of flashback, imagining what I would have done if I was still a punk and walking past with my mates. In the old days, I used to walk up to old ladies and start screaming at them. I feel deeply ashamed of that now; they must have been terrified. I was a nasty yob.”
One day, a parish somewhere is going to have to come to terms with its vicar’s past. “I know,” sighs Holy, “but at least it was a long time ago – that drunken maniac has been dead for 15 years. And, in a way, it is part of my ministry. It shows that ‘born again’ isn’t just a theological term.
“The world is changing, and the Church of England is moving away from the stereotypical vicar of Ealing comedies and sitcoms. I mean, look at me. I’m a half-Asian, Old Etonian, ex-drug addict and reformed Satanist. It isn’t exactly Derek Nimmo, is it?”