LET’S ROCK: Rev Ravi Holy at his church in Wye, where the congregation is booming
But then nothing about Reverend Ravi Holy is conventional. The Elvis-themed funeral he arranged for a parishioner of this conservative corner of south-east England certainly got them all shook up – in a good way. But he had other acceptance problems over his past history when he had his interview for becoming a Church of England vicar 18 years ago.
“Oddly they weren’t so bothered about the drugs and drinking,” says Ravi, “or even the Satanism – not that I was really into it. It was the fact I went to a Pentecostal church that worried them the most.”
Ravi has been sober and off drugs for 31 years, “apart from the communion wine”, he says.
“In the Pentecostal church they think they’re the only proper Christians. I had some convincing to do that I wasn’t going to preach like they do there, all Heaven and the bad place,” he says, jerking his head to one side.
“You couldn’t have that shouted from the pulpit in Wye.”
Wye, with St Gregory’s and St Martin’s at its heart, is a well-heeled commuter hub near Ashford International station.
But the congregation took to their new vicar with relish and have flocked in ever larger numbers since his arrival in 2009.
Ravi’s birth surname was Maharishi (“great holy man” in Hindi) but he got given the tag Holy in the style of adjectival last names at the time.
“Like Sid Vicious or Johnny Rotten,” he says, laughing. “I got called Ravi Holy because I came from a religious background.”
Which leads us to Ravi’s favourite one-liner, tried out on BBC Breakfast’s Naga Munchetty, when he appeared on the programme in 2014.
Reverend as Elvis
“I said that if I called myself Pastor, I’d be pasta ravi-oli. She said, ‘Ravi, that’s not funny’.”
Yet Ravi has them rolling the aisles in Wye. He said: “Comedy has improved my preaching by making it as entertaining as possible so that people want to come back,” he says. “And they do.”
Ravi was raised a Catholic but at 16 it all started to unravel.
He said: “I got into New Age spirituality, which involved taking a lot of hallucinogenic drugs.”
An only child, he is estranged from his parents but he won’t discuss why.
By 19, he was living in squats in Cambridge – unemployed, drinking and taking drugs, on a “downward spiral”.
He formed a punk band called Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal but was “incapable of standing up” at their one gig.
He credits a Catholic upbringing with helping him. Any grounding in Christianity, he says, instils the moral building blocks you need to become a good person.
Ravi’s Damascene mo-ment came in a pub – naturally – at Christmas after a mate’s funeral: “I was really drunk but I remember saying a kind of prayer to myself, ‘God if you exist, I could really do with some help’.”
At that moment, the door opened and in walked an old friend, who had left drink and drugs behind. He gave Ravi a stern talking to and urged him to do the same.
“On New Year’s Day 1988 I quit and I haven’t had drugs or a drink since.”
The second sign came on Easter Saturday a few years later.
“I bumped into an old school friend,” says Ravi. “He was a Christian and said, ‘come to church with me tomorrow’.”
So, on Easter Sunday 1990, Ravi went to an Anglican church and has been an adherent ever since – albeit with the aforementioned diversion into Pentecostalism, which happily resulted in him meeting his wife, Nikki.
Rev Ravi Holy in his days as a punk rocker
A third sign came at a spa hotel where he and Nikki had gone for a weekend retreat. Two women at an adjoining table were vicars’ wives who told Ravi he would make the perfect clergyman.
“I was a controversial candidate,” says Ravi, “But I vowed when God showed me he was there for me I would do what he wanted for the rest of my life.”
Ravi and Nikki, then six months pregnant with their twins, Arun and Tallulah, moved to Bristol for him to attend theological college.
He was ordained in Southwark Cathedral in 2005 and, after a spell at a church in London, moved to Wye. Arun is agnostic and Tallulah, a promising footballer, does not attend church because it is “no longer cool”.
“I’ve no problem with it,” Ravi says, shrugging. “The Christian values rubbed off on them.”
Rock and roll musician Elvis Presley performing in 1968
Ravi found the congregation reacted well to comedy, so he jumped at the chance to attend a Comedy For Clergy workshop.
The course culminated in a gig, attended by a local BBC crew.
From a slot on BBC London, Ravi found himself invited to appear on BBC Breakfast.
Now he does about 50 gigs a year, and performs with White Collar Comedy, his trio, whose tagline is: “They’re Middle Class, Middle Aged and Middle England. And all three are working vicars”.
Ravi, comedy has an important role to play in religion – hence the Elvis funeral – but insists on services being dignified and solemn in the right places.
“It was absolutely what the family wanted,” says Ravi, who had done some Elvis impersonating and explains that the woman who died, the local hairdresser, was a fan of The King.
“I did take the wig and jacket off for the service. No one found it disrespectful – including my Bishop from whom I asked permission. The medium is the message. By telling jokes I am still challenging people to think about stuff.”
See White Collar Comedy at Bath Comedy Festival, April 10