While the main part of my 2011 interview with Sir Cliff looked at his early work with the Arts Centre Group, pioneering a new approach by the Church to the arts, we also spoke about what experience has taught him.
Being a pioneer means making mistakes and learning on the job. With hindsight, looking back over 40 years, how right does he think he got things, and what would he have changed?
“I think we did what was right for the time. God seems to raise people up for what he needs to have done at that particular time…” He paused here, about to compare himself with Billy Graham, but hesitant to make that connection. “Billy’s coming to the end of his life. He gave himself totally to what he did: the evangelist went out and went everywhere. I don’t see anybody taking his place at this moment in time.”
But in answer to the question, he continued, “In the early days, I’d say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t do that…’ and then I think, ‘Wait a minute, because I did do that, now I don’t do it.’ It’s as simple as that for me. Again, it’s not a high intellect route to go: what you’ve been through in the past helps to make you what you are.
“If you’re satisfied that you are in the right place in your life – I’m happy with who I am, what I am, where I am – then all of that has to go back to what you’ve been through. There’s no way round it.”
In those formative experiences, it was more established Christians in the Arts Centre Group who nurtured his confidence in his faith. “I’m sure that what the Arts Centre offered me, certainly as an individual, was an approach to my Christian life that needn’t fear anything. I don’t think that we have the total hold on truth; Jesus does, but we don’t. We try to grab it from where we can and there are a lot of wonderful things that other philosophers from other persuasions have said and you’d agree entirely – anything about love, about joining with others, anything to do with giving to others and that comes from all sorts of philosophies. You can agree with it. I think it gave me a much more mature approach and it was a massive step in my own growth as a Christian.”
“I was never fearful [about] evolution. I could believe in the evolution of mankind, because if God created something, and is the greatest scientist ever, it would be complicated. I could never walk in my garden ever, and believe it was an accident. Evolution is a very sensible, complicated process, and if he did create it that way, there would be a reason for it. So I have no fear about things like that!”
“My faith is tough the way it is.”
Being pragmatic, he insisted that however the universe was created, the day-to-day issues are the ones we should focus more of our attention on.
“Here we are, the results of it at the end, and we still have the same things to deal with – human greed, all sorts of things – and it doesn’t change anything for me. For me, I don’t fear any of those things anymore. My faith is tough the way it is. I know that God exists and I know that Jesus is valid and valuable.”
At one point it did feel as though he was feeling sensitive about his age. He recalled how he even felt old at 26, when he first worked with Billy Graham, then asserted, “Age doesn’t bother me, but I think it bothers other people.” In 2013 he was interviewed on BBC Breakfast and volunteered that people say he is not cool. It came up again in our conversation. Talking about the benefits of experience, he again volunteered, “The new generation comes through and they say, ‘Oh, what does he know – he’s 70, for crying out loud. He ain’t cool!’ You think, ‘Yeah, I am cool, but if you don’t relate to me, that’s OK.’”
Despite his words, he seemed somewhat defensive, but the key point for him was that his message is vital and he wants it to come from those who most easily relate to any given audience, “So I still speak about my faith when I can, but it seems to me that the push has got to come from a new generation.”
He believes in the power of artists to make life-changing connections with people, telling me a story about his “Devil Woman” single.
“In Australia, I was going on tour when I got a letter from this girl saying, ‘Devil Woman saved my life’. In the letter, she said, ‘I was going through a period when I was going to get in touch with the occult. I was getting desperate to find something that was tangible. A friend of mine handed me your record and said, “Before you do it, listen to this”. I listened to Devil Woman and’ – here’s the big thing – she said, ‘I heeded the warning in the lyrics’.
“At that stage then, she joined a Church in Melbourne, ran a church group for kids, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ It was not a Christian record as such, but a Christian had made it and yes, I did dabble with some of the lyrics and so I put in things like ‘Stay away, beware the devil woman… get out of there fast’ and all of those things she took and I’m thinking, ‘That’s amazing! One person … maybe it was made just for her!’ That can still happen today.”
This is the kind of difference that he wants Christian artists to make, noting that secularism has made inroads into culture during his career and looks set to stay, but “the individual heart still seeks after something. We have to be the candle burning in some form of dark. All we have to do is say, ’Here it is!’ The danger is that we’ll pull back and no one presents the true Christian belief. And that’s a shame.”
Although Sir Cliff started to sound worried by secularism, I had to challenge his concerns, because there is a way of thinking that says, although publicly there is a cultural taboo and people pull back from faith, privately people’s openness to spiritual things can be greater now, partly because of secularism’s bleakness.
“Yes, I think secularism always works on the outside. When I went to Russia in 1976, there was a huge underground of Christian spirituality and I met with a huge bunch of people there. But it’s the same here: the secularism is definitely cultural; it doesn’t help the cause, but it means that the Arts Centre as a church can still function, because in there will be people desperate for something. They just don’t know that it’s God or that they need Jesus.”
Speaking from his Portugal home, overlooking his vineyard, Sir Cliff was very affable, but quite intense. For the first ten minutes, I hardly got a word in edgeways, which is not an experience I often have in interviews. I suspect that his everyday contact with people is limited, partly by distance and partly by the management team that fields enquiries. It was as if he felt short of regular conversation. He was very generous with his time. After forty minutes I felt that I was starting to take advantage of his phone call and ended the chat. But there were still plenty of things I wanted to ask – such as, “Does anyone still call him ‘Harry’?”