He was born in Sheffield in 1948, and was ordained into the ministry at the age of 23. During a varied and interesting career, Robert was – among other things – the press officer for the Diocese of Lichfield in the English Midlands, and was a BBC radio and television producer/director for religious programming during the 1970s. He is married to Caroline, and they have two sons and a daughter.
If you didn’t know Robert Ellis was a priest, you probably wouldn’t guess his profession correctly. He is tall – rangy even – with a shock of greying hair that would have been blond not that long ago. He looks to me as though he could be a university lecturer whom his students would respect and engage with. That’s it – a liberal-minded lecturer who would provoke his students to think about their responsibilities to society. The fact that Robert hardly ever wears his dog collar unless he is on duty, adds to this slightly Bohemian image. It also helps that he looks at least five years younger than his 60 years.
Over a coffee at a small café in Camp de Mar, I ask him about Christmas: did he feel that it had become grossly over-commercialized? “Not here. I like the fact that Christmas only starts properly about the 15th December. Frankly I don’t really have that much time for the clergy who whinge about this sort of thing – Christmas is about families getting together.” That answer surprised me a little; I was expecting the usual po-faced lecture about the lost message of Christ’s birth amongst a welter of crude consumerism. I wondered if Christmastide was a very busy time for him. “To be honest, it’s quite a strange time really, as many people go home to the UK for Christmas. Naturally I have to do my full stint of five or more services but many of them are very quiet indeed. I remember driving from Cala d’Or to Palma one Christmas Eve and not seeing a single soul on the road all my way to the Church in Palma. In fact, my wife Caroline goes back to the UK just before Christmas and I follow her on Boxing Day.”
With his journalistic background, Robert Ellis is a very good writer; he has a regular column in the English language newspaper the Majorca Daily Bulletin, and his pieces are pungent, amusing, and not without controversy. Not for him the bland assurances and tired rhetoric of your average Church newsletter. He writes about subjects such as racism, and homosexuality in the Church – “homophobia wrapped in bad theology” – with a passion. “It’s like the debate about women priests: our children can’t believe this sort of thing is even an issue nowadays.”
His only daughter is married to a Muslim, and so has witnessed anti-Islamic feeling first-hand.
He has a healthy disrespect for religious fundamentalism of any stripe: “There is no nut, like a religious nut.” I wondered if that was just the point, fundamentalism has a certainty that eludes the Church of England. “I’m in this job to change the Church, dragging it kicking and screaming into the 21st century: we need to be relating to the hopes and fears of ordinary people.” Might this seem to some that the Church is prone to each passing modern fad or fancy? “No certainly not, it’s just that we have a duty to speak out about the environment, education, health and wealth. If we don’t we will go the way of the dinosaurs and just die out.” Now that intrigued me. Is it possible to be a Christian and still believe that Charles Darwin was right, in terms of The Origin Of The Species? The Reverend Ellis gave me a withering look: “Yes of course it is, God is God, Darwin was right, but acknowledging evolution does not mean that you are denying God – far from it.”
As we talked, Robert spoke of the various groups of people on the island who would be not having a very merry Christmas. Among them, more than thirty young British men in jail on Mallorca. Robert Ellis visits these men regularly as part of his pastoral work, and they will not have much comfort over the holidays. Should we feel sorry for them? I asked. “Look, all these men are in there for drugs-related crimes, most of them have just been stupid . . . ” A subject that exercises Ellis considerably, is that of loneliness and genteel poverty here on Mallorca. The fact is that many couples come to the island to retire on a fixed pension and, when one of the couple dies, there can be desperate problems for the remaining partner. They cannot afford to live here, and probably have a shrinking circle of friends. Going back to the UK isn’t an option because perhaps family ties have been severed. Robert spoke movingly of this hidden and discreet poverty that is very rarely spoken of, yet shames us all.
With Christmas rapidly approaching, we talked about this very special time of year. As a family man, Robert understands the particular magic it engenders for children. “Christmas is a time for families, it is a wonderful festival. After all, we can all relate to babies and a new birth.” Interestingly, Robert hadn’t yet mentioned the birth of Jesus. Do you believe in the Virgin birth? We looked at each other – he knew what I was thinking. He chose his words very carefully: “Put it this way, I believe something quite dramatic happened at the first Christmas . . . ”
Do you ever regret being a priest, Robert? “Frank”, he said quietly, “I had no choice in the matter.” With this he smiled at me and pointed skyward. Laughing now, the Reverend Robert Ellis leant across the table and whispered: “I hang on in there.”