WE ARE SHEFFIELD: Meet the vicar who dealt with Enoch Powell and Black Power – and travelled from Singapore to England by car

Father ME Charles at home in Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall.
Father ME Charles at home in Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall.

A Church of England vicar who was born in Singapore but settled in Sheffield has been looking back on his astonishing life as he turns 90-years-old.

Father M E Charles, of Ringinglow Road, Bents Green, was born in Malaya in 1928, and lived through the Japanese occupation of south-east Asia during which his father was imprisoned.

Father ME Charles aged 30 when he first arrived in Sheffield.

Father ME Charles aged 30 when he first arrived in Sheffield.

From Singapore he went to Bangalore, India, where he studied the theology of eight major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Sikhism.

It would be a choice that would come to typify his eclectic approach to both life and faith.

“My father wanted me to be a doctor but I said I wanted to study religion,” he says.

“In those days as teenagers we all rebelled against religion - but I wanted to find out more.”

Father ME Charles at home in Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall.

Father ME Charles at home in Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall.

In 1958 he came to England to study at Cambridge, driving from Singapore to France by car.

It took him 58 days to travel the 6742 miles - with his father, mother, sister, wife and daughter in tow - journeying across India, Pakistan, Balochistan, Persia, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy and France.

“Persia was the hardest because of the desert - but we had many adventures on the way,” he says, with a glint in his eye.

While in England he was invited to become a vicar at the inner-city parish of St Bartholomew's in Carbrook, Sheffield.

Father ME Charles at home in Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall.

Father ME Charles at home in Ringinglow Road, Ecclesall.

Despite his exoticism, he says he was accepted by his adopted parish, growing the congregation from 25 when he arrived to 80 when he left.

“I would visit 200 houses with my daughters every Christmas Day and Christmas Eve to give presents and say prayers,” he says.

“They were working-class, uneducated people who went to the doctor or the vicar for everything - sometimes just to read letters.”

After Sheffield he went to Birmingham, working in a similarly poor area during a time of intense racial strife.

There, his radical ideas of allowing Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Rastafarians to worship in the parish hall met with some resistance among the white population.

Paradoxically, he also invited Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell - made famous around that time by the so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that predicted racial integration would inevitably lead to violence.

“I asked him to speak in our church but he was worried about security - but I also invited the National Front and Black Power,” he said.

“I believed my church was for everybody - a place where all views must be respected, without violence. I felt my duty was to bring people together.”

After returning to Sheffield in 1979, he became vicar at St Augustine’s Brocco Bank for 11 years, offering spiritual guidance as well as a 24-hour counselling service to his flock.

Heart problems forced an early retirement in 1990, but he still sermons at churches around the city to this day.

His latest - focusing on the similarities between modern scientific theories of the universe like quantum theory with ancient understanding of the cosmos - is testament to a life that defies easy categorisation.