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Discovering other words for God

27 March 2012

A new book by Richard Holloway charts his perennial and public struggle with faith and doubt. He talks to Martin Wroe

Inside out: Bishop Richard Holloway in his spiritual home, Old St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh COLIN HATTERSLEY

Inside out: Bishop Richard Holloway in his spiritual home, Old St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh COLIN HATTERSLEY

TOWARDS the end of his best-selling memoir Leaving Alex­andria, the former Bishop of Edinburgh, the Rt Revd Richard Holloway, recalls the work of one of his clergy, Canon Jane Millard, in caring so tenderly for gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Weighing the contribution of Chris­tians like her against what he considers is the sexism, homo­phobia, and deep-seated conservat­ism of the institutional Church, he recasts a phrase of Albert Camus to ask “if there are more things to ad­mire in the Church than to despise”.

It is 12 years since he resigned as Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, when an infuriated group of his Evangelical clergy declared the diocese vacant. So what is there to admire in the Church today?

“The day-to-day, under-the-radar caring that goes on in parishes all over the country,” he says. “That new soap opera Rev captures what a lot of people don’t understand — the way the beleagured world washes through the doors of vicarages all over the country. I hope that that insane openness to the world is still present; that it isn’t fading or dying.

“I admire Jesus’s openness to people having a rough time — there aren’t many organisations that do that, and fewer still that live in the midst of it. The residential principle is still one of the fundamental things in the parish system. You don’t go home at five o’clock.”

And what does someone whose increasingly outspoken priesthood constantly puts the institution on the defensive “despise” in the Church?

“I don’t despise many things,” he says. “I get impatient; I get angry. What saddens me about the Church is the first law of institutions, that while they’re created with a great vision, they end up existing in order to exist. Max Weber called it the ‘routinisation of charisma’, and, while I know it’s unavoidable, I think that when the Church compromises itself to follow the institutional imperative too compulsorily, it loses the Jesus madness. That’s the level we’re now at in the Anglican Com­munion.”

WE ARE speaking the day be­fore Dr Rowan Wil­liams announced his de­part­ure from the See of Canterbury, but Bishop Holloway’s analysis is that he was, first, too good to get the necessary job done; and, second, mistaken about what the necessary job was.

Bishop Holloway was never the leader of an established Church, like Dr Williams, and says that, despite his Catholic heart (“as far as the aesthetics go”), his inner Scot is “a radical Protestant”. Protestantism may be endlessly dividing, but its strength is to “push a challenge to a break for the sake of a principle — prophetically.

“A wonderful thing was liberated into the ether at the Protestant Reformation — a challenge to power, this ability to draw a line in the sand and say we’re just not prepared to take this any more. I miss that prophetic element in religion. It’s always in competition with the priestly element and the kingly element, and they dominate the Church at the moment.”

Would he, therefore, like to have seen Dr Williams more prophetic on the equality of women and gays in the Church?

“I don’t want to criticise Rowan. He chose the path almost of cruci­fixion to try and keep this outfit to­gether, but, sometimes, spiritual lead­er­ship involves doing a very tough thing, and breaking a thing up. He has a strong unity ethic, but I don’t think you can pay any price for unity.”

He adds: “I love Rowan Williams, who is doing an impossible job with great graciousness. I’m not a Rowan, a saint. I would not have stood for the nonsense and abuse he has stood for.”

IT WAS in 2000 that Bishop Hollo­way decided not to stand for any more abuse himself. He resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh and head of the Scottish Episcopal Church. By then, the tabloid storm over his book Godless Morality, and misleading reports that he was condoning adultery (“Let us sin, says barmy bishop”, ran one headline) made him realise that he had become “more of a problem than a help to a lot of people”.

Everyone says that he is an atheist, but they’re wrong, he says; that is far too simplistic. Then again, he is not a theist either; that is also simplistic. He might settle for “Christian agnostic”, or “after-religionist”.

He won’t be pigeonholed, and a leitmotif in his beautifully written memoir is how language cannot cope with the demands of the unseen — whether or not it is there to be un­seen. Given his career-long tendency to cock a snook at the estab­lishment — for example, he has quietly married gay couples since 1972 — it is a wonder that he re­mained in the establishment for as long as he did.

Did his theological journey from orthodoxy mean that his priestly position left him having increasingly to express what he increasingly thought was inexpressible?

“The thing that became impos­sible was not effing the ineffable,” he says. “It was claiming that you knew its opinions about all sorts of peril­ous human situations, and that’s the leap too far — that’s the ugly, cruel leap.

“The people who are best at main­taining institutions are conservative-minded people. I lack that gene. I was never very good at keeping rules, and I never had difficulty breaking them, if I thought they were daft, or getting in the way of human good.”

THIS is a theme that is clear early on in Leaving Alexandria. It opens with Bishop Hollo­way channelling teenage memor­ies in the graveyard of a Nottinghamshire mansion that was once Kelham Hall, a seminary of the Society of the Sacred Mission.

He arrived there at 14 years old, in 1948, from a working-class “Scottish back street” in Alexandria, near Glas­gow, ready to be trained for the priest­hood. He writes that it was “a monastic setting that was its own world, self-sufficient, entire unto itself”. The founder, Fr Herbert Kelly — known as HK — had a motto, always written in capitals, for novices who took the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience: “NOTHING COUNTS BUT LIFETIMES.”

He arrived there at 14 years old, in 1948, from a working-class “Scottish back street” in Alexandria, near Glas­gow, ready to be trained for the priest­hood. He writes that it was “a monastic setting that was its own world, self-sufficient, entire unto itself”. The founder, Fr Herbert Kelly — known as HK — had a motto, always written in capitals, for novices who took the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience: “NOTHING COUNTS BUT LIFETIMES.”

As Bishop Holloway walked, grave by grave, he remembered the priests who shaped his vocation, and came on that of Stephen Bedale, Father Director in his time: “austere, holy — a saint”.

“What would he make of me now, I wonder? Disappointed. He’d be disappointed in me. I hadn’t stayed the course. I’d drifted and not just from Kelham, maybe even from the Faith itself,’” he wrote.

In his early 20s, he had disap­pointed himself, the Society, and, he thought, God, after being sent to be­come personal assistant to the Bishop of Accra. But “electrified by the number of bare-breasted women”, and spending “much of my time in a state of embarrassed arousal”, he lost the battle to “beat my body into submission to the spirit”. Eventually, the Bishop re­leased him, saying that he “did not think I was capable of the kind of implicit obedience [that] life in a religious order required.’”

IF HIS lifetime was not going to count according to HK’s stand­ards, by his mid-20s Bishop Hollo­way was ordained, and making it count in the Gorbals — no longer en­chanted with a celibate Jesus, but fired by a “rebel Jesus”, furious with injustice and deprivation. His memoir charts a journey in ministry through Glas­gow, Boston MA, Oxford, and — where his heart still beats — as the first married priest at the Anglo-Catholic shrine of Old St Paul’s, in Edinburgh.

Ever curious, and daring to see if faith might reconnect in a new gen­era­tion, he enumerates the eccles­iastical and theological transi­tions of his life. They include a drama­tic epi­sode in the 1980s, when Graham Pul­king­ham’s Community of Cele­bra­tion “seemed to be cheering people up with its brand of exposit­ory preaching and upbeat new music”.

Worn out with a “wilting faith”, the Scottish high-church priest made a pilgrimage to meet the American low-church guru in London, where Pulkingham prayed in a “sound with no meaning”, and laid hands on him. Soon, “I too was making strange noises.”

But, in this newly ecstatic state, how would he negotiate the train-ride home to Edinburgh? “When the urge overtook me, I resolved the dif­fi­culty by slipping into the lava­tory, where the clatter of the wheels dis­guised the sound of my mouth music.”

The tongues eventually fell silent, but the notion of community living, spawned by the period’s Neo-Pentecostalism, suggested that an Anglo-Catholic vicarage, with an open door to the parish, could be the setting to rediscover the communal life of Kelham.

Together with his curate and another family, the Holloways em­barked on a communal life, praying and reading the Bible daily, and sharing a common purse. This valiant attempt at the Early Church lasted six months.

“I didn’t have the heroism to endure,” he recalls wistfully, “espe­cially being a rather solitary figure. I’m an introvert who can do extro­vert, which is why I was able to cope with that side of parish work. But, on the whole, I’d rather be on my own with a book or up a hill. . . I was not really cut out for it.”

AT THE same time as he was trying to sim­plify religious practice, the religious theory was becom­ing more compli­cated. He had managed to hold on to the idea of God by telling himself that, even if it was not true, it was a worthwhile untruth: “If the universe is ultimately meaningless, then to live as if there were meaning makes you better than the universe.”

But if his facility for language spanned a growing theological gap, his exasperation at the inflexible ethics of the Church — particularly on sexuality — was a bridge too far.

In Boston and in Edinburgh, his parishioners had lived and died with those living and dying with AIDS. And — as the global Anglican Com­munion became increasingly explicit in its judgement on homosexuality — he realised how many of his early mentors at Kelham had been gay. To see 700 bishops at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 so opposed to reconsidering the issue was, he says, “one of the most horrifying and horrible experiences of my life.

“I wasn’t prepared to see people whom I cherished, who were broken by life, being kicked around by these confident, morally superior beings, with their exceedingly cruel God.”

He concluded that it was time to take God out of the ethical argument — the thesis of his Godless Morality, published the following year: “How can you debate liberating gays, if people simply put a trump card on the table saying, ‘No, God has forbidden it’?”

For many of his clergy, this was an argument for taking their Bishop out of the debate, which he heeded. But, after nearly 60 years, how could he ever really leave?

“I never did leave. I preached at high mass on Sunday: I’ve got a bandwidth within which I can honestly preach,” he says. “I like going to church. Sitting for a couple of hours, hearing that voice — sometimes the preacher makes me want to crawl under the chair, but, on the whole, I want it around.”

HE DOES not pray or say the office, but he walks the hills every day, and “I intercede for people. I remember them in my mind lovingly, with intention, and offer them the gift of my loving support.”

Religion, he says, is not a lie but a mistake: the mistake is thinking it is any more than a human construct. The mistake is “sacralising” texts, which means that you cannot move your value system; the mistake is always having to ask permission. Religions start out as “vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond de­scrip­tion, but they end up claiming exclusive prescriptive rights to them.

“I would like a lighter approach to these wonderful texts, so that they didn’t stymie us when we confront an obvious evil. It took us 1800 years to get rid of slavery, which is scripturally mandated. We should be more like the Quakers, who revere scripture, but don’t need scripture’s permission to do the right thing.”

But, he contends, religion can sometimes be a good mistake — our glory, as well as our shame, its poetic language “keeping us on our metaphysical toes for the possibility of otherness”. Perhaps, he says, it is the one human institution that consistently reminds us of our brokenness and need for redemp­tion. But religion is always better when weak, not strong.

“When it’s in power, it’s atrocious. Look at what’s happening over the gay-marriage thing, the echoes of the impatience of the Church. How dare the Government not pay attention to us, how dare you disagree with us? — we own the definition of marriage.”

A woman came up to him at his book-launch in Edinburgh to say that she longed to be part of some kind of community of faith, but could not be part of the Church today. Would he start something? No, he had laughed: he is no guru.

But would the Richard Holloway-agnostic-Christian-after-religionist version of faith draw any adherents? As he admits in the book, “I want religion around, but the people who believe in it will have to believe in it more than I do. Who could be persuaded by my whisper?”

Point taken, he smiles. “Yes, to keep aspects of the institution going that I still cherish, and am nourished by, you’re going to have to have people who can offer a bit more of the certainty that a lot of people crave.

“But where I — and people like me — were quite good was in keep­ing people in who were right over the edge and about to fall off. And now that a lot of them have fallen off, I hear from them. There is an enor­mous Church in exile.”

Leaving Alexandria: A memoir of faith and doubt by Richard Hollo­way, is published by Canongate, £17.99 (CT Bookshop £16.20); 978-0-85786-073-6.



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