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Kelham man’s hour on stage

02 April 2012

Lavinia Byrne reflects on the memoirs of a former Primate


Leaving Alexandria: A memoir of faith and doubt
Richard Holloway

Canongate £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

RICHARD HOLLOWAY is both the lead spectator and chief actor in the movie of his own life, as depicted in this engaging book. We watch him watching himself as he lays out the basic plot: the childhood in Alexandria on the west side of the river Leven in Scotland; the early training with the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire; the National Service — dismissed in a lone paragraph but nevertheless depicted as yet another platform, this time a parade ground; the two years’ service as secretary to the Bishop of Accra; the unravelling of his initial calling to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience; and the discovery of ministry campaigning in the Gorbals.

Even there, though, he describes himself as “a priest actor playing out a different part”. And then came the United States, and the discovery of an American wife and of the attraction of “a prophetic voice of faith that spoke against structural sin and the way the powerful ordered the world to suit them­selves”, and yet the compromise of “willing yourself to act as though you believe”. Both these, inevitably, meant conflict: on the one hand, with the institutional Church, and, on the other, with the demands of his own reason.

Two things are missing from his account so far: the first is any genuine sense of direction or guidance, especially at Kelham. A wise spiritual guide could have helped him so much, and yet, as he later says of himself, “I did not seek advice.” The second — and this is even more glaring — is any early true academic grounding for his highly intelligent and original mind — not to steer him towards orthodoxy, but to enable him to do more than act the part.

This is not to undermine his considerable achievements, but simply to spare him some of the pain that he displays in this mem-oir of faith and doubt, and to equip him for the fray — not to supress but to feed his intellectual curiosity. I loved the poetry with which he illustrated his text; I longed for a clutch of photos to show off our actor and depict him in his many varied and distin­guished roles.

The second part of the book sets these out. So we see Holloway in increasingly public life: as Vicar of Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh, as Rector of the Church of the Advent, Boston, as Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford, as Bishop of Edinburgh and Anglican Primate, as defender of every cause, and in a host of secular roles within Scotland. While not “all fun and rolling in the aisles”, these sustained his sense of the drama of the human condition and — dare I say it? — of theatre.

The shadow cast by Kelham has reached deep into his life: even his children identified the “mad married monk thing” in him. How best to cast it off, to move offstage and come into the light? Perhaps to go walking in the hills, as he has chosen to do.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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