Sunday Times, 08 April 2012
On July 9, 2009, Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, stood weeping in a graveyard in Nottinghamshire. His daughter, Annie, phoned him from America; it was her birthday. Alarmed at her father’s state, she then called his wife, Jean. “She called her mother,” he recalls, “and said, ‘You’d better get in touch with Dad, he’s standing in a graveyard crying.’ But Jeannie knew what I had gone down there to do …I was looking at those gravestones. I remember those old guys more vividly than almost anything else in my life and I decided to find out what was going on by writing this book.”
The graves were those of the men who had trained him for the priesthood. The book is Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, published last month to great acclaim. It is a beautifully written and often funny emotional and intellectual self-exploration by one of the most extraordinary churchmen of our time.
Once known by the tabloids as “the Barmy Bishop” for his views on God and gay marriage, he has become in old age — he is 78 — a man who has lost his belief in God but gained a rare kind of spiritual genius. “The opposite of faith,” he says with piercing insight, “is not doubt, it is certainty.”
He is now agnostic, which, for him, is the acceptance of ignorance and uncertainty as the inevitable basis of the human condition. He simply laughs at the idea that the human mind can ever be capable of grasping ultimate reality. But mostly he weeps — he chokes up five times during our conversation — when he thinks of the past, of poetry, of suffering, of his old churches and of the world’s need for “redemptive pity”. “Man, man,” he says, quoting Dostoevsky, “one cannot live quite without pity.”
When we meet, his wife is in London looking after their two grandchildren and he is alone with his dog, a delirious border terrier named Daisy, in the cosy confines of his stone terraced house in Edinburgh’s Morningside. A lean, fit man — he walks the Pentland Hills with Daisy — his almost hairless head is that of a prophet or, perhaps, of the saint he wanted to be. His accent is genteel east coast with its overtones of mischief and irony, though more often of grief.
He is now agnostic, which, for him, is the acceptance of ignorance and uncertainty as the inevitable basis of the human condition
That graveyard was by Kelham Hall, just outside Newark. It used to be the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, an Anglican order that trained Holloway in the priesthood. The son of a poor and not very religious Glasgow family, he gravitated towards the faith only, at Kelham, to find himself in conflict with its austere demands. Notably he felt guilt about his own perfectly ordinary sexual urges.
Now he blames St Paul and St Augustine for Christianity’s morbid obsession with sex. “It’s not doctrinal but it became the tail that wags the whole dog …When you think of dear old lusty St Jerome, who was obsessed with sex himself, who said the only good thing about marriage was that it breeds virgins. They want the human race to die out by stopping breeding.”
As a priest, he was happy to conduct marriage services for divorcees. He empathised with the pain they had been through and their determination to try again. “We are all sexual convalescents of one sort or another.”
In his book he tells the story of a close, loving yet celibate friendship with another Kelham trainee. One review linked this with his support as a bishop of gay marriage and resulted, much to his amusement, in emails from friends asking, “You’re not gay, are you?” He laughs it off. “I think if I were gay I’d know it by now and, being the kind of person I am, I would have tried it.”
In 1999 he published a book called Godless Morality and that, combined with his own admitted institutional disloyalty, led to his resignation from the Edinburgh bishopric. “I disappointed many people,” he says. In his book he writes of that time. “I felt glutted with the verbal promiscuity of religion and the absolute confidence with which it talks about what was beyond our knowing.”
“We are all sexual convalescents of one sort or another.”
He had to “find his soul” and so he launched himself on a host of public jobs — chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, for example — and a series of books, which reaches a personal and spiritual climax with Leaving Alexandria. (Alexandria was the resonantly named town where he grew up.)
I’m depressed by the way the church has responded to gay marriage because they have shown no generosity or magnanimityHe still loves the church and watched with sorrow as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was forced by church politics to come out against gay marriage. He admires Williams as “one of the most profound theologians there has ever been”, but describes his job as impossible.
“I’m depressed by the way the church has responded to gay marriage because they have shown no generosity or magnanimity …They claim the right to define words and they define marriage in a way that excludes the possibility of people of the same sex doing it. They once defined ‘priest’ in a way that excluded the possibility of women doing it. But we change the definition of words as the social reality of our lives change. I am saddened by the sheer philosophical illiteracy of it all.”
He is ambivalent about Williams’s impending resignation.
“I feel a little bit sad on his behalf because I think it’s been a tough 10 years. But I feel joy for him because I hope he gets back to the good times and writes some great stuff now that this thing has been taken off his back.
“His tragedy is that he was a good man trying to hold an institution together that is incredibly divided. There’s a sadness in my heart for him but I am glad that he has got out from what was an impossible job.”
The rules required by institutions are what drove Holloway to resign. Living by fixed, institutional codes, he says, makes people do the opposite of what they know in their hearts to be right. This has left the Church of England “profoundly compromised”. He points to the contrast between the magnificence of St Paul’s Cathedral and the ragged tents of the Occupy protesters that until recently filled its forecourt. Occupy was engaging in a prophetic act, he says, and, in their hearts, the priests knew it.
“We are all profoundly compromised. We try to follow this mad revolutionary who believed in a kind of mad, bringable-in commonwealth of love, forgiveness, compassion and mercy. The church carries that memory and yet it’s all dressed up, it’s in big houses, and it knows in its heart if Jesus came in, he’d be sad before he was angry.
“The dean who resigned [Graham Knowles], he was a lovely man, I bet he knew that the system meant he couldn’t actually identify what is the true reality.”
And yet Holloway’s fondness for the Church of England seems undiminished. He fears an evangelical takeover is currently “draining a lot of the old liberalism of the church”, but, on the whole, it has been “a very benign way of being religious”.
He has been surprised and encouraged by the responses to his book from the clergy. “There have been no angry letters. It seems to have touched a reality nerve in people. They are still struggling to hold on to Christianity but they feel more and more ill at ease with a lot of structural confines institutional religion imposes on its followers.”
He still attends his old church — Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh — and even preaches there but, as an agnostic, he has to stick to “a very narrow bandwidth” for fear of offending the believers.
He will be there today. “The resurrection has always meant the constant need to affirm hope over despair in a purely natural sense. I don’t mind people giving it a supernatural meaning. It’s a symbol of the struggle we all have to bring good out of evil, joy out of sorrow, and accept the reality of dying. I’ll be there and I’ll be happy to be there.”
The two big points about Holloway are his open eagerness and his sensitivity. He is always experimenting, most hilariously when he once got an American to help him “speak in tongues”. He started babbling so wildly that he had to hide in the lavatory on the train home. By the time he got to Edinburgh he was convinced he was speaking perfect Mandarin and terrified a “wee Chinese lassie” by babbling incomprehensibly at her.
The resurrection has always meant the constant need to affirm hope over despair in a purely natural sense
It is his sensitivity, however, that endows him with his own peculiar greatness. His regular tears are not of self-pity or sentimentality but of empathy. “I love that bit in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory when he says that hatred is a failure of the imagination. Even in the brute, even in the tyrant, there is a pitiful humanity. Unless we can get in touch with that in ourselves we cannot empathise with others.”
Now he faces death without expectation. He wants to be cremated and his ashes scattered by his three children on top of Scald Law, the highest of his beloved Pentlands. He does not expect to meet his maker but, in case he does, be warned, God. This man has a few perfectly reasonable complaints and, believe me, he is serious.