11 March 2012
On 9th July 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 book is Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. It is a beautifully written and often very 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 lost his belief in God belief but gained, in the process, 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 in the course of 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 Dostoyevsky, “one cannot live quite without pity.”
He simply laughs at the idea that the human mind can ever be capable of grasping ultimate reality
Holloway lives in Edinburgh’s Morningside, a few yards from ‘Holy Corner’, a crossroads with four thunderous stone churches and a Tesco Metro, “our most recent temple”. Today 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. 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, with him, of grief.
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 which 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 most 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 marry 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.”
As bishop, he campaigned for gay marriage. This led to the one of the funniest – though also one of the most horrible – moments in the book. In a toilet in Windsor he is accosted by an Asian bishop who accuses him of consigning gays to hell by encouraging them in their sin.
“I resisted the impulse to deck him,” he writes, “and left him to go on pissing his wormwood and gall into the Queen’s urinal.”
Also in the book is a story of a close, loving yet celibate friendship with another Kelham trainee. One review linked this with his gay marriage campaign and resulted, much to his amusement, in emails from friends asking, “You’re not gay are you?” He laughs it off.
We are all sexual convalescents of one sort or another.
“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,” he says sorrowfully, “many people.”
In this 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.”
He had to “find his soul’ and so he launched on a host of public jobs – chair of the Scotrtish Arts Council, for example – and on a series of books which reaches and personal and spiritual climax with Leaving Alexandria. (Alexandria was the resonantly-named town where he grew up.)
He still loves the church and, this, week he watched with sorrow as Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was forced by church politics to come out against gay marriage. He loves and admires Williams as “one of the most profound theologians there has ever been” but points out that he has been given an impossible job.
Occupy were engaging in a prophetic act, he says, and, in their hearts, the priests knew it.
“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.”
Living by fixed codes, he says, makes people do the opposite of what they know in their hearts to be right. It is this that has left the Church of England “profoundly compromised”. He points to the contrast between the magnificence of St Paul’s and the ragged tents of the Occupy protesters that, until this week, filled its forecourt. Occupy were 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 and forgiveness and compassion and mercy and the church carries that memory and yet it’s all dressed up, it’s in big houses, it’s all decorated and it knows in its heart if Jesus came in he’d be sad before he was angry. The Dean who resigned, he was a lovely man, I bet he knew that the system meant he could couldn’t actually identify what is the true reality.”
And yet his 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 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 offedning the believers.
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 toilet 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. But this whole book is also an experiment, an attempt to explain himself to himself and to define a way of living within our predicament as he sees it – always disappointed, utterly uncertain and ultimately ignorant.
It is his sensitivity, however, which 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 and 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 to be scattered by histhree children on the heather-clad summit of Scald Law, the highest of his beloved Pentlands. He doesn’t expect to meet his maker but, in case he does, be warned, God. This guy has a few perfectly reasonable complaints and, believe me, he’s serious.