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It’s possibly a tribute to Richard Holloway, former primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, that I’ve never heard a bad word about him from atheists and agnostics. My Christian friends are much more critical.
Holloway explores (revels in) such paradoxes in his autobiography, ‘Leaving Alexandria’ (Canongate, RRP, £17.99). He was born in Alexandria – Dunbartonshire, not Egypt, but this book is less about leaving Scotland than a journey in a metaphysical landscape.
His boyhood memories are brief: hard-working father, warm mother and frequent trips to the hills and the cinema. To these trips he attributes a restlessness, a romanticism, ‘a longing for something which eluded the searcher’.
At 14 Holloway left the Vale of Leven to pursue that longing at the College of the Sacred Mission at Kelham in Nottinghamshire, an Anglo-Catholic community, training boys for the Anglican priesthood. He immersed himself in its traditions but subsequently meandered, at times to quite distant ideals, but that recurring emotional appeal remains powerful. Holloway’s ‘Journey of Faith and Doubt’ places the start of that journey, not in Alexandria, but in Kelham, that place of youthful content which left him with a life-time’s commitment to paradox and mystery. The book starts with Holloway, weeping in the cemetery at Kelham, no longer a religious house, recalling his teachers and mentors.
After National Service, two years as a bishop’s secretary in Ghana and ordination to the Anglican ministry, Holloway arrives in the Gorbals. Historically, the Anglo-Catholic tradition stressed liturgy and sacrament, but in the Gorbals Holloway engaged in another of its priorities, an intensive mission to the poor. He became closely involved with Geoff Shaw, Church of Scotland minister (and subsequently Strathclyde Labour leader) opposing slum landlordism, working with local youth groups and CND. He also committed small theological rebellions: taking communion with Presbyterians, marrying divorcees. For him, religion was made for man and not man for religion. Jesus demanded not creeds but, as he put it, ‘the battle against oppression’.
His 12 years as rector of Edinburgh’s Old St Paul’s provide a moving testimony. He laughs at his brief flirtation with the Pentecostal movement and speaking in tongues but he re-finds that profound identification with tradition. A city centre parish with its myriad poor, the church itself, its Calvary chapel in which are carved the names of the church’s war dead, the discipline of the high church liturgy, the dedication of his predecessors, all move him but nothing moves him more than the particular ritual of leading out the coffins of the dead and the annual reading of their ‘unremembered’ names.
His doubts, but also his identification with the victims of injustice, were reinforced on his move to Boston. The beginnings of the AIDS crisis and the presence of a considerable gay community as well as powerful, articulate women in his congregation, impelled him to consider both the church’s prohibitive dogma on sex and sexuality and women’s role in the church.
It is hard for this Presbyterian atheist to judge Holloway’s portrayal of himself as a bishop, to separate his commitment to religious myths from his humanist world-view. Long before his consecration he had questioned whether God was the ‘ultimate desire of the romantic imagination’. Having published ‘Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics’ in 1999, he effectively separated himself from the church of which he was a distinguished but sceptical leader. His resignation as bishop in 2001 was in the aftermath of debates on homosexuality in the Anglican community. In his final excoriation of his theological opponents – ‘Oh the miserable buggers, the mean-minded wee sods’ – he perhaps returns, at least linguistically, to Alexandria.
He has the capacity to leave his one-time associates feeling betrayed: the Anglo-Catholics, over his position on women and gays and the broader Christian community because he has removed the rug from under their ethical feet by insisting that moral conclusions must be reached empirically rather than by reference to scriptural truth. The watchwords of his old church are Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order. He has certainly fired too many powerful salvoes at these concepts to be welcomed back. (And I’m not convinced that his continuing journey might not guide him back yet.)
Perhaps Holloway’s appeal in Scotland is that he has always been both apart from the mainstream and free of absolutes. His preference for narrative and myth above dogma, his willingness to prioritise pity and to see ‘maybe’ as an inordinately valuable word, all separate him from Scotland’s more typically combative style of intellectual and a world away from the certainties of our Calvinist and Roman clerics.
The above article was first published in The Scottish Review on 16 February 2012:

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