Maggie Fergusson writing in The Tablet comments on Richard Holloway’s loss of faith

Missing God: the former bishop who lost his faith still hears the faint whisper of the transcendent

Maggie Fergusson writing in The Tablet comments on Richard Holloway’s loss of faith

Missing God: the former bishop who lost his faith still hears the faint whisper of the transcendent

If you are married to a book dealer, you try to keep your shelves as clear as ­possible, holding on only to those ­volumes you feel you can hardly live without. One such, for me, has been Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, published in 2012, and tracing his development from a boy who hoped to devote his life to God, to his disenchantment with a Church whose rules seemed to him not just wrong-headed but cruel, and his consequent resignation as Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 2000.

What Holloway conveys is not a progression from faith to triumphal, Dawkins-style ­atheism, but a painful sense of failure and regret: he no longer believes in God, yet he misses him, and has let him down. This is the most plangent and thought-provoking memoir I have ever read.

Holloway is now 85, tall, courteous and warm, his mind still sharp. He is working on a book called Stories We Tell Ourselves, “propelled by a kind of fatigue at the way religion and politics are constantly just shouting at each other, and a failure to admit that our ideas are intrinsically varied and ­unsettlable – so why can’t we live with that gorgeous variety? Unless our stories make us cruel and violent, why can’t we just tell them?” He’s due to deliver to his publisher, Canongate, next April, and in the meantime he’s happy to look back and chat about Leaving Alexandria.

I’ve never, I tell him, seen a book get more rapturous reviews. But, for Holloway, what were most poignant were the 500-odd letters he received from priests – some Catholics, some bishops – telling him that this was “their story. That’s the most moving thing about being a writer – getting letters from people who feel less lonely for having read you.” He has, he says, “a strong affection for broken priests”.

“An autobiography,” Holloway says, “can be quite self-serving. Whereas a memoir is a piece of self-discovery – a piece of personal archaeology, self-examination, confession if you like. It’s a kind of delving into one’s own story to try to make sense of it, because I think – and maybe this is more true of men than women – a lot of us don’t really know ourselves. And it would be a tragedy to die not knowing who you are.”

The book opens with Holloway revisiting Kelham Hall, the home of the Anglican ­religious community he had joined at the age of 14, and wiping away tears as he ­wanders round the overgrown graveyard where the priests who taught him are buried. What is he weeping for?

“I was weeping for all sorts of loss: for my lost childhood, for all those old, religious, good men, and the fact they’re now just under six feet of soil in a tangled graveyard.” He was mourning “the alterations of gladness and sorrow, light and shade, that marked the passing of our days, as we followed the ancient cycle of feast and fast”. And he was searching back into “a sense of disappointment about myself”. What is that about?

In Leaving Alexandria, Holloway tells the stories of two remarkable women who worked with him at the coalface when he was a priest. Lilias was known as the “Angel of the Gorbals”, looking after children and their parents in the roughest parts of Glasgow. Jane Millard sat at the bedsides of hundreds of gay men, when Edinburgh was the “Aids Capital of Europe”, comforting them and telling them stories as they died.

Holloway envied Lilias’ and Millard’s capacity for “mere being”, the way they ­practised their goodness without the need he himself feels “to darken everything with thought”. He has, he says, “a low boredom threshold”. Throughout his years as a priest, boredom “squatted deep inside me like a toad in a well”. By comparison with people – usually women – of “uncomplicated goodness”, he could never be still, his motor was always running, he felt “a phoney”.

“It’s hard,” he says, “when you discover that the person you are is not someone you admire; not the person you want to be; not cut out to be a saint.” He cries out, with Hopkins, not to live “this tormented mind / With this tormented mind tormenting yet”.

Yet, if all this sounds as if Holloway lacks confidence, it’s important to recognise that he has also lived a life of bold self-assurance. As a priest, he refused to deny mercy to “the woman quietly seeking to serve the Church, the person with a broken marriage behind them, the gay couple wanting acceptance and stability”. He was, for example, marrying divorced and gay couples as a priest in the years before the Episcopal Church of Scotland allowed it.

How can so much self-doubt go hand in hand with so much tenacity? “Yeah. I know. It’s a weird thing. Is it maybe a Scottish thing? Hugh MacDiarmid talked about ‘the Caledonian Antisyzygy’ – the idea of duelling polarities within one entity. I was very much loved by my mother as a child, and maybe my confidence came from that. But I’ve always had this ability to feel and see the other side. When I was preaching the existence of God, I was preaching to the self that didn’t believe in him.”

And his problem has always been “not so much with God, as with increasing disbelief in religion’s claim to possess precise information about his opinions, including his sexual and gender preferences”.

For Holloway, “the opposite of faith has never been doubt, it’s always been certainty: ‘Faith and doubt are co-active: they descant on each other’.” Nor, he says, has he ever “lost Jesus. And the Jesus I still keep is the Jesus of magnificent defeat – the Jesus who challenged the way the world works, and was crucified for it; the Jesus who gave himself to that great dream of a downside-up world, and an upside-down world. Even Philip Pullman says that the great thing about the Church is that it keeps that memory alive.”

If Holloway cannot bear the cruelty of ­religious certainty and dogma, I guess that he holds the Catholic Church in greater ­contempt than any other. But I’m wrong. Over the years, some Catholics have ­particularly impressed him – he was at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 when Jean Vanier addressed hundreds of clergy, and he thought him “just grace”.

“And I was in El Salvador in 1990 – sent by Christian Aid to report on what was happening in the civil war. I was there … after the Jesuits were murdered. I saw the blood in the corridor. I met amazing Catholic Religious putting their lives on the line. So I know all the goodness that goes on in the dark places. And at the same time I know about all the flummery, all the dressing-up stuff with the guys with the big hats. I feel for Pope Francis. I think he struggles with this.”
What about the child abuse scandal? How much has celibacy to answer for? “I think it does have something to do with it. If I wanted a celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, I’d only ordain women. In that way, I think the Pope could solve the crisis at a stroke of the pen. Women are better at celibacy than men. And the capacity for celibacy is a rare gift.”

And what about the future of the Christian Churches? Is there a chance that Christianity will become extinct? “Not extinct, I think, but more varied, less assertive, more experimental, because these are deep things in human nature. I think increasingly it’ll become de-institutionalised. Here in Scotland, the millennial generation is hardly interested in religion at all. Yet the first rule of institutions is their own protection. Nietzsche said that the danger of institutions is stupidity because they resist the change that’s necessary in order to keep them going.”

Twenty years ago, when he felt the need to resign as bishop, Holloway threw away all his sermons. A natural shepherd, he became “priest to the Godless”, setting up and running, for example, Sistema Scotland, the charity that brought the Venezuelan youth orchestra system to Scotland. But now, he says, he is “feeling my way back” towards the Church.

He attends, and sometimes even preaches in, Old St Paul’s, a church set between two scruffy closes of the high street in Edinburgh. It’s a building that has a powerful effect on him, and his voice catches as he describes it: “It has a strange presence: it both withholds and it speaks. During the First World War the incumbent was Albert Ernest Laurie, and he left his parish and spent the war crawling about in no-man’s-land, consoling and giving the last rites. And he came back and built the warrior’s chapel. It’s filled with loss and sorrow. It communicates presence and absence at the same time.”

Sometimes, he accepts ­invitations to preach – “I’ve got a fairly narrow bandwidth, but I do it” – but mainly he goes to Old St Paul’s “just to sit. Not hoping to find faith again, but to be where it has been. It has come back to me as a loss I can be with.”

When his time comes, Holloway wants not a stone or a sign to mark the fact that he has had a life on earth. Yet his agnosticism encompasses a possibility, however slim, that death will not be the end.

“This world is not conclusion,” wrote Emily Dickinson. Holloway feels that too. “I am tugged still by the possibility of the transcendent … Beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard. And from a great way off, the tiny figure of Jesus can be seen on the seashore, kindling a fire.”
Maggie Fergusson is The Tablet’s literary editor. Leaving Alexandria is published by Canongate at £9.99 (Tablet price £8.99).

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