The passion of the bishop
After years of struggle with his faith and dispair at the church's in-fighting and repressive attitude to sex, fomer bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway left religion behind. Caspar Melville hears his confession
“I am not an atheist.” Not a particularly surprising statement for an ordained minister in to make, you might think. But then again maybe it is. Why would someone who served as a priest for four decades and as Bishop of Edinburgh, the most senior post in the Scottish Episcopal Church, feel the need to say such a thing at all? One does not generally expect a bishop to be an atheist.
The reason is that so many of the things Holloway has said and written makes him sound so much like an atheist that he feels the need to deny it. What things? Well, things like that he doesn’t “believe in religion”, or in a personal God, that he treats Christian doctrine as “poetry and metaphor”, not fact, and that the Christian Church has made a serious mistake in
denying and repressing human sexuality. He has even written a book, published in 1999, the year before he retired as Bishop of Edinburgh, called Godless Morality which, as commentators at the time noted, made a convincing case for a secular humanist morality, leading to him being denounced from the pulpit by the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, at a conference in Scotland Holloway himself organised.
Holloway, at times, seems as doubtful of the claims of religion and as critical of the doctrines of Anglicanism as a Dawkins, but still, he insists, he’s not an atheist. He rejects the certainty the word implies, and instead calls himself a “Christian Agnostic”.
What brought a high flier in the Scottish Church, and at one time a potential leader of the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic wing of that church, to this position? This question is answered in fascinating style in Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Canongate), a beautifully written and disarmingly frank account of his journey into, through and out the other side of organised religion. It provides in particular a telling insight into what attracts people to religion, and the kind of intimate struggles that people of faith – who from the outside can look like the most convinced of people – have with their doubts about the dogma they are expected to represent and enforce.
Holloway, a working-class boy from a small town in the west of Scotland called, incongruously, Alexandria, came to religion not through the conventional path of familial indoctrination – his father was not a believer, his mother joined the church when he did – but through a willed act of romantic affiliation. He was, he tells me over the phone from Edinburgh, a boy with romantic yearnings, and twin obsessions: hill walking in the beautiful Vale of Leven and the movies, with their “great heroic figures on a quest to liberate the oppressed or find meaning. I think the combination of these things had me searching for something which was in a sense always disappearing round the corner ahead of me,” he says. Stumbling upon an Anglo-Catholic church on the edge of town, “somehow the passions coalesced in that place, I fell in love with the aesthetic of religion, the light, the incense, the mystery of it.” With the intervening years providing perspective he can see that it was always this ineffable something, the elusive God, with which he was infatuated. “The God idea itself is the ultimate lure for the romantic, because you never get it satisfied, it is a permanent unsatisfiable quest” – a quest for which religion itself is but a substitute: “the methadone of the divine addict”.
The memoir recounts the twists and turns of Holloway’s at times very painful love affair with the ineffable idea of a perfect God and its flawed substitute the Church. At 14 Holloway arrived at Kelham Hall, headquarters of the Society of the Sacred Missions, a quasi-monastic Anglican order which trained uneducated boys for the priesthood, and “fell in love” (that word again), with the tradition, the buildings, the warm-hearted good fellowship of boys and priests and the sense of mission. From Kelham he went to Accra to work as a secretary to the bishop, then back to Scotland to various parishes including Maggie Mungo’s in the heart of the deprived Gorbals area of Glasgow. He settled at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh, a church he adores, where during his tenure he rather hilariously tried out some of the Pentecostal ideas fashionable in the 1970s, like speaking in tongues. In 1986, much to his surprise, he ended up as the most senior bishop in Scotland and an erstwhile leader of the traditional Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church.
As this memoir and his many theological works attest, including his 1997 book Dancing on the Edge, which made the Christian case for gay marriage, Holloway is not a conservative or doctrinaire thinker. So how had he come to be in the excruciating position of leading the wing of Anglicanism most opposed to female ordination and gay marriage? “I was drawn into the Anglo-Catholic movement because that was the tradition I liked. It had the ritualistic side and a commitment to working with the poor.” But there was another side, “a deep restorationist side, that wanted to turn the clock back to a kind of mediaeval Catholicism. It took me a while to twig to that, it was only when I began to be thought of as one of the leaders that I realised that two things – the opposition to the ordination of women, which I never shared, and the opposition to any kind of liberation of gay people, and I’d always been relaxed about – had emerged as the dominant characteristics of Catholic renewal.”
Holloway is particularly scathing, and amusing, about the every-decade Lambeth Conference at which Anglican Bishops gather. Though they have no legislative power, these conferences are crucial in setting Church positions on the hot topics. Of the two conferences he had to attend Holloway writes drily: “I didn’t particularly enjoy the first one and I actively hated the second one.” This was partly a matter of temperament –“700 men in pink frocks sharing student accommodation is not my idea of a great vacation”, he tells me – but more fundamentally because each conference was riven by discord. In 1988 it was the ordination of women, something Holloway was in favour of but the majority of Anglo-Catholics opposed. He commends the diplomacy of then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, who managed to kick the issue into the long grass without it being allowed to split the church.
No such luck for Holloway in 1998 when the key issue was even more explosive: homosexuality. Holloway says he expected some friction, but hoped that the new Archbishop George Carey would pull off an equally adept manoeuvre that would hold the divergent views in some kind of unity. As a patron of the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement it was clear where Holloway stood, and this was a very long way from the vast majority of other bishops and many of his own Anglo-Catholic followers. A faction lead by vociferous bishops from Africa forced a debate on the full conference (Holloway claims this was unconstitutional but Carey was unwilling or unable to stop it), and there ensued a vicious discussion in which “the tone was foul, people were being physically intimidated and you had bishops getting up and calling gay people dogs.”
This conference, he writes, “began the unravelling of the Anglican Communion that has been gathering pace ever since”. Following theconference Holloway chucked his mitre in the Thames and the doubt really set in. “My problem was not so much with God,” he writes, “as with increasing disbelief in religion’s claim to possess precise information about his opinions, including his sexual and gender preferences.” It was this thought that prompted him to publish Godless Morality in 1999, which alienated not only George Carey but many who had stuck by him. “It’s not their fault,” he writes in his book, “I was a disappointment to them, a lost leader.” A year later he wasn’t a bishop any more.
In 2007 Rowan Williams memorably told the General Synod that from the outside the Church looks as if it’s obsessed with sex. Both Holloway’s career and his book seem to confirm this in a powerful way. It was sex that did for his career – in the form of violent disagreements about women priests and homosexuality – but the Church’s problem with sex lies far deeper, still, than these disputes. Holloway thinks Christianity has made a fundamental mistake in its attitude to sex, something he traces back to St Augustine of Hippo: a “sexy man himself who had a mistress and conceived a son”, he made the fateful association between sex and original sin “that loaded sex with this terrible burden for centuries”. The best passages of his memoir are where the teenage Richard is assaulted by his own burgeoning sexuality and realises that he must deny his own lust and masturbation because this is what Christianity insists upon.
The corollary of this, as with St Augustine, is that, once denied, these feelings resurface as hypocrisy. As a young priest recently returned from Ghana, Holloway delivered stern puritanical sermons against the uninhibited sexual freedom of African society, because, as he can now see, he was so fascinated by it. Puritanism, Holloway concludes, has its root in the attempt “to control in yourself what most fascinates you”. His elegant account of life inside the Church leaves you in no doubt that he is far happier where he belongs: on the outside.
Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Bishop of Edinburgh is the most senior post in the Church of Scotland. In fact the Church of Scotland has no Bishops. The Bishop of Edinburgh is a post in the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is not linked to the Church of Scotland, except by the fact that they both like the Bible quite a lot. And Jesus. And God, obviously. This has now been corrected. With thanks to the Media Relations Team of the Church of Scotland, who are very nice.