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I greatly admired Richard Holloway's book "Looking into the Distance" (see my review), so was eager to read this his autobiography. It chronicles his religious journey. This began with his entry at the age of 14 into the Anglo-Catholic Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire, a monastic establishment which trained mainly working-class boys and young men for the priesthood. In due course he joined the novitiate. But already he fought internal battles, aware of his spiritual shortcomings. For this and for a variety of other reasons he resigned from the Order in his mid-twenties; but he remained an Anglo-Catholic, was ordained and became a curate in the Gorbals. Here he became aware of appalling social problems and of the call as Christian to engage in a very different kind of fight, not centred on himself but on the world.

More and more he felt that religion was made for man and not man for religion. He became increasingly impatient of doctrine, when it banned marriage between divorced people (and later between those of the same sex); most of all when it divided denominations to the extent that they would not share the Eucharist. And then he began to doubt not only the miracles of the Bible but the very existence of God; and he found it impossible to preach as if he believed in them. He talks about the "presence of an absence". Yet, hard though he found it to refute atheism, he did not want to abandon religion, increasingly beleaguered as it is in the world; and he found faith in those passages of the Bible which speak of Unconditional Love. This enabled him to accept a post as Rector of a church in Edinburgh in 1968.

It is perhaps surprising that, with his views, he was elected Bishop of Edinburgh in 1986. Though now in a position of authority, his utterances, in preaching and in writing, became more and more anti-authoritarian, and subverting many of the key aspects of the Christian moral tradition, especially about sex. He became a patron of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. He became an increasingly controversial figure, not helped by what he admits were sometimes careless formulations, and on one occasion a positive crude one. The tabloid press called him "the Barmy Bishop". In a book in 1999 he suggested that we leave God out of debates about morality. The result was that Archbishop Carey chose a visit to Scotland, where Holloway was Primus, to declare the book "erroneous". When Holloway found that substantial numbers of the Episcopal Church in Scotland turned against him, he resigned as Bishop in 2000.

There is much wisdom in his reflections about religion, about its institutionalization, about the cruelties resulting from gender and sexual prejudices. There are his sensitive reactions to human suffering, to nature, to poetry, and to the vibes sent out by different church buildings (though I think we could have been spared the frequent detailed descriptions of their geographical locations).

He is unsparingly honest about his spiritual shortcomings. There is constant self-examination and self-accusation: he describes himself as a phony, as playing a role which is not genuine. He reproaches himself for attitudinizing; he is envious of people who, unlike him, do good without great effort or self-consciousness; he is always conflicted and disappointed with himself. He recounts the many occasions when he gave expression to his undoubtedly deep and sincere feelings by theatrical gestures: for a while embracing "speaking in tongues"; living for six months a totally communal life with two other families at the expense of his own family (wife and three children); ceremonially throwing his mitre into the Thames in 1998; after his resignation as bishop disposing of the scripts of forty years of sermons in bin-bags. He deliberately runs the risk that one may think less of him for all that he reveals in these confessions and that the very confessions are somewhat theatrical, when one should think more of him for his honesty. I have to say that my own reactions to the book are mixed in this way.
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on 5 March 2012
Richard Holloway always writes lucidly and in this memoir he is always engaging. The overwhelming impression was of someone of unusual honesty and integrity, telling the story of his life without spin and without trying to make a case for the defence. There are no barriers, or none that I could detect, in the issues he tackles, although this is not a blow-by-blow account of his personal life but more of his emotional and intellectual wrestling with the various problems, situations and issues with which he has had to deal - which range widely, encompassing (amongst others) sex, ethics, religion, faith, family, ideals and falling short. Although his personal life, of course, comes into it too.

I was torn between reading this voraciously in one sitting and spinning it out so as not to have to leave the company of such a wonderful man. In the end I couldn't put it down - a fabulous read, highly recommended.
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Richard Holloway, formerly Bishop of Edinburgh has written a biography which is much more than that, examining as it does the clash between the blacks and whites of certainties and the dappled, doubt filled view which may be where `faith' resides.

As Holloway puts it, religion is man made, is God? His conclusion that the fundamentalist certainties - whether theist or atheist miss the ability, on the one hand, to temper rules and decrees with the nuanced approach needed in dealing with the individual, and on the other, to answer the mystery and the need for mystery, is one that struck a chord for me.

The title of the book more than nods towards Cavafy's `The God Abandons Antony' (Leaving Alexandria) - the loss of dreams, home, the painful gap between the dream of oneself, and the self which our lives reveal to us.

Holloway's Alexandria is both a real and a metaphorical place - his boyhood home in the Vale of Leven, Dunbartonshire, and the more mysterious inner journey.

He writes beautifully, using quotations from favourite poets to illustrate what can not be usefully explained except by metaphor - Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Philip Larkin, Cavafy.

Holloway asks more questions, of himself and his reader, than he answers, and in the end, settles with the fact that much cannot be answered.

I particularly liked this:

"The best I had been able to do was to persuade myself and others to choose to live as if the absence hid a presence that was unconditional love........It was a relief now to name my belief as an emptiness that I was no longer prepared to fill with words. But though I had lost the words for it, sometimes that absence came without word to me in a showing that did not tell. It was the absence of God I wanted to wait on and be faithful to"

A compassionate, tender and painful book
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VINE VOICEon 9 March 2012
This is one amazing book by a man whose luminescent humanity combines with piercing honesty to produce a masterpiece - and it's a masterpiece whether it gets classified as autobiography, theology, history or literature. It's one of those books where every page provokes an imaginary conversation with the author, and you know that the conversation would be (to quote his beloved Manley Hopkins) counter, original, spare, and strange.

The author found himself attracted to the religious life from an early age, pulled by its asceticism and its demands for total commitment but increasingly conscious of the accompanying temptations to self-dramatise and to profess certainty and authority as a defence against honest doubt. (He became a bishop; he chucked his mitre into the Thames. Enough said?). Through ministering to the poor and dispossed in Glasgow and then in Edinburgh he came to see that whle all else in religion can (and should) be questioned, what remains is the impulse for pity and the man Jesus. To these - and to his family and the hills of Scotland - he adheres, but he's angry about the damage done by organised Christianity. Especially he's angry about religion's eagerness to condemn those whom life has bruised (so, against the rules, he's married divorced people) and religion's attitude to anyone who doesn't have a penis or make strictly limited use of the one they've got (so, bless him, he's married gay people and he's argued for women's ordination). He's actively and intelligently on the side of the good guys.

He's open about some of the hard-to-face questions that confront anyone who wants to become - or is intrigued by the life of - a religious professional: his struggles with sexual frustration, the male attraction to uniforms and medals and posh frocks, the inverse relationship between interior and exterior certainty, and the need to keep questioning even when you know that there isn't going to be an answer. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to follow the journey of an extraordinary human being.
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on 9 May 2012
This personal autobiographical journey through the life of a sincere and open man is a tonic to those of us who struggle with our faith. If there's one thing Holloway can't stand it's intolerance. In spite of his extraordinarily well expressed self doubt and doubt about the existence or absence of greater meaning he brings humanity and real people behaving in real ways into focus to cast light and maybe offer some grounds for hope to the hopeless.
Maybe the flickering, guttering candle of faith need not be extinguished however little we understand?
I also enjoyed his flights of poetry and nuggets from great thinkers and writers glossed in his own lyrical prose. Beautifully written, deeply thought through, maybe it does meander, but is that not the way of all lives - especially of those who walk energetically without being sure of their purpose or the destination?
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on 3 April 2012
No 'bad' reviews, then! Quite right, too; although I often wonder if 'spoiler alert' shouldn't be prefaced in some reviews!

As usual, the 'parts of its sum' have been well documented here already and I can only concur with the vast majority of what's been written.

One (extremely) slight caveat, however,...I know! I know! You saw it coming!...the concept (not the substance) of his 'doubt' can be just a wee bit repetitive. At times I found myself thinking, particularly at the 3/4 thru' stage of the book, 'I get it; I get it'. Having said that, I may be being a might pedantic. The book in its totality is a genuine delight for the mind as well as the heart and 'soul' (whatever that is!) and his imaginative and creative way with imagery is peerless. A wonderfully absorbing, humane and compassionate man leaps out at the reader. We are fortunate, indeed, to have his ilk in our midst. More power to his pen!
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on 11 April 2012
Brilliant book, Richard Holloway is a poetic writer, widely read with a real depth of self-awareness, A very honest book which should make those who have doubts about their faith feel less guilty and make those who think they have no doubts think again.
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on 19 July 2012
A most interesting book. I was not much moved by Holloway's religious dilemmas as I dispute his basic premises. He skates over this early life in Alexandria and his relationship to his father and mother. They must have been shocked at his move to Kelham Hall, which sounds grim to me, although Holloway claims he loved it. His move to Accra (and his sexual hang-ups) opened his eyes a bit and ordination followed. His ministry in the Gorbals was when he really lost his belief in God, though he fought against it for many years. He seemed happiest at Old St Pauls in Edinburgh but he should have made his career in social work - he would have become a well-paid leader of that pack.

It is easy to scoff and certainly Holloway swallowed whole every lefty shibboleth going - CND, US Civil Rights, Gay Power etc - and the Scottish Episcopalians were mad to promote such a subversive spirit.He must have some considerable persuasiveness and dynamism to gain the support he did. He must have driven his wife potty. Yet he writes eloquently about God's "absence" and his drifting, which shows courage and self-awareness. I liked too his descriptions of places and his walking compulsions. Most of all,I liked his poetic streak - he is clearly a fan of Gerald Manley Hopkins, a poet I hardly know.- and generally he has a very civilised mind, though he did not control his tongue, when he should have known better. An unusual and stimulating memoir.
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on 9 March 2012
This has to rate as the most wonderful book I have ever read. It describes so poignantly and sensitively the challenges of being a priest in the Anglican Church. Mr Holloway does not pull his punches either about himself or institutions.

After I finished reading the book these are the one word statements about what I discerned about Mr Holloway's journey:

Turbulence. Uncertainty. Confusion. Idealism. To support and encourage. To draw alongside. Relationships. Reaching out. Sensitivity. Alienation. Intelligence. Wit. Role or not of religion. Restlessness. Fame. Joy. Enthusiasm. Fully human. Deeply self aware. Coping with hostility. Spending time with the dispossessed, the unloved and unwanted. Action focused not just cerebral. Active exploration of solutions for faith-based problems such as losing one's faith.

Apolgies to those who thought I would only use one word and not several....

Do buy it. It is a joy but it will also leave you in tears for the indeserved aggression meted out on Mr Holloway by priests who should know better. This includes Bishops and especially those of evangelical persuasion.
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on 20 March 2012
We all wrestle with trying to understand why we are here and whether or not there is purpose and meaning in our lives. Some are able to accept a religious faith and find it satisfies a spiritual quest for meaning, whereas others never rest easy in that bed.

Richard Holloway's book walks us through his many years in high office within the church to an eventual resting place where religion is cast aside and an honest acceptance of man's plight reached, although he remains agnostic about God and life after death. Here we see a deeply religious man even when religion is cast aside. There IS depth in humanity and an enduring mystery, but religion is not the answer.

I was moved to tears in the epilogue: this was a life laid bare, a struggle shared with us in the book, and all the more wonderful for it.

Thank you Richard.
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