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A religious journey
on 30 March 2012
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.