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Richard Holloway


A Memoir of Faith and Doubt

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Richard Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Communion) from 1986 to 2000 and Primus (presiding bishop) from 1992 to 2000. He resigned in 2000 in somewhat acrimonious circumstances and in this autobiographical book he tells the story of his life up to the point of his resignation.

The 'Alexandria' in the title of the book refers not to Egypt but to the town in West Dumbartonshire in Scotland where Holloway grew up. In his early life he would have seemed an unlikely candidate for a bishopric. He came from a working-class family and grew up in relative poverty. His parents were not churchgoers—indeed his father disliked religion. But Richard met the local Rector who invited him to go to church, and when he did so he was instantly smitten.

Thanks to the Rector's intervention, at the age of 14 Holloway was accepted to train for the priesthood at the theological college at Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire. The college was run by an Anglo-Catholic monastic order. He was happy at first at Kelham, but when he was sixteen he experienced a sexual awakening during the summer vacation, thanks to an older girl who was working alongside him on a farm, The remainder of his time at Kelham was marred by guilt due to his inability to control his body and mind. As his eighteenth birthday approached he was feeling restless and had almost decided to leave, but matters were in any case about to be decided for him by the need to do his two years' National Service. It was agreed that he would fulfil this requirement and then return to Kelham.

He spent the next two years as an army drill instructor. This 'boring' period in his life receives a mere paragraph of description. On his release from the army he returned to Kelham and entered the novitiate with the intention of becoming a monk. But he found it difficult to settle, partly owing to an infatuation with a fellow-student.

Then he was asked to go to Accra for two years as personal assistant to the Bishop. Holloway says little about the time he spent in Africa, although he does mention being troubled by erotic longings for the 'voluptuous' Ghanian women who attended the church. It had by now become apparent, both to him and to his superiors, that he was unsuited to a life of celibacy and should withdraw from the novitiate. His plan was to return to Glasgow and enter university, but on hearing of this the Bishop of Glasgow wrote to ask him to study for a year and then be ordained by him. Holloway agreed. And so, a year after leaving Accra, he found himself a curate in Glasgow, ministering to the inhabitants of the Gorbals tenements.

After the Gorbals Holloway worked in a number of other places, including two spells in the USA, in the first of which he met Jean, the woman he would later marry. He developed a strong social conscience but was troubled by the lack of any experience of God and an inability to give himself completely to God. These questions continued to perplex him as the years went by, until he began to wonder if there was a God at all. After becoming a bishop in 1986 he was prominent in the campaigns for gay rights and women priests. He by no means shirked the controversy that this entailed. Matters finally came to a climax when, in 1999, he published a book called Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics. The Evangelicals in his diocese were outraged and called for his resignation. He decided it was time to go.

Holloway evidently found relief in the writing of this book. There is plenty of self-analysis and self-criticism, but a perhaps surprising omission is the lack of any mention of what his wife thought about it all. Surely he must have discussed his doubts with her? She was the daughter of a vicar, after all. Possibly she didn't wish her views to be included, but I thought their absence made the book somewhat incomplete.

At the end of the book Holloway sums up his present view of Christianity like this.

The mistake was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also a human invention, but I was quite sure religion was. It was a work of the human imagination, a work of art—an opera—and could be appreciated as such. The real issue was whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that overrides our own better judgements.
The writing is generally lively although the book is perhaps over-long and rambling at times. Holloway seems to find it difficult to resist the urge to include all the quotations that come into his mind; there are 114 of them, some quite lengthy, and I found them distracting. The book will no doubt interest many Anglicans both in Scotland and elsewhere, although what they will make of it is another question. Whether it will mean as much to people who do not call themselves Christians (an increasing number in Britain today) is less certain. Much of Holloway's agonising about his doubts will probably strike them as baffling.


%T Leaving Alexandia
%S A Memoir of Faith and Doubt
%A Holloway, Richard
%I Canongate
%C Edinburgh, London
%D 2012
%G ISBN %978 0 85786 073 6
%P 358pp
%K biography, religion

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