Leaving Alexandria

Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway, is subtitled ‘A memoir of faith and doubt’. It is a timely book for me to be reading, at this time when I’ve recently retired, and am reflecting very much on my own ordained ministry: what did it mean? What was it all about?

Richard Holloway was born in a working class family, north of Glasgow. As a young teenager, he was persuaded by the local vicar to sing in the church choir, and there the beauty of holiness, the magic and mystery of Anglo-Catholic worship, captivated him. With little prospect of getting a good education through the local schools, let alone being able to gain a university place, he was encouraged at the age of 14 to go to Kelham Hall, at that time the home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, whose vision was to educate working class boys for ordination. Holloway never joined the Order, but he was drawn to its ethos of total commitment and self-sacrifice to Christ. (The founder of SSM, Herbert Kelly, used to say of the altar in Kelham’s chapel, “We sacrifice young men on this altar.”) For the whole of his life, Holloway felt both unable to give himself so totally to Christ, and at the same time guilty for being unable to do. His abiding feeling was of being “a disappointment”: to God, to his superiors, to the churches and congregations he served, to his wife and children.

His drivenness to become the best priest he could, led to some extraordinary works of ministry, in serving the homeless, the poor, the alcoholics and drunk addicts, AIDS sufferers, in parish after parish. Yet in spite of these ‘successes’ and heroic achievements, which led to his eventual call to be Bishop of Edinburgh, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Holloway continued to feel he was a disappointment. He wrestled, too, to believe in God in the way his Anglo-Catholic background seemed to require. His belief in the place of human reason and experience led him to embrace the liberal theology of the 1960s, and the supposedly liberal agenda of women’s ordination and the full acceptance of LGBT people in the Church. This made him feel increasingly at odds with large sections of the Church, which regarded him as a dangerous liberal and heretic.

The last straw was the Lambeth Conference of 1998, the one that was hijacked by the more conservative, reactionary bishops of Africa and elsewhere, who forced through the infamous motions condemning homosexual practice and gay and lesbian people. Holloway knew that he could not continue to serve a Church which he believed had departed so far from the message of the Gospel. He had written a book called Godless Morality, which advocated conducting discussions on morality, without recourse to religious imperatives which could so easily be used without realism, reason or compassion. Many critics (including plenty who had not bothered to read beyond the title) condemned the book as heretical, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury. Since he was a guest of the Scottish Church at the time, Holloway was not the only person present who felt this was not only wrong, but also bad manners. The ABC had no business to be issuing what was effectively a fatwa against a fellow primate who was also his host.

Soon after this incident, Richard Holloway resigned from his position and retired, after famously throwing his bishop’s mitre into the River Thames.

This book is a fascinating memoir of one man’s experience of a lifetime’s ordained ministry in the latter half of the 20th century. It is honest, challenging, often laugh-out-loud funny. I think that anyone who has been involved in ordained ministry in the Church will recognise many of the questionings and wrestlings the author describes. It is also, at times, almost unbearably sad, as here when he describes his final sermon.

In the spring of 2000 I announced my resignation. At the end of October I preached my last sermon as Bishop of Edinburgh in Old St Paul’s, and I used it to look back. I told them that when I arrived as their Rector thirty-two years before I had just emerged from a period of radical doubt and had fallen into a very common trap. I reacted against my own uncertainty by attacking doubt and uncertainty in others. A closet sceptic, I condemned in others what I had been afraid to look at in myself. My first book, written in the attic at Lauder House thirty years ago, was an attack on the kind of theology I myself now wrote and was condemned for. It was the deepest irony of my life that I had ended up the kind of bishop in my sixties I had despised when I was a priest in my thirties. Now I had come back to where I started from and knew the place for the first time. I could no longer talk about God.

My heart goes out to a man who has made this decision. I am currently still presuming, or daring, to talk about God. But really, it’s with a growing fear and doubt: how can we speak about the Unspeakable, the Mystery beyond and behind all things? So much of human speaking about God amounts to little more than a blasphemous exaltation of the idols we set up and name as ‘God’. Usually with the principle motive of massaging our own egos, or shoring up our own power over others. Richard Holloway’s memoir challenges us and invites us to a more honest caution and modesty about what we take upon ourselves to say about God. Lest

“The Word made flesh is here made word again.”1Edwin Muir. I think. If you know the exact source, please let me know.

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