Author: Alex Wood

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Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 at 10:22 pm
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Book Reviews

Leaving Alexandria

Richard Holloway is well known for BBC Radio Scotland’s Sunday Morning with Richard Holloway.His relaxed, informative style makes a highly attractive programme. He was previously an Anglican priest, Episcopal Bishop of Edinburghand Scottish Episcopal Primus.
His 1999 book, ‘Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics’ pitched him into controversy – to which he was never a stranger. He asserted the impossibility of justifying any ethical position from the arguments, or even scriptures, of any particular religion. Ethical precepts required to be justified by their human utility.
His autobiography, Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt’ (Canongate, RRP £17.99) explores his journeys between faith and doubt.
Aged 14, he left his native Alexandria in Dunbartonshire, to join the College of the Sacred Mission in Kelham, an Anglo-Catholic order training boys for the priesthood. His life beforeKelham is only briefly described. There should be another book,exploring these Alexandria days, his family and his childhood.
From the outset,doubts beset Holloway. As a student he sought to overcome these by devotional discipline. Throughout his priesthood his doubts were masked by the historical, human Christ. “While we may wonder about the authenticity of the heavenly setting, some of us continue to be provoked by the traces left in history and we reach back to him through the clouds of theological incense that billow around his memory.”
Holloway was ordained in Glasgow. As a priest in the Gorbals, as well as practicing the Anglo-Catholic liturgical traditions of his training, he applied its commitment to social action but theuncertainty remained. That restlessness led him to post-graduate study in New York, lecturing at Theological College and a gradual move to a more liberal theology.
In 1968 he became Rector at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh. He had visited Old St Paul’s as a boy. Even then it had felt like a homecoming. Old St Paul’s faced similar social issues to those in the Gorbals. He briefly feared his liberal theology threatened moral chaos. Seeking the ‘good place permanent’, he wrapped himself in the work and traditions of Old St Paul’s. One such tradition moved Holloway powerfully; the parish’s dead are recorded but, each Sunday, on the anniversary of their deaths, their names are read, the remembered and unremembered, the poor and those of social standing.
Old St Paul’s also contains its memorial to its Great War dead, the Warriors’ Chapel. It offers, he states,“a presence once given and denied”. The church building itself conveys a sense of watching and remembering, the reason why, he says, this church speaks to unbelievers with as much power as it does to believers. He is entirely right. This very irreligious reviewer retains an affection for certain churches. In Edinburgh one of the most powerful is Old St Paul’s, where silent reflection seems natural and the stones speakquietly to the human condition.
The doubts, close at times to despair, remained. While at Old St Paul’s he dabbled briefly in the Pentecostal movement but his questions were far more profound. “Was religion a consoling fiction …. necessary, but still a fiction? Was I called to preach it not because it was true, but because there was no room for truth in a world so desperate for hope?”
From Old St Paul’s Holloway moved to Boston, Massachusetts, Oxford and Harvard University, before assuming the Bishopric of Edinburgh in 1986. One of the paradoxes in which Holloway revels is that he played an effective leadership role in a church many of whose basic tenets he questioned. His eventual secession became inevitable. Two issues, the ordination of women and of homosexuals, rocked the Anglican communion.Holloway’s entire career had been marked by scepticism about much of his church’s teaching on sexual matters. From his early days in the Gorbals he had quietly married divorcees and blessed gaypartnerships. He was clear that the opposition to the ordination of women and the church’s general hostility to homosexuals were reflections of wider social attitudes about gender roles.
At the point of his resignation he said, that he was more troubled by religious over-confidence than its atheistic opposite. Atheists at least did not claim to put ultimate reality into words. He reached a place where he saw religion as a work of the human imagination with no right to claim a unique authority.
Throughout this moving work it is never certain where Richard Holloway has reached (or may reach) on his journey. Traditionalist, rebel, mystic, social critic, the paradoxes mount; the journey continues. This book offers quite unique insights into a troubled, contemporary religious mind. It also reminds us that, in Richard Holloway, Episcopal Edinburgh may have lost a thoughtful bishop but Scotland gained a unique social critic and commentator.

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