Author: Christine Richard OBE FRSA

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Thursday, February 16th, 2012 at 6:29 pm
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The Bouncing Bishop

The traditional ground floor and garden flat which is the family home of Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, feels immediately welcoming and is full of books, family photographs, pictures and memorabilia of a so far full and eventful life.  He shares his home with wife Jeannie, who he met whilst doing postgraduate study in New York.  They met in 1962 and, he says, quite simply, “We fell in love.”

They raised their family of three children, two daughters and a son.   The eldest, Annie, lives and teaches in America whilst second daughter Sara and her partner live in the south with their two children, a little girl and a little boy.

Richard says “grandchildren are a most extraordinary gift and nothing prepares you for the joy and excitement of it all.”  Their son, Mark is an actor but also works as a ‘carpenter’.   The other ‘family member’ was Daisy – a most adorable, outgoing and bustling little Border Terrier who posed for the camera like a super model!

Bishop Holloway is a tall, spare man informally dressed, radiating a great impression of ‘Tigger-like’ energy and verve.  I hope that it is not disrespectful to say this but he reminds me so much of A A Milne’s Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh books ‘who always bounced.’  There is still an almost childlike air of insatiable curiosity about him and a sense that he is on the verge of the next exciting happening.  We talked over a cafetiere of good coffee, made by the Bishop in the family kitchen, which we then took to the comfortable sitting room which is also where Richard writes his books.

One of the features of our discussion was established at the beginning.  I said that I was not going to ask him about his well-documented ‘crisis of faith’ unless he really wanted to talk about it again.  He said “I’m very pleased about that – everyone asks me about it.”  Instead we talked about his early life, his career and the roots that shaped him.  This does not mean that God was left out of our discussion but here was a man whose life, I felt, had been influenced and shaped more surely by Jesus, the Son of God, that any theology or stern, remote and vengeful father.

Richard says,  “I have been blessed with an enormous amount of energy which I inherited from my mother.  In a fast moving world she gave me the security of unconditional love. That special bond, which exists between mothers and sons, gave me a confidence in myself that never left me, however hard things were.  My mother had been an orphan and grew up in the Quarrier homes.  I think she had quite a depressed and deprived childhood which created an enormous need in her to establish her own family and she was intensely concerned about family loyalty.”

His father was – of necessity – a quiet man.  They lived in the Vale of Leven in the days of heavy industry, the shipyards and the era of Singer Sewing machines and textiles where there was a strong working-class ethic and children had to leave school at the age of 14.  Richard’s father was block maker for a printing company to trade, but when ‘progress’  rendered his skills redundant, turned his hand to whatever was there.

Richard recalled, “For a time he worked as a dyer and we got used to him coming home all different colours.  The house was not filled with books.  Those that there were, found a home in my bedroom.  It wasn’t that my parents had anything against reading but they would have found it strange to have shelves of books in the living room.”

As the middle child and only son with an older and younger sister, Richard had a very secure place in the constellation of his family.  His elder sister  Gertie, who was five years older and his younger sister, Ellen, ‘who was clever and trained as a nurse’ and three years his junior,  stayed in the place of their birth whilst at 14 Richard left not only school but home and began the big adventure that became his life’s work.

Other early influences were Miss Pope (yes, that really was her name) a Primary School teacher and the headmaster, known as ‘Murray Tawse’, who nevertheless was a good influence and got the young Richard involved in boxing.  This was probably a useful skill and outlet for a combative nature.

On his decision to enter the Church he says, “The first really intelligent and cultured man that I encountered was the Rector of the local Episcopal Church, which, naturally we weren’t really allowed to attend.”  The Rector, Nigel Mackay, encouraged the young Richard to sing in the Choir and become a Server.  “I was very attracted to the grandeur and ceremony of the High Church.  It really appealed to me.”

It was through this association that Richard took the decision that he wanted to go to a monastic establishment in England to be prepared for a life in the Church.  There does not seem to have been much, if any family opposition to what must have seemed an enormous step into the unknown.  The establishment to which Richard went was run on monastic lines and housed some thirty boys from backgrounds quite similar to his own.

“We were very self-sufficient and learned the habits of work and discipline.  I think that we were always driven but we were valued.  I did contemplate becoming a monk but deep down knew that was not for me.”

When he was sent to Africa he was introduced to the world of politics for the first time. His stay in the African Gold Coast, which became Ghana, taught him about the unquenchable spirit of human beings living in poverty and yet determined to build a better life for their families.  His time in the Army doing National Service also left its mark at the time of Suez and the Cold War with Russia.  During this period, the universality of human-kind and the common cause to which we all belong, became deeply embedded in him and influenced his later actions and campaigns for truth and justice.

As well as this period, other good times were his 12 years spent as the Rector of Old St Paul’s Church in Jeffrey Street in the heart of Edinburgh from 1968 to 1980.

“This was a vibrant and exciting time, filled with people and action. Our three children grew up there and I wrote my first three books during this period.  I also got involved in the housing association movement and founded the Castle Rock Housing Association; but after ten years it was time for a change.  I took a Sabbatical in 1979 and we returned to the USA and to Boston where I was Rector of the Church of the Advent from 1980 to 1984.”

The Holloways might have quite happily stayed in the States but, as he said, “I suddenly thought, I can’t leave my bones in America.  It was time to come home.”

After a spell as Vicar of St Mary Magdalene’s, Oxford from 1984 to 1986, Richard Holloway returned to Scotland to become Bishop of Edinburgh.  In 1992 he was elected Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, serving in both capacities until his retirement in 2001.  Rather like an American President, or, if you prefer, a regular Services Officer, he retains the right to be called Bishop in his retirement.

We then turned to what could be described as ‘The worst of times’.

“I suppose the nadir came after I had begun to attract media attention as a campaigner for what I considered to be issues of justice.”  The most controversial of these turned out to be in 1988 when he campaigned for the ordination of women at the Lambeth Conference of Bishops (held every 10 years) and came up against a great deal of prejudice and, he would say, ignorance from the Establishment.  But worse was to come.

“At the 1998 conference I spoke of my support for those in the priesthood who were homosexual in orientation.  I remember this as a ‘festival of hatred’ on a particular lovely sunny July afternoon and enduring the braying, hate-filled obscenities flung at me by my peers.  I have been allergic to meetings of Bishops ever since. I suppose that there is this male sexual insecurity and homosexuality is the threat of the minority upsetting the norm.  The urge to be the same, to conform is very strong in the male sex, especially in the Church.”

By contrast the controversy surrounding his ‘so-called’ crisis of faith does not seem to have left any scars.  This Bishop regards it as not only natural, but healthy to question, to test and to be open and honest about religion.  We agreed that all faiths shared a love of their God and provided a code by which mankind can live and serve each other.  He was very comfortable in saying that Jesus is one of his ‘heroes’ and said, “Jesus spoke the truth and suffered for it. He identified with the suffering of mankind and is more easily recognisable than, perhaps, the spiritual God.”

He is essentially a man of modesty and it was quite difficult to get him to say what his greatest achievements were so far.  He admitted to what he called “A dubious role in world politics in standing up for justice for women, homosexuals and oppressed groups of every colour and creed.”  He cites Nelson Mandela as both a hero and a friend, describing Mandela as ‘a magnanimous and large hearted man who campaigned for the freedom of the oppressed’.  Similarly Bishop Desmond Tutu is a friend as well as a colleague.  Richard Holloway also sees Jesus as a hero who related to the simple lives of all, whilst by his example and death showed us the will and nature of God.  I sensed that his image appeals so much to a man of vision who, nevertheless, has a practical faith that translates into everyday life and transcends differences of sex, race and other faiths.

“I think that my books have become better over the years (he has written and published more than twenty so far).  I have always lived recklessly but would not change much that I have done or said.  I think I have said yes to the life I have had.  Often I have ‘put my foot in it’ and said things that have been viewed as controversial and, what’s more, I will continue to do so, rather along the lines of one of W H Auden’s poems called “Leap Before You Look”.”

Richard Holloway’s last challenge was to take up the Chair of the Scottish Arts Council.  In a departure from writing on religious and moral issues Richard also began work on a novel – working title Platform 11 (at Waverly Station from where trains to London leave).  In it he will be exploring the human and sexual side of a variety of characters who may find themselves on the platform, waiting for the train.

This activity will be in addition to his work as a reviewer and writer for the Guardian, Scotsman, Herald, Times and Independent newspapers.  He is a frequent broadcaster on radio and television and a presenter of several BBC series, including Holloway’s Road on BBC2 Scotland and In Confidence on STV.

Before we parted I asked a final question ‘What abiding lesson had Richard Holloway’s faith taught him?’  There was a pause, then he replied, “Keep climbing the hills, metaphorically and literally!”

First published in Lothian Life in 2005

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