Holloway, Richard: Leaving Alexandria

“Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt” by Richard Holloway, was published in 2012 by Canongate. Richard Holloway was the Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 to 2000, and therefore this book was of special interest to our Edinburgh-based book group. Indeed, several of our members had encountered him either socially or professionally, and one had been a member of his congregation. 

For any Sassenach reading this, I should explain that Richard Holloway was a Bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is a completely different church from the Church of Scotland, which is protestant (Presbyterian) and does not have any Bishops at all. Neither of these churches is the same as the Church of England. And although the Episcopal Church has some of the ‘bells and smells’ associated with Catholicism, it is not the same as the Roman Catholic Church, which by the way is also alive and well in Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church believes, however, as the Roman Catholic Church also believes, in the doctrine of apostolic succession, whereby the Bishops are in a direct line of succession from the apostles.
 
It is useful to know the religious background of Scotland before tackling the book, as much of Holloway’s memoir is about the author’s struggle to reconcile religious doctrine with his own observations of people and society. As somebody said, religion in Scotland can get you into trouble from childhood onwards. One member recalled his own childhood.  If you are an Episcopalian, Protestants think you are a Catholic and beat you up, and Catholics think you are a Protestant and beat you up. You can’t win.
 
Yes, religion is complicated in Scotland, and the Scots take it seriously; they attend church more than the English and they have more denominations of Christianity. Visitors to this part of Edinburgh are surprised to see that in one location, a crossroads known as ‘Holy Corner’, four denominations of Christianity are represented by a church on each corner.
 
The member introducing the book said it was about ‘Richard Holloway and his soul’, and the work of a great spiritual intellect, yet written in a gentle and engaging style. We nodded in agreement. He pointed out that the author had insisted the book is not an autobiography, but a ‘memoir’.  He went on to say that the book was controversial, but one of our group took issue with that. Well, Holloway himself had obviously been a controversial character, as his frequently-expressed views were not always orthodox, but the book did not seek to be controversial. It merely wrote down the author’s thoughts and experiences on religion, God and people.
 
This man had, after all, been thinking and writing about Christian doctrine for nearly 50 years. He held strong positions on such matters as the ordination of women and marriage of homosexuals, in fact all the issues which have been tearing churches apart for the last few decades.  For much of his life Holloway had championed these ‘progressive’ causes, and had thus run up against hostility from his parishioners and some of his fellow clerics.
 
But to begin at the beginning. Holloway was a working class boy, brought up in the small Scottish town of Alexandria, near to Loch Lomond. It is an unremarkable town, with only one notable building – a magnificent Victorian edifice that was once Scotland’s first motor car factory. The building was later converted into a torpedo factory, and is now rather ignominiously converted into a series of cut-price shops. His childhood was unremarkable, going to the cinema, trips to Glasgow, learning about sexual matters the hard way, walking in the hills.
 
Although his parents were not religious, he sang in the local church choir. He says it was not the ‘wee church’ that he fell in love with, but what it pointed towards (the idea of an ‘elsewhere’). He became an altar boy, and from there at the tender age of 14 he left Alexandria (hence the book’s title) and went to Kelham Theological College to train for the priesthood. He describes the regime of cold showers, with the frequent taking of mass and the long periods of quiet contemplation and prayer.
 
During the holidays he goes home and helps with the harvest, encountering Brenda the Land Girl from Glasgow, and has a sexual awakening. He writes touchingly about such things, and is often extremely funny when speaking of intimate human encounters. Later, back at Kelham he talks to the beloved Father Peter about the biology of sex; Peter gives him the impression that God himself regarded the whole business of sex as regrettable and wished that he’d invented a less troublesome way of guaranteeing the continuance of the species. Holloway becomes rather interested in sexual matters, as any enquiring lad does at that age (but most of us don’t write it down in a book, and we especially might not write it down if we were connected with the church in some way).
 
One way to read this book was to take its main theme to be ‘does God exist?’. But this was too simplistic; the real theme was ‘how does a man of God (or any man) deal with his doubts about the existence of God?’. Or, more broadly, he was trying to find out who he was.  Many of us know that struggle. The author points out that theists and atheists have more in common with each other than they do with agnostics; the analogy is with the chess board being black and white, never grey. We were reminded of previous book we had read: Chris Mullin’s A View From the Foothills (2009). Mullin was an extremely able Member of Parliament who did not quite fit the role he had been given. We also recalled Bishop of Woolwich’s Honest to God (1963), and the preaching of David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham.
 
Someone once told him, ‘Richard, the trouble with you is that you publish every thought you have’. Why did people write such books (he’s written 28)? Was it narcissism? Not in this case. Was it a way to apologize to those people he offended? No, at least not entirely. It was mostly to help him set his thoughts in order, a well-known path to self-knowledge. One conclusion was ‘being who we were, we were bound to act the way we did.’
 
Perhaps writing a book like this is cathartic, like a Confessional. He stands naked before his readership, just as Alan Ginsberg the American poet of the 1950s is said to have stood naked before his audience. But does he reveal everything? There were large areas where he did not go: his family, his experiences in Africa for example.
 
We found it hard to understand why he accepted the post of Bishop when he was so unsure of his beliefs. He should have stepped back from the opportunity. Parishioners entrusted their spiritual welfare to him, and he may have let them down. Was he too self-indulgent? He was certainly politically naive. But wasn’t Jesus like that? Both Holloway and Jesus felt their place was with the poor, the sick, the outcasts who could not help themselves.
 
What does it mean to be a Christian and did Holloway even qualify? Simply to behave like Jesus and to follow Jesus’s teaching is only a part of being a Christian. You can follow Jesus’s teaching as summarized in the beatitudes by becoming a socialist or a social worker, yet not be a Christian.
 
It seems to me that to qualify, under the doctrines of all Christian denominations, you have to believe that Christ was the son of God, and that he was crucified to save mankind, and that he resurrected and ascended into heaven. But isn’t it too much to ask modern people to believe? Isn’t that like believing in fairies and Santa Claus, and do Christians today really believe in all that?  On page 156-158 he explains how he struggled with one of the centrepieces of Christian doctrine, the Resurrection, and how he felt on the first occasion he had to present an Easter sermon.  For him, Jesus did not physically rise from the dead and ascend into heaven. It was impossible. Rather, the Resurrection was a metaphor for the possibility of change and renewal.
 
Then he moves on (page 159) to ask what happened before the Big Bang. Of course, science cannot tell us. Some Christians say it proves that science has somehow failed in this crucial area where Christianity provides an explanation, i.e. God. Holloway does not say that, simply that we have to learn to live with uncertainty, it is a part of the state of being. I love this stuff.
 
At this stage in the evening my thoughts were disturbed by a dreadful rasping noise, which I first took to be the heating system about to explode.   But no-one else seemed concerned. Then I realized the dog was in the room, and considered that the sound must be the beast’s snoring. But no; our host stood up, and walked across to that dark part of the room. ‘Anyone for coffee?’. The rasping had only been the coffee machine.
 
Yes, the book has humour, lots of it. For me, the funniest part was his experimental talking in tongues to a complete stranger, a young woman of Chinese appearance, at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. She fled.
 
The writing was sometimes poetic and profound:
 
Religion’s insecurity makes it shout not whisper, strike with the fist in the face not tug gently with the fingers on the sleeve. Yet, beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard. And from a great way off the tiny figure of Jesus can be seen on the seashore, kindling the fire’.
 
The final chapter ‘Epilogue’ includes his thoughts during a walk in the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh.  He raises massive issues for all religious people:
 
Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons can be learned from them. The mistake was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, 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 book was certainly thought-provoking. We admired the fluency with which the author expressed his deepest feelings. You do not have to be a Christian to be moved by this book; it is surely one of the most engaging books to have been written in 2012.