Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, by Richard Holloway, Canongate, £17.99, 408 pages
Doubt and disappointment are the leitmotifs of this book, and yet it absorbs and refreshes the mind. In 2000, Richard Holloway gave up the most brilliant career the Scottish Episcopalian Church could offer him because he was an authority who could not subdue his anti-authoritarianism. His memoir, Leaving Alexandria, is a long wrestle with a lifetime in which knowing oneself is a matter of peeling away layer after layer of limitation, conservatism, unexamined belief, inherited instinct and incomprehension. It is a life’s work.
Holloway begins picturing himself as he wanders round the mansion that had once housed the seminary of Kelham, near Newark in Nottinghamshire. It was here that the Society of the Sacred Mission, a high Anglican religious order, trained boys “of humble background” and little education to be priests. He was one such, from a working-class family in Alexandria – a town near Glasgow – from which he was sent to become a priest at the age of 14. He comes across the grave of Stephen Bedale, father director of the seminary when he was there, and reflects on the man, “austere, holy ... uncompromising”, concluding that “he’d be disappointed in me, despite knowing that – being who I am – I could not have done otherwise”.
Midway through his memoir, he identifies two women whom he admired above all others. Lilias Graham was an Anglo-Scot “toff” who, without fuss or affectation, lived in what was then Europe’s worst slum, the Glasgow Gorbals, and set herself up as a welfare worker among tough, criminalised kids for whom she created a club, and single mothers, for whom she made a nursery. Like Jane Millard, who cared tenderly for Aids patients in Edinburgh when Holloway was bishop there, “[Graham] was a whole person, integrated, unself-conscious. I was divided, self aware, watching myself play this new game.”
He remains divided. There is something here of the Scots embrace of, even pride in, the schizoid nature said to be a national curse: who but Scots could write The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (James Hogg), or “Holy Willie’s Prayer” (Robert Burns) or – prime exhibit – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (RL Stevenson)?
But Holloway is no solipsistic brooder. A life spent since early adolescence in some form of active priestly service would lead most men and women, whose version of a good life is that one is actively compassionate to others, to be satisfied with themselves: social work in the Gorbals, periods studying in the US, ministries in Boston, Oxford and, most loved and longest, in Old St Paul’s church in Edinburgh, a bastion of Episcopalianism in a Presbyterian city.
The first married priest in a church that was a centre of Anglo Catholicism, he strove at all times to be as dedicated to his congregation and as open to their demands as an unencumbered bachelor – thus adding another layer of self-reproach and disappointment, since that often meant absent father and husbandhood. He was driving deeper into doubt about God, even being “increasingly offended in him. In my parish I saw no dead rising, no lame leaping, no blind seeing.” He brooded on the Holocaust, in particular a novel by André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just, in which a man tells a girl whose brother has died en route to Auschwitz that he will wake in a warm heaven with no Germans in it. Holloway reflects that religion may be no more than a story, and while fiction, poetry and art helped dull the pain of the world’s woes, “theology had ceased to help. Its abstractions rarely illuminated the tragedy of life.”
Yet, in the midst of these radical doubts amounting to a renunciation of his faith, he accepted first the post of Bishop of Edinburgh and then Primus of the Scottish Episcopalian Church. He angered many of his colleagues, and with reason: “Ordained to defend the faith and uphold sound doctrine, I started trying to revise, if not subvert, key aspects of the Christian moral tradition.” He quieted his, if not others’, doubts by militant liberal activism – marrying gay couples, championing women priests – thus setting himself against a tide of hostility in the world Anglican community, especially in Africa and parts of the US.
But it was not enough. He wrote Godless Morality in 1999, in which he went further into agnosticism, claiming that faith was of little help in judging an action moral or immoral. It was denounced by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in a speech in Dundee, and a group of his own clergy called publicly for his resignation. So, in 2000, he gave up the mitre and went into a private life that has been, in the past decade, replete with writing, chairing and lecturing.
He believes the Anglican community will unravel, and that there is nothing that the “saintly scholar”, the present archbishop, Rowan Williams, can do about it. For himself, he remains with little but a morality he has constructed – in part from the Christian tradition, but also independent of it. “I don’t expect to meet my maker when I die,” he concludes, “but if I do it won’t surprise me.”
For those of us who would be astounded if he (or we) did, this memoir – like much of his later, agnostic period work – is a particular kind of pleasure. It is the pleasure of following a good, restless mind through questions that afflict all but the most thoughtless, and which for those who have grown up within the long withdrawing roar of organised Christianity remain questions, even if inchoately formed and too quickly dismissed. He is not free from affectation, but he has freed himself from giving himself, and us, easy answers and transparent palliatives.
John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor