Richard Holloway stepped down as Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh in 2000 and his new memoir engages openly with the struggles he has experienced with faith and belief throughout his life. The book is a vibrant, humorous and richly personal history.
Richard Holloway was the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh and Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church until he resigned in the year 2000. He was Professor of Divinity in the City of London from 1997 to 2001. His fascinating memoir diligently tracks the complex journey from his home in the small village of Alexandria, near Glasgow, through his various parishes - including a spell in Ghana - towards his resignation as bishop in 2000. In the process, the book reveals with admirable candour his struggles with faith, belief and sexuality.
All his serious misgivings are diced and spliced for every compelling nuance in this expansively confessional work. The only quibble is that such a welter of scruple and doubt might have been expressed more pithily. The carefully-wrought account runs to 358 pages, but that's alright too, as he is never dull.
As a priest, he married at least one gay couple and his controversial views on matters like the ordination of women landed him iin serious controversy, with some of his uncompromising fellow bishops, although others were supportive.
The early chapters are full of quirky anecdote and salty humour. His boyhood was a largely pleasurable one, spent with loving parents and two sisters. His father is particularly well portrayed, a gregarious man who was fond of drinking excursions on Sunday - he even organised a gambling school with his mates to enliven such dull Sabbaths.
Obsessed with Hollywood films, young Richard saw as many as he could in local cinemas, in the environs of the Clyde. His imaginative flights were fuelled by John Wayne and Alan Ladd in classic Westerns of the day, such as Stagecoach, Cowboy and Shane. Holloway's was a financially hard-pressed, but relatively untroubled upbringing, much of it spent in the countryside he loved. He worked on a farm during summers spent away from the seminary. The normal pangs of lust for a local girl caused him much turmoil, given the fact that he had already enrolled for the Anglican priesthood.
He subsequently fell in love with a Bostonian called Jean, who became his wife, fellow worker in the field and mother of his three children. They lived at first in Gorbals, the tenement area of Glasgow where he worked tirelessly to better the lives of all he came across, no matter what their problem or predicament. He spent periods of ministry the USA, and his work with AIDS victims there is vividly recalled. But he was homesick too in Chicago for every miniscule detail of the particular atmosphere, bound up with the lighting arrangement of what was known as Old St Paul’s Church in Edinburgh.
The revelations of his deep-seated doubt and inner turmoil can be unsettling, as you witness an exceptionally selfless individual constricted by the demands of his priesthood. "I knew I was a phoney, a priest actor trying out a different part," he writes, a theme he returns to again and again. Becoming a bishop in the mid-80s should have been the crowning glory, but instead it brought the crisis to a head.
Holloway has a fine appreciation for beauty in architecture, and in landscape, be it England or Scotland, and an elegant prose style. He has the seasoned clergyman's facility with Latin, poetry and philosophy – entire verses or quick snatches of poems by John Betjeman, Emily Dickinson, and Philip Larkin punctuate the narrative, along with quotes from Nietsche and Wittgenstein.
He is a man who has mused long and hard upon the important things, perhaps too long for his own good. He mentions how he would indulge, or, as he puts it, “stoke his melancholy,” an odd thing to admit to. As he is well aware and is at pains to point out, most lay people have no idea how frail or fallible their church leaders often are. The book is in part an effort to reveal such disparities between received image and messier reality.
The author is lyrical about his love of walking in the open countryside, preferably on his own, when he can ideally complete as many kilometres as possible. “I began to realise that my walking was symbolic, the sign of a nomadic nature, yet my other mind longed for a place of abiding. And with this divided nature I had found myself as the leader of the wing of an institution that thought of itself as possessing fixed and unalterable truth.” Thus his very mode of escape, his beloved walks, only drive home to him his unfitness for further travel in the episcopate.