Canongate, £17.99, 358pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt, By Richard Holloway
Friday 09 March 2012
There's one question about Leaving Alexandria - otherwise a quiet epic of a biography about faith, doubt, class, philosophy and social action - that won't go away. How did such an innate dissimulator and self-dramatist as Richard Holloway, wracked with crippling, carnal doubts about the authority and certainties of organised religion, actually get to become the Episcopalian Primus and Bishop of Edinburgh?
As the coders might say, you'd be hard-put to read a more open-source account of a public and religious life. Holloway is disarmingly honest about the way his chutzpah and articulacy seduced ever-higher levels of Anglican leadership. The mitred ones are perpetually keen to retain and promote this charismatic character - who, it turns out, has an internal edge on any other pious competitor.
Holloway's mental machinery renders priesthood as the lead role in his own romantic life-movie. He grapples with theological double-binds just like the outsider cowboys and compromised cops he watched with his mum in the proletarian cinemas of Dumbarton and Glasgow. Of his progress through the Anglican communion, he admits "I winged it... Some of the roles I tried to fill was because I admired the idea of them".
So from this emotional Pandora's Box of a book, it would be easy to indict Holloway as a clerical careerist of the most subtly effective kind. In response, one might imagine Holloway - ever the exegete - asking us to focus on the ambiguity of the term "career". And to be fair, this is much more an erratic path than a cunning plan to emerge somewhere near the top of the Anglo-Catholic tree.
Indeed, the most regular metaphor in this book is ludic. Richard "buys the ticket and starts the God game", or watches himself "playing the new game" of liberation theology in a poor parish; he adopts Nietzsche's conception of fate as a poker hand. This expands into a waspish view of religious camp, the lie that tells the theological truth. "I was genuinely drawn to the romance of the given-away life," he says of his days in the semi-monastic community of Kelham, "but I was also fascinated by the theatre of it".
His love of sepulchured flummery becomes hilarious in the 1970s, when an attempt to channel the energies of hippie pentecostalism leads to an experiment with speaking-in-tongues. Holloway is not just gripped with glossolalia, but what he believes is xenolalia (erupting with entire foreign languages), which he tries out on a terrified Chinese passer-by.
He is brutally candid about the exacting nature of "communal" Christianity in this era. His adoption of a Franciscan-style "preferential option for the poor" badly disrupted his family's nightly table, seating every stray member of the walking wounded from Edinburgh's unforgiving streets.
"Perhaps I liked excitement too much," Holloway states ruefully. Yet it would be only half-right to regard Leaving Alexandria as a theological correlate to Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man: the tale of a capable, reflexive chancer who mastered a domain by understanding its codes and rules as aesthetic forms. The other force acting upon Holloway's careering life-path is an unquestionably serious brooding upon the nature of religious experience and meaning. Placed amid our current global stramash between a newly militant atheism and an increasingly defensive religion, Holloway is more like the jagged arc across two electrodes than an orienting compass. And with some poignancy, this is an energy that seems about to flash for the last time.
An encompassing sexuality is what Holloway most distinctively brings to these debates about the role, reality and limits of religion. On a personal level, he is consistently frank about his urges. All manner of encounters, emissions and even leerings are recorded, mostly heterosexual but occasionally homosocial, and sometimes framed with lucid readings of the relevant psychologists. His carnality feeds directly into his theology. Sexuality is evolution's "energy of life", and Christianity should have told us it has "the capacity to thrill" as well as "the potential to hurt and devastate". It should also remind us to "never forget the sheer fucking insanity of it all".
Instead, through misrepresentation (St Augustine of Hippo's concupiscent re-reading of the myth of Adam and Eve) and repression, Christianity became "a dangerous and untrustworthy guide to the subject". Early on, this alerts Holloway to religion's "difficulty in admitting it has ever been profoundly mistaken about anything".
Shot through himself with the most non-celibate of passions, Holloway spends most of his adult priesthood practising a theology of fragility and forkedness. "Care to join the experiment? Care to do the insane and lovely thing?" He tells us, startlingly, that he secretly conducted his first of many gay marriages as early as 1972.
The words of Christ he holds to in such ceremonies is that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". From this, Holloway asserts a humane, person-centred anarchism in the face of all institutional rules - and thus embarks on fatal disputes with his fellow celebrants. Holloway was eventually compelled to resign his post as Bishop of Edinburgh. We should perhaps be grateful he didn't decide to (in his best Dumbartonese) "deck" the Archbishop of South-East Asia during the rumbunctious Lambeth conference of 1998. By the close of the book, with his faith "pared away almost to nothing", Holloway's fury is towering. The establishment Christian prejudice against gays and women isn't just "an eccentric opinion, but an active injustice, a sovereign cruelty... Your opinion gives hate crimes respectability".
Sexual dignity might be what conclusively dethrones religion in Holloway's life. Yet what's deeply affecting about this memoir is the distinct suspicion that his faith has been (to pun as badly as the Bish himself) a hollow way, all along. "There is so much noise on both sides of the debate around religion," he notes, "noise being the thickest overcoat to cover us against the chill of uncertainty". The "absent presence" of God that he swoons over as a novitiate all too easily becomes "an absence that really was an absence". One of his enduring perplexities is to wonder whether God is dead - or just endlessly dying.
As early as the Sixties, Holloway is "deciding to act as if I believe there is a meaning to the universe". Out of this action comes a lifetime of achievements for the poor and needy: housing associations, soup kitchens, community protests against bomb and war. Yet by the end, religion is for him merely a human-fashioned subset of art and culture in general. Holloway can only cope with it when its poetry is separated from its prose - from "explanations that don't explain, science that does not prove, morality that does not improve".
One of his final images is truly disturbing, bespeaking a private dungeon of pain and loss. No longer believing in religion, nevertheless Holloway "wants it around: weakened, bruised and bemused, less sure of itself, and purged of everything except the miracle of pity". Religion as gimp, as abject subject? Really, Richard?
To riff on one of his fellow-travellers in the publishing lists, Leaving Alexandria ends up as "atheism for the religious". But whereas young Master De Botton runs excitedly round the commonwealth, having extracted new activist tools from spiritual tradition, Holloway's memoir - however beautifully written and dramaturgically candid - is an inspiritus lenis, the last gasp of a religious life.
If we need to find a guide to a world resacralising before our eyes, we may need to look elsewhere than to this corporeal, complex, all-too-human wanderer. Or, if he'll allow a final pun: a bishop-prick, indeed.
Pat Kane's forthcoming book is 'Radical Animal' (www.radicalanimal.net)
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