Leaving Alexandra:A memoir of faith & doubt by Richard Holloway
Reviewed by Lloyd Geering
LEAVING ALEXANDRIA: AGAIN
A review by Lloyd Geering of Richard Holloway’s
Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt
published in 2012 by The Text Publishing Company, Australia
THE TITLE COULD MISLEAD; this Alexandria is not in Egypt but a little known Scottish village, north of Glasgow, where the author began his life in very humble beginnings. His first leaving of Alexandria was at the tender age of fourteen when he went to Kelham seminary to begin the long years of training for the Anglican priesthood. Thereafter he uses the name symbolically for each subsequent occasion when he left behind a familiar place to begin a venture of faith and an uncertain future.
This is more than an autobiographical record of dates and events. It is a spiritual journal, of the genre of Augustine’s Confessions, written so honestly and frankly that the author at times bares his soul to the reader. It is not emotional,however, but a finely expressed account of his thoughts and feelings in each important segment of his life.
Already having nearly thirty books to his credit, Holloway has developed a poetic skill with words that makes this a delight to read. He can make a succinct theological statement in a strikingly original way, such as, “Christianity is a reverse strip-tease in which a naked figure is gradually clothed in garments of increasing splendour and is finally enthroned at the right hand of God”.
Holloway’s life did not proceed as the Kelham Fathers would have preferred, for he was both a thinker and one who had a passionate concern for the people around him.
While traditional Christians might judge him to be ‘the bishop who lost his faith’, he is one who found it necessary to surrender certainty to discover what it means to live by faith. As he writes, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty”. This is reflected in the sub-title of the book.
After working in the slums of Glasgow, in Old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh, and in Boston in USA, Holloway was called in 1986 to be the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh. In 1992 he became Primus of Scotland, and this in spite of having written in 1988 Crossfire: Faith and Doubt in an Age of Certainty, a book that earned him the title of ‘Barmy Bishop’ in the tabloids, and made him one of the most notorious clergymen in Britain. Yet, Holloway was simply expressing openly the doubts that many were feeling but afraid to
confess. He was following in the footsteps of Bishop John Robinson of the 1960’s and Bishop David Jenkins of the 1980's.
Holloway became even more of a cause célébre when he championed the cause of gays and lesbians at a time when the Christian world was becoming deeply divided on the issue of homosexuality. To manifest his sorrow and disgust at what went on at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, he threw his mitre into the Thames before returning to Scotland. In 1999 he wrote a book called Godless Morality in which he showed how necessary it now is to separate ethical issues from the religious and biblical context in which they have long been entangled. This book so upset his fellow-Anglicans that, after the Archbishop of Canterbury repudiated it in his presence within Scotland itself, and Scottish Episcopalians began to rise up against him, he decided it was time to leave Alexandria again; in 2000 he announced his resignation.
Holloway acknowledges that his undisciplined tongue was partly the reason why he got into so much strife, but this is simply the other side of the openness and honesty that makes him so attractively human and down to earth. And not to be overlooked is his playful sense of humour; this I observed personally on meeting him in New York in 2004. So I concur with the judgment of the well known writer Alexander McCall Smith when he said that this is “quite simply a wonderful book”.
This review appeared in The NZ Listener on 19 May 2012