AS BISHOP of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway led his congregation in prayer and offered spiritual guidance to his flock in the Scottish episcopal church.
But now the former head of the Anglican church in Scotland has told how he began to lose his faith in God five years after he was ordained as a priest.
For years he was the tabloid’s favourite “Barmy Bishop”, as well as a popular if sometimes controversial figure among Scotland’s nearly 60,000 Episcopalians. Now Holloway’s new memoir, Leaving Alexandria, is rising rapidly up the best-seller lists and appears set to become a milestone in the 78-year-old former bishop’s career.
No stranger to controversy, the author of 25 books often wrestling with issues of faith told The Scotsman how his belief in the Bible began to ebb away within a few years of his ordination, although he continued to do his parish work.
He said he reached the conclusion that “there may be no God in the universe, but let’s live as though there is, and even if we are wrong it will be a glorious way to be proved mistaken”.
“About five years after I was ordained, in the Gorbals, I went through a phase of very radical doubt indeed and wrestled with that and struggled with it,” he said.
“And I arrived at a way of living within the church and the priesthood, almost as an existential gamble, that if there isn’t anything in this, there is a certain beauty and courage in living as if it were true.”
He was Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 and was elected Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1992, but resigned in 2000. His other work included chairing the former Scottish Arts Council.
Leaving Alexandria is building up to be his biggest publishing success since he published the controversial Godless Morality in 1999. It tells how Holloway, from a poor working-class district of Glasgow, found his way to an Anglican monastic order in Nottinghamshire, Kelham Hall, as a 14-year-old boy to begin his training as a future priest. From there he rose to the highest ranks of his church.
After glowing reviews, the book has been in the Amazon website top 100 sellers for a week, peaking at number 55, and at number seven for pre-orders of the book, which is published by Edinburgh-based Canongate on 1 March.
Former poet laureate Andrew Motion said the book “gives a profound sense of the benefits, as well as the difficulties, that accrue from taking a zig-zag path through life”.
“It summarises an argument that a lot of people will find sympathetic, as well as compelling,” he added.
Best-selling author Philip Pullman called it an “endlessly vivid and fascinating” account that “will be a delight and inspiration to believers, non-believers, and ex-believers alike”.
Holloway was a controversial figure during his church career, and a favourite tabloid target, defending gay marriage and championing women priests.
He questioned the Virgin birth, and said he understood the “promiscuous genes” that drove men to promiscuity.
Breaking one church taboo after another, he called those who opposed women priests “mean-minded wee sods” and admitted smoking marijuana.
He left Kelham in 1956 and was ordained in Glasgow in 1959. But, by the early 1960s, he was questioning his faith, in a decade that he said was a “turbulent period” for theologians.
He described how he began by doubting the “physicality of the resurrection” of Christ only a few years after his ordination.
“I remember taking a walk with a Church of Scotland colleague, one Good Friday, because I had to preach on Sunday morning about the resurrection and I wanted to be as honest as I could,” he said.
“That mood deepened and I struggled to get back on track. It kind of calmed down for quite a long time… I contemplated leaving the priesthood then, but struggled on and stayed with it.”
He finally resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh after the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, George Carey, publicly attacked him for abandoning “Christian morality” in his writings.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Episcopal Church said yesterday: “It would be reasonable for Christians, including clergy, to be challenged by their faith and question parts of it from time to time.”
Asked whether a priest could continue working if they lost their faith, the spokesperson said: “I would imagine a number of clergy from time to time look at their faith and are challenged. There will be doubts, and they will work through those doubts, as part of faith.”