Interview: Richard Holloway, writer, broadcaster and former Bishop of Edinburgh in the Scottish Episcopal Church

Richard Holloway, pictured at his Edinburgh home. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Richard Holloway, pictured at his Edinburgh home. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Share this article
Have your say

THE bishop who stopped believing in God, Richard Holloway doesn’t pray any more but his moving memoir makes it clear that he’s lost none of his faith in humanity

Unless you regularly go to weddings, conferences and war game conventions in Nottinghamshire, the chances are that you won’t have heard of Kelham Hall. For the rest of us, it is just an enormous redbrick Victorian Gothic pile that flashes by a mile away on the right just after the London-bound train has rushed through Newark station.

For Richard Holloway, though, Kelham Hall is a place apart. It’s where the former head of Scotland’s Episcopal Church, now 78, once felt close to the God in whom he no longer believes. More than anywhere else, it is the place that made him what he is.

He arrived there in 1948, brimming with ideals. He was 14, and wanted to serve God for all of his days. Kelham was the mother house of the Society of the Sacred Mission, an Anglican monastic order set up in late Victorian Britain to enable working-class boys to train for the priesthood. Its founder, Herbert Kelly – always known as HK – had a motto which he drilled into the minds of all the novices who followed the order’s conditions of poverty, celibacy and obedience. It was always written in capitals: NOTHING COUNTS BUT LIFETIMES.

Those four words haunt Holloway’s scintillating memoir, Leaving Alexandria. They were the standard he set for his early life: anything less than a whole lifetime of service to God would be a failure. Anything less would let down HK, his colleagues, his teachers, his order, his family back in Scotland. More than that, it would disappoint God.

His memoir begins in the monks’ graveyard at Kelham. There are 35 of them buried there, and HK himself (1860-1950) – Holloway remembers him as looking like George Bernard Shaw – is among them. If nothing counts but lifetimes, those monks set the bar high, their faith rock-hard, unchallenged, certain. Over the years, Holloway’s faith was almost the opposite.

Maybe that’s the reason he feels so strongly drawn back to Kelham – that even after the spectacularly public implosion of his faith, he misses the certainties of that gangling, intense, west of Scotland teenager who turned up at Kelham Hall 65 years ago. Maybe that’s why he keeps going back. In July 2009, that’s where he was, in the monks’ graveyard, when his daughter phoned him. Why, she asked, was he crying?

“Look,” he says, showing me the notebook he had with him on that day. “That’s where this book starts.” He points out the crosses he’d marked for the monks’ graves, the notes that became the book’s prologue, in which he remembers his teachers individually as he peels off the lichen from their graves. Would he have known exactly where in that graveyard, he would have ended up himself? “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he nods, almost excitedly, as though I had grasped a deeper meaning rather than just asking an obvious question.

And maybe I have. Because Holloway is such a fair and fine writer, he can convey the full allure of ideas he once felt which, in his own mind, are now empty, hollowed. Nothing Counts But Lifetimes: it’s the antithesis of everything about our own secular, short-attention-span culture, but Holloway invests it with such yearning that it makes a kind of sense. Or at least you can see how it would do to a 14-year-old Dick Holloway, fresh off the train from Scotland with a heart full of hope and wearing his first pair of underpants.

At St Mungo’s, Alexandria, “a ravishing little outpost of very camp liturgy”, an “almost certainly gay” priest had helped him to fall in love, not with the church itself but with what it suggested about the world – that it could contain holiness and purpose. It was he who pointed out that Kelham had been purpose-built for people like him, working-class boys who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to enter the ministry.

There was a beauty about the surrendered life: he could see that from the start. A life a bit aloof, but heroic – helping people with their problems but always moving on, unattached, like the hero in Shane, or some of the other films he saw, often with his mother, Mary, at the local cinema. His parents were not particularly religious but they wanted the best for him. If he wanted to be a hero serving God, they wouldn’t argue him out of it. Kelham only confirmed that ambition. Because surely HK was right. What could be more glorious than a whole lifetime given up to God?

Outside Holloway’s living room, a winter Edinburgh afternoon is slowly darkening. He strides over to the window and pulls down the blinds and switches on the lamps. As he does, I ask him how many of the 15 other novices he studied with at Kelham are still members of the order. He pauses for a while as he works out the answer. “One or two stayed the course and died,” he replies, “but no, I don’t think there’s anyone living who is still in it.” The Society of the Sacred Mission moved out of Kelham Hall in 1972 and Newark and District Council moved in. Opposite what used to be the altar where the young Holloway professed his faith in a domed chapel which has been transformed into an all-purpose events venue, there is now a bar.

He lost his faith five years after he left Kelham. There had been struggles even when he was there – sexual urges didn’t go away, and even though these were heterosexual, his first real crush was for a fellow novice. (Although that relationship remained entirely chaste, when the two men met up decades later and reminisced, his colleague admitted that they must have been in love).

None of those early struggles, though, had been about belief itself. Yet in the mid-Sixties, when he was working in a parish in the Gorbals, his faith in God ebbed away. “I ended up with this funny existentialism – 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.” It was quite possible – indeed, plausible – to think that and still be guided by Jesus’s radical compassion. On matters relating to God – which he was starting to classify as “supernatural” – he was on shakier ground: if members of his congregation came to him with doubts about their faith, he’d admit that he wasn’t certain either.

He turns to literature – as he so often does – to explain. “You know those Graham Greene novels in which the priest might have doubts about God yet be called upon to explain God to someone – the unbelieving priest who celebrates Mass for the people because they need it? It is compassion that makes him do it, and it can cause terrible internal conflict.

“When you are a confident boy, you are not aware of any of this. And when you commit yourself to a way of life it’s a bit like committing yourself to a marriage when you don’t really know yourself enough to be married. But you have bound yourself to people by then, you have responsibilities for them, and often these people are up against really terrible situations and one almost feels a need to compromise out of compassion.”

So what would he have said to me if, say, I’d just been bereaved and was looking for spiritual consolation? “What you don’t do is cheat. You accept the horror, the cancer, the terrible loss. A lot of religious people try to wipe out those terrible realities in that crass, horrible way, you know – God must have loved her, that’s why he took her from you’.

“I would have said: do we simply reject the human search for meaning in things? Or do we say that, even if we come from the void, the fact is that out of that void has come love. And isn’t that extraordinary?”

And if you were dealing with a parishioner who mightn’t understand that? “I would pray with him within his integrity.” He quotes a scene from André Schwarz-Bart’s novel The Last of the Just when a boxcar full of children is going to Auschwitz. One of the characters is telling the children that they will soon be reunited with their parents again, that they will be warm again, that they are on their way to Jerusalem. Another adult chides him for telling lies. “There’s no room for truth here,” he replies.

When he was on stage with the evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh Science Festival a few years ago, Holloway asked him what he would have said in the same situation. “He said he would have said exactly the same. What you don’t do is flog your truth on other people. I’m not trying to impose my beliefs on anyone.”

The implication is clear: to Holloway, the certainties of organised religion have little meaning other than, perhaps, as metaphor or poetry. If anyone derives spiritual consolation from them, that’s fine. He doesn’t – and no longer having to defend things he doesn’t believe in is one of the great joys of his later life – but he doesn’t want to cut himself off from Christianity altogether. Indeed, he still goes to church on average a couple of times a month – usually to Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh, where he was rector from 1968-1980, in what he says, looking back, was the happiest time of his life. Occasionally, he even preaches there. “I’m like a member of the family who doesn’t support everything the family stands for but still wants to be associated with it. At my stage in life, it’s quite difficult to give up emotional allegiances.”

It was only several years after he had become Bishop of Edinburgh in 1986 that the tensions between being expected to uphold the orthodoxies of faith and his growing disbelief in the certainties of the system became too great. The last straw came over the refusal of the Lambeth Conference of 1998 to countenance the ordination of gay ministers.

While at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh and against the tenets of his church, Holloway had quietly been marrying gay couples since the 1970s. In the early 1980s, when he was Rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston – where coffee hour after High Mass was, according to a local magazine, “the best place for a gay pickup in Boston” – not only had he many homosexual parishioners, but he saw at first hand the ravages caused by Aids and the courage and grace of the gay community in responding to the epidemic. To see 700 bishops at the Lambeth conference be so virulently opposed to any rethinking of the Church’s attitudes to homosexuality was, he says, “one of the most horrifying and horrible experiences of my life”. If that was what organised religion was about, he could do without it.

In April, Holloway will teach a five-day course on writing memoirs at the Arvon Foundation house in Moniack Mhor, near Inverness. On the basis of Leaving Alexandria alone, it is hard to think of any better tutor: this is the kind of thoughtful, meditative, compassionate book that brings the journey between faith and doubt to vivid, pulsing life.

The best memoirs aren’t those that settle old scores, point out why opponents were wrong and make it blindingly obvious that the writer was right all along. No: they tread carefully and with moral grace and balance around disagreements and disappointments. They look hard at the writer’s own failings. The whole point of the exercise isn’t self-justification or ego but pin-sharp honesty. What, they ask, was my life really about? What lessons have I learnt?

Almost from the start, growing up in Alexandria, Richard Holloway was always persuasive. Even when he hadn’t actually seen some of the films that were coming to town, he would read up on them and pretend to his schoolmates that he actually had. He has always been self-confident, able to wing it, able to convince others. He has also, as he came to realise while writing this book, never had a great sense of institutional loyalty. Maybe he was never much of a team player. He has, he thinks, too low a boredom threshold to be a genuinely good person. He is naturally introspective. A bit of a loner too, he concedes.

But he is also, it must be said, a fine writer. Just a few small details about his father getting up early, filling his pipe and smoking it, and going off to work at the dye factory, and he is etched affectionately in the reader’s mind. Same with his mother, her love for her “wee ton of bricks” radiantly obvious. Just a page or so of his description of the interior of Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh made me visit, for the first time, a church I must have passed every working day for at least a decade. Although his book is really about some of the biggest ideas a human mind can hold, and is driven by a restless, questing honesty, it also has the tiniest nuances that convey a deeply elegiac sense of place.

Leaving Alexandria, the book is called, but the leave-taking at its heart isn’t just for the Vale of Leven town of his childhood. It isn’t even for the monks of Kelham and that particular path not taken. It’s not for the saintly people he worked alongside in the Gorbals, or the homeless people he tried to help at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh, or the first Aids victims whose bedsides he attended in Boston, or the people of wavering faith who looked up to him, their bishop, preaching about doubt and love. It’s about leaving all of them – and, most of all, his family too. If he has any regrets, not spending as much time with his wife and three daughters as he could have tops the list.

He still walks the Pentlands, he says. Two or three days a week, you’ll find him up there, walking with his faithful dog Daisy. Age hasn’t slowed either of them down, though in dog years, he points out, Daisy is 78 too. Most days they’ll set off at about 11, and be back at three. He always used to be an impatient walker, but now he makes more of a point of looking at Nature.

He doesn’t pray any more – not in the usual sense of asking God for favours. “But when I’m out on the hills, I carry people with me in a loving, intercessory, prayerful way. I love walking out there and hope I’ll be able to carry on doing it until I snuff it.”

And when he does, his children will, he hopes, scatter his ashes from Scald Law. He doesn’t want any kind of headstone or memorial. But in a book as wise, thoughtful and moving as this, he has already made one.

• Leaving Alexandria, by Richard Holloway, is published by Canongate on Thursday, priced £17.99. Holloway will talk about the book with James Naughtie at the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, on 10 March at 7pm. Tickets £4, from Waterstones, George Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-225 3436.