Firebrand priest Richard Holloway shares his doubts about god and distaste for the ‘cruel’ church

THERE is a remarkable painting on Richard Holloway’s sitting room wall. Big and colourful, it was painted by a young woman who came for help in desperate circumstances, her way of saying thank you to the former Bishop of Edinburgh and his wife for their care and comfort at her time of need.

It shows the couple’s three young children in a lush garden. Their son is swimming in a pond watched by a fat, rather hungry looking duck. The two daughters, captured in pretty dresses, are surrounded by colourful butterflies, vibrant fauna, pretty flowers and delicate birds.

“Did you see this?,” asks the former bishop, pointing to a spot at the bottom of the painting, barely noticeable until you step up close for a more thorough look. “She’s even painted in a little bit of bird s***.”

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And true enough, there’s a little white and black avian dropping, a small splodge in a brilliantly dazzling scene, a tiny dollop of poop to jolt us back to the reality that not everything in the garden is always completely rosy.

It’s also, some might argue, a symbolic reminder of the kind of messy bombs from above that the controversial churchman himself threw around as he wrestled with his own conscience, his sense of fairness and of humanity and what he regarded as the often entrenched, outmoded opinions of his church colleagues.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that when Richard Holloway was the high-profile, outspoken Bishop of Edinburgh, the poo had a fairly regular habit of hitting the fan.

Today the 78-year-old is relaxing at his Merchiston home, well outside the constraints of his former bishop’s status. He quit that role – one which he now concedes he should probably never even have accepted – more than a decade ago after a headline- grabbing series of run-ins with his fellow churchmen, compounded by an increasing personal discomfort with the notion that God might even exist.

And that, fairly obviously, tends to be something of a deal-breaker if you happen to be a bishop . . .“How would I describe myself today? I’m an agnostic Christian,” he explains, settling into his armchair, surrounded by heaving bookshelves and with his excited terrier Daisy racing around his feet. She’s his equal in dog years, he explains, yet three times a week the pair head off on ten-mile hikes in the Pentlands, neither clearly as yet content to settle into the quiet life.

In fact, the former bishop is anything but quiet. He has just published his memoirs, Leaving Alexandria, an emotional and provocative exploration of the hows and whys of his life now topping the bestseller charts. It begins with a poignant return to Kelham Hall, an Anglican monastic order in Nottinghamshire where he started his training as a priest, back further to his childhood poverty in Glasgow and, intriguingly and perhaps just as pertinent, the cinemas he loved to visit as a boy.

It was in those fleapit film houses that the young Holloway watched fascinated as heroic figures did wonderful, life-enhancing things. Actors such as dashing Gregory Peck in Keys of the Kingdom – he played a Scottish priest spreading the gospel in China – and Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O’Malley in Going My Way.

“I liked those heroic characters,” he says with a fond smile. “I loved the stories and I liked to tell stories. I became a storyteller.

“I remember I used to read the cinema adverts in the Sunday paper and go to school next day where I told my friends I’d actually seen the film and this was the story. I felt bad about that and told my mother, she just said ‘Don’t worry Dick, you’ve just got a good imagination’. I was absolved.”

Perhaps it was partly a childhood yearning to be just like those movie heroes along with the drama the rituals of the church offered, mixed with a love for the heavenly beauty of nature itself, which led him to become ordained into the priesthood in 1959.

What followed were years telling vivid stories of a religious kind in the grand “theatre” of the church. The trouble was, he now reflects, that too often Bible stories he regarded as grounds for moral guidance and debate – he describes the language of religion as “poetry rather than science” – were for so many others pure undiluted fact.

As time went on, his questioning mind and his deep sense of justice and fairness in particular towards women’s and gay rights, would set him on a collision course with his church.

He questioned the virgin birth and God’s very existence. The book of Genesis, he dared to suggest, took a miracle to believe. He spoke out in support of the ordination of women priests and, when no-one from the church was looking, he secretly married gays and held the hands of people dying from Aids.

Dubbed the “barmy bishop” by the tabloids, he crashed from controversy to headline. He thought he was instigating sensible debate, others reckoned he was simply stirring trouble.

“Maybe it was a mistake to become a bishop,” he says, recalling his appointment in 1986 which was followed in 1992 with his election as Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. “One of the things I discovered fairly recently was that I’m not a person that is loyal to institutions.

“The people who are best at maintaining institutions are conservative-minded people. I lack that gene. I was never very good at keeping rules and I never had difficulty breaking them if I thought they were daft or getting in the way of human good.

“The trouble with being absolutely loyal to an institution is that you keep it unchallenged,” he adds. “So maybe becoming a bishop wasn’t a very wise move and I know that I upset a lot of people.”

His turning point came after the Lambeth Conference in 1998 when Anglican bishops from around the globe debated gay rights – something that even now divides churches. He recalls it as the “most devastating experience of my life. It was the tone. It was a horrible debate”.

“A lot of my memories were of gay priests,” he adds. “I saw their pain and how hidden they had to be in the church and outside it.

“I had been marrying gay couples for a long time. I felt if two people came to me and wanted me to listen to their promise and give them a blessing, then I didn’t think I had the right to say ‘no you can’t do that and that you are so cursed by nature you are excluded and have to live a lonely life’. I find that obnoxious.

“It was the cruelty and intransigence of it,” he continues. “How can you debate with someone if they say it’s not debateable because we know what God thinks? They’ve played the trump card, next item, move on.”

The next year he wrote a book which finally blew the lid off his position as Bishop of Edinburgh. Godless Morality was supposed to encourage debate without talk of what “God” thought. Instead it enraged the Archbishop of Canterbury who, recalls Holloway, “denounced it and pronounced on it like the Pope, saying it was erroneous”.

When his own clergy declared the post of Bishop of Edinburgh vacant, he knew that despite support from many other quarters, that it was time to move on.

“I was scunnered,” he shrugs. “I’d been in so many fights and struggles. I have a big mouth and a lot of what I landed myself in was my own fault.

“I was an increasing target for the press, I was colourful, the ‘barmy bishop’. I thought why not just take a break from this? So I did.”

Since then he’s faced accusations that he was simply a “professional priest” willing to merrily act the part – like Peck or Crosby – but without the true conviction. These days, and at further risk of being accused of hypocrisy, he’s still a churchgoer.

“I’m still a follower of Jesus, but I no longer have to defend any official version of it. And that’s nice,” he insists.

“My big issue with the church wasn’t so much God, it was more about the ethics, morality and social attitudes,” he adds.

“What moved me out was what I perceived to be the ways church responded to social issues made it a cruel body.

“It is one thing to doubt the existence of God. But if you believe that God hates gay people or thinks women should be subordinate to men, your belief brings pain to other people.

“To listen to Cardinal O’Brien sounding off against gay marriage . . .,” he halts, the words perhaps best left unsaid. “Society has moved on with these issues. Some people are frozen in a time warp,” he concludes.

So was that the problem? Was Richard Holloway, once Bishop of Edinburgh, simply ahead of his time?

“I remember once being charged in the ecclesiastical court with bad language,” he adds. “It was at the time when women had just been allowed to be ordained as priests. One approached me and said she was happy but that they had been told to keep it quiet, as if someone had died.

“She asked what I thought. I said, ‘the miserable b*****s. The mean-minded sods’. I was charged with using ‘unepiscopal’ language and was found guilty.

“Well,” he adds with a rueful grin, “actually . . . I still think they are miserable old b*****s.”

Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway is published by Canongate £17.99.