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Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith – Richard Holloway

January 2, 2014

LAThe beautiful opening of this book takes us to what remains of Kelham Theological College, a place that has haunted the author throughout his life. I can understand this a little, having spent a weekend there as a potential student when I was in my teens. A very powerful place. It recurs in his dreams, as does Mirfield in mine. The Society of the sacred mission had a healthily flippant attitude towards religion yet they were serious about god. This duality stays with the author throughout his ministry. Another sensible attitude is that towards the creeds. It isn’t about whether they are literally true but about what is life-giving and what is fatal to the soul.

Kelham 1Thinking about his love of film, he muses on the role of the preacher who doesn’t always believe: What drew me to the Sunday Mail were the dramatic advertisements for films showing in Glasgow. Glasgow loved the movies, and the city was populated with dozens of cinemas. From time to time, we went up to the city to shop at the big Woolworths and Lewis’s stores on Argyle Street and to see the Christmas pantomime at the Metropole near Glasgow Green. Occasionally we went to the pictures. I loved the cinemas on Sauchiehall Street and Renfield Street; much grander than anything in the Vale. So I usually devoured the advertisements in the Sundays. Mail for ‘future presentations’ in the Glasgow picture house One Monday morning I found myself describing to a group of boys an exciting movie I had not actually been to, but had seen advertised in the Sunday Mail. Soon al was locked into a playground routine on Monday mornings, as a group of boys gathered round me to hear about the movie I had ‘seen’ that Saturday. I became fluent at spinning stories based on the information I’d picked up from the previous day’s paper; and I began to feel guilty about it. One night, in an agony of remorse, I woke my mother and poured out my difficulty. It’s a’ right, Dick, she said. You’ve just got a good imagination. Don’t worry about it. Go back to bed. And I went back absolved. So maybe it was a true instinct that led me to choose a voca­tion that would make me a teller of stories that could be understood as containing their own meaning within them. What mattered to my friends in the playground on those Monday mornings was that I took them out of themselves with my fictions, not that I hadn’t actually seen the movies I described to them. Implicit in my fraudulence was a theory of religion, though it would take me years to figure it out. I was to become fascinated by Saint Paul’s description of Christian preachers as ‘deceivers yet true’. We become true deceivers when we under­stand the purpose of our deceptions, when we admit that the stories we tell carry their own meaning within them, even if there is no objective reality beyond them, no movie actually seen, no stone actually rolled away from the tomb. Trouble comes when we understand what’s going on and start feeling guilty about it. That’s when we become false deceivers. To be a true deceiver you have to believe your deception — the movie actually seen, the stone actually rolled from the tomb by an angel. Tell your listeners that there was no movie, no resurrec­tion, but that the story itself has its own power to release them — try to stop deceiving them, in fact — and they will turn on you. This is why many preachers become imposters to them­selves out of tenderness towards their hearers. Some of the films I saw wrestled with these paradoxes, showing just how astute movies could be. One cinematic trope subverted the play-acting response that movies could provoke, by showing how a fraud could move to authenticity and end by filling the part he had started out counterfeiting: there was the adventurer in hiding, pretending to be a priest, who ends by sacrificing himself to save the community he was deluding; there was the man, fleeing from his reputation as a coward back home, who acts himself into bravery on a foreign field; there is the kidnapper holding a young woman to ransom, who falls in love with her and dies to save her life. These paradoxes are all known to religious leaders who feel they have trapped them­selves in a role they find difficult to sustain. A time would come when I would nearly die of that covenanted deception, but for years I was to revel in the power of stories to challenge and console.

Like me, he fell in love with the mystery that is to be found in a dark, incense-laden Anglo-Catholic church. Also like me, he found solace in sacramental confession but was too scrupulous about sexual ‘sins’. As a priest, later, he was able to tell his penitents to stop obsessing but he is on to something when he questions the whole dynamic of the sacrament, as do I. He doesn’t think Christianity is a good guide to sexual ethics. Nor do I. His first sexual encounter came a lot later in life than mine but he is 18 years older than me and things were different then.

Sound advice from the founder of SSM: Father Kelly had advised us never to examine our motives, anyway. Just assume they are wrong. God can work through our muddles and delusions, as long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously. The author continues to be scrupulous about his motives throughout. I’d rather a priest who is a reflective practitioner than one who thinks he has the faith all sewn up.

There is a good description of his first, maybe only, crush on another male.

Kelham 2There is a ridiculous story of a thurifer falling over. As a seasoned thurifer myself, I strongly disapprove of those who make a drama put of censing. Thuribles should be smelt, not seen.

His curacy in the Gorbals sees him move on from the pretty bits of the catholic faith to its politics – rent strikes and publicising cases such as that where 67 people have to share one toilet.

The clergy we are being told to emulate these days, and why we shouldn’t are described as having: the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging. Which is what people want. They don’t want to spend years wandering in the wilderness of doubt. They want the promised land of certainty, and religious realists are quick to provide it for them. The erection of infallible systems of belief is a well-understood device to still humanity’s fear of being lost in life’s dark wood without a compass. ‘Supreme conviction is a self-cure for infestation of doubts.’ That is why David Hume noted that, while errors in philosophy were only ridiculous, errors in religion were dangerous. They were dangerous because when supreme convic­tion is threatened it turns nasty. There would be a time when I would land in that trap myself, but I wasn’t there yet. I was with Schweitzer and his escape from words to action. That is why I was moved by…… The romance of religion was alive in them — something greater than themselves was pulling them — but it was shown only in love and service. Whatever doubts they had about the claims of Christianity, the need to help the poor was self-evident to them. They were content to be social workers. So was I. Except now I was more than that. I had a church to run. That meant speaking. It meant preaching and teaching as well as action. It also meant opening myself to the projections of those who assumed I was morally and theological sorted, the way any good minister ought to be. Being in charge of a church suggested arrival rather than pursuit, the settler rather than the charismatic drifter.

The crisis of faith, which has remained with him throughout his life, is described thus: God himself went absent on me, though it would be more honest to say that a presence that often felt like an absence now became an absence that really was an absence. I was well aware that faith in God was not like one of these mutually supportive relationships we aspire to nowadays. I knew you could go for a long time in a relationship with God without getting any response from him at all. God was like those emotionally unavailable Scotsmen who were such a potent part of my heritage. He cared for me — he just wasn’t good at showing it. The big difference being, of course, that emotion­ally unavailable Scotsmen are physically all too available, as a general rule…

He describes his reactions to the concelebrated masses at the Catholic Renewal Conference (it wasn’t a ‘conference’ – we didn’t get time to confer/discuss – we were lectured at from dawn to dusk) at Loughborough. I had the same thoughts at the time – like a National Socialist rally. He feels similar misgivings at the Lambeth Conference, so mischaired by George Carey (though he is more charitable than I am about ‘Uncle George’).

OSPEHe is on to something when he thinks about the purpose and availability of church buildings: I had loved Old Saint Paul’s most when it was empty. I loved the Advent most when it was full. Empty, the Beacon Hill church was like a theatre waiting for the stalls to fill and the curtain to lift and the performance to begin so that it could come to life and be itself again, like an actor who is only at peace with himself on the stage. Old Saint Paul’s was most itself when it was empty, most alive to me when nothing was going on in it except its own brooding and remembering. The contrast may have something to do with the fact that Old Saint Paul’s has always been kept open so that people can drift in, sit awhile with the building and its memories, and drift out again. Churches that stay open unclose themselves to the sorrows of humanity and alchemise them into consolation. And not a cheap conso­lation. Just as artists reconcile us to our ills by the way they notice and record them, so open churches console us by the way they accept the unreconciled aspects of our natures. This is a mystery the godless poet Philip Larkin acknowledged in his poem, Church Going.” Almost in spite of himself, he recog­nised that ‘the ghostly silt’ of a church can exercise a strange power over those who visit it. Silt is the perfect word. It suggests the slow silent accumulation of pain and regret, and their distil­lation into memory and mercy. Because they have heard it all, these serious houses on serious earth. Into their `blent air’ generations of the wretched have whispered their compulsions, and not always in hope of having them removed, but simply to experience the relief of naming them. Churches not only bear the memory of our dyings, they also carry the knowledge of the helplessness of our failings. They are a haven for the homeless woman whose destitution is obvious, muttering to herself over there in the back pew; but they also accept the moral destitution of the confident man sitting in the dark chapel, gazing at the white star of the sanctuary lamp, heavy with the knowledge of the compulsions that have dominated his life and refuse to leave him. Here both are accepted in their help­lessness. There is no reproach. Churches do not speak; they listen. Clergy speak, unstoppably. They are ‘randy’ to change, challenge or shame people into successful living. Church build­ings that stay open to all know better. They understand help­lessness and the weariness of failure, and have for centuries absorbed them into the mercy of their silence. This is grace. Unearned undeserved unconditional acceptance of unchanging failure, including biological failure, our last failure, our dying. The unclosed church is the home of the destitute and the dead. And since we will go on failing and dying, some of us will go on gravitating to these places that do not shut themselves against our need. The Advent was kept locked for security reasons, though visitors could be buzzed into the building by the parish secre­tary. Though I understood the policy that kept the church closed, I always felt it deprived it of a life of its own where it could have gathered memories into itself and opened itself to the sorrows of humanity. It closed itself against those who needed to slip in quietly and unseen to sit in the dark with their own hopelessness. It takes confidence to ring a buzzer and invite yourself into a building to look around. And the confident did it, many of them. But what happens to the unconfident who want to hide themselves away for a while, unseen?

TABThe tat-queenery survives in: attempts to impose the pattern we had evolved at Old Saint Paul’s over my twelve years there onto the Advent almost overnight. The symbol for my grieving tactlessness was what happened to the seven sanctuary lamps. The lamps in Old Saint Paul’s were genuine oil lamps. Restrained and elegant, each showed not a flame, but a small white star of light. The Advent also had seven lamps in the sanctuary. They had the confident handsomeness of all the furnishings of the church in Brimmer Street, but they were no longer oil lamps. For convenience, each held a nightlight in a little glass, which was regularly changed by the sexton. And they were red. I sat in the nave when I first arrived, trying to bond with the building, but those red lights held me at bay. They were in my face. They were too assertive. There seemed to be no sorrow in the place, no sense of uncertainty, no sense of absence and loss. I pined for the seven white dots of light I knew were burning quietly in the shadows of Old Saint Paul’s. I asked the sexton to replace the red nightlights with white. He did so, but they looked even less numinous than the ones he replaced. You could see they were candles burning in small tumblers, whereas the dark red glasses, to be fair to them, revealed only the flames. We went back to the red lights.

I loved the description of liturgy at the church I usually attend when in the area, S. Mary Mag’s, Oxford: Her most radical change had occurred in the 1950s, during the incumbency of Colin Stephenson, who had revved up her already Anglo-Catholic style into a liturgy that made pontifical celebrations in Saint Peter’s Rome look like Calvinist funerals.

It is often assumed that gay men are attracted to Anglo-Catholicism because of the drama of the ceremonial. Holloway delves deeper and dispels this myth in a way I’ve never heard before: there is no doubt that Anglo-Catholicism, as it evolved, became attractive to gay men, though the reasons for this are probably more theo­logically rooted than is commonly understood. The high camp aesthetic of the more florid wings of the movement was clearly attractive to a certain kind of gay sensibility, as anyone who has had to negotiate a high mass in one of the more fashionable outposts of Anglo-Catholicism will testify. This is surface attrac­tion, however, and there is usually a certain amount of self-parody going on. At a deeper level something more interesting and more moving is happening. Even in societies that have stopped persecuting homosexuals, gays remain a minority community, and minorities are always under some kind of threat from the surrounding majority, even if it is only from their curiosity about or incomprehension over their sex lives. Gays will always be outsiders in straight commu­nities, and it is their status as outsiders that draws some of them to Christianity and, in particular, to its Anglo-Catholic variant. I have known many gay priests over the years. What has moved me most about their persistence in remaining within a Church that at best only grudgingly accepts them, and at worst actively persecutes them, is their identification not with campery and high jinks in the sanctuary, but with the figure of Jesus, the great Outsider. Many of them intuit that Jesus was himself probably gay, but whether or not that was the case, there is no doubt of his appeal to the rejected and discarded in ancient Israel, an appeal that is still strong today. This meant that, at its best, Anglo-Catholicism was a form of Christianity that was hospitable to the unrespectable, to people who were not good at bringing their desires to heel, people who knew their need of mercy and forgiveness because they were never going to qualify morally for entrance into sure of the more respectable religions.

Preachers beware: I felt glutted with the verbal promiscuity of religion and the absolute confidence with which it talked about what was beyond our knowing. The irony was that in one of Paul’s great poems, God chose to empty himself of language and become a life. But along comes Christianity and turns it back into words, trillions of them, poured out incessantly in pulpit, book and on the airwaves, reducing the mystery of what is beyond all utterance to chatter. I told them I had come to mind religious over-confi­dence more than I minded its atheistic opposite, because atheists did not claim to put ultimate reality into words.

Throughout this book, Holloway is always the preacher, even after his loss of faith. No wonder they say that ordination is indelible. We owe much to him because he is one of those who Nietzsche described when he wrote: It is the individuals who have fewer ties and are much more uncertain and morally weaker upon whom spiritual progress depends in such communities; they are the men who make new and manifold experiments. Innumerable men of this sort perish because of their weakness without any very visible effect; but in general . . . they loosen up and from time to time inflict a wound on the stable element of a community. Precisely in this wounded and weakened spot the whole structure is inoculated, as it were, with something new.

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