Sunday, 28 October 2012

Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt: A Review - Part 1

The toughest lesson life teaches is the difference between who you wanted to be and who you actually are. And it can take a whole life to teach it. (Richard Holloway)

Richard Holloway's book, "Leaving Alexandria" begins with the graveyard of the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham. It's is a shaded rectangle containing thirty-five simple gravestones, irregularly spaced, and he knows quite a few people buried there from his time at Kelham, at the start of a winding path which took him from a celibate priesthood in England and Africa, to married life in Glasgow and America, and becoming Bishop of Edinburgh before hurling his Bishop's mitre in the Thames and resigning.

That seems like a very turbulent journey, and indeed it is, but it is an inner conflict between faith and doubt which pervades this narrative. It is, of course, written after the end of his ecclesiastical career, it is also how he would like this journey to be seen. And yet it is a very honest narrative; he is aware of the changes that time has wrought in his life. As he says, walking among the graves, pondering his early years:

The hard thing about coming to this place is glimpsing the young man I was fifty years ago, brimming with ideals, taking this same walk, earnestly conversing with a companion - and completely unaware of the spring and drive of his own character and where it would lead him. He thought then he had chosen a high road and would walk it to the end, whereas I know now that roads choose us and what they unfold before us is not the person we want to be, but the person we already are, the person time slowly discloses to us. Yet in spite of trying to learn this lesson, I still regret roads not taken. Is that why I keep coming back here? Am I trying to discern the outline of an alternative past, the most futile of pursuits? What is certain is that I am so far into my own head at the moment that I am not paying enough attention to what's going on around me; so I have come too far and passed the graveyard. I turn back down the walk, identify the untidy gap in the tall yew hedge and enter.

He noticed that even in those days, there was something apart from his faith, fleeting moments of joy, which were quite different, and could not come on demand, but came, unbidden, when the sense of self was least, when concentrating on other matters:

Those were sweet moments, because they were fleeting. I learnt that pleasure was caught on the slant. Contentment, if it happened, came when I wasn't looking for it and was intent on something else. Concentrate on the something else, the matter I was engaged on, and a sense of wellbeing might strike like a flash of sunlight from a frozen river.

It's interesting how different that is from the New Age practices of meditation, of trying to find and capture something beyond from within oneself. Holloway finds those moments coming when not actively pursuing them, not looking inward, but looking into the distance.

Sent to Africa, he finally realised that he was not cut out to be a particular kind of celibate priest; his saintly ideals were more fantasy, not an ideal he really wanted after all, but an dream which didn't match the reality. As he notes:

It was in Accra that I finally lost the direction I thought my life was supposed to take. It was there I said 'No' to the great demand, there I realised what a disappointment I must be to God. And it was there I began to recognise how incommensurate my character was to my own ideals and aspirations. It's hard when you discover that the person you are is not someone you admire; not the person you want to be; not cut out to be a saint.

His return saw him assigned to be Priest-in-Charge, St Margaret's and St Mungo's in the Gorbals, Glasgow. Here he was actively engaged in matters of social concern as much as religious matters; for him, the division was an artificial one. He noted how the solution to Glasgow's housing had been imposed from above, with little care for the people who actually had to live there. The position after the the Second World War was truly terrible:

It was what came after the war that began the destruction. Glasgow's housing stock was in an apocalyptic state. An official survey established that 98,000 houses were unfit for human habitation. Most of the old tenements had no hot water, internal lavatories or baths, and they were all tired and dilapidated. It was the era of the slum landlord, most of whom were incompetent as well as grasping, and some of whom were actively criminal and warehoused the poor into derelict buildings of last resort when there was nowhere else for them to go.

But he felt the buildings were sound, and could have been modernised. After all, country estates were modernised and changed with hot water piping and indoor lavatories replacing chamber pots. The fabric of the buildings were sound, but they had been left to fall into disrepair. The solution was to impose a different way of living, and replace slum areas with high-rise flats. This was the era of "build high for happiness", where the planners were drawn to this partly as an architectural ideal (the latest fashion), and partly to save costs. The people who lived there had no say:

The streets of grey and red sandstone seemed organic to the landscape and climate of our northern nation. Even the cheaper ones were built to last, and they looked as though they belonged where they stood - and knew it. Why not keep them, improve them, modernise them? Had they been consulted, that is what the natives themselves would have gone for, but social engineers are famous for their indifference to the views of the subjects of their experiments. No one bothered to ask the people who actually lived in Gorbals. Glasgow wanted to do something dramatic to counter its reputation as the slum capital of Europe, so they opted for what they called comprehensive redevelopment, the complete flattening of the district and the erection of an entirely new housing pattern. They blitzed the traditional horizontal grid of streets and sent them into the sky in the famous twenty-storey high-rises.

Meanwhile, he worked within the slum areas, helping people living there to fight the slum landlords, who as Orwell noted, take advantage of the desperate need for houses: "people will put up with anything--any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and blackmailing agents--simply to get a roof over their heads" (The Road to Wigan Pier)

It is here that Holloway was attracted to Christianity, not just as a social reform movement, but as a refuge for the outcast on society, those living on the margins, and those whom Jesus came to live among. It is like the BBC Nativity play, where the angel Gabriel tells the shepherd Thomas that the Messiah is born not for the high and mighty, but "for such as you".

Against this prophetic strand, Holloway sees the moralists, who want to make a codified Christianity, where mistakes are policed, and people kept in check by fear:

How could I explain that what attracted me to Jesus was his acceptance of those who saw themselves as failures rather than moral successes? There was a subversive tradition in Christianity that claimed it was sinners who got Jesus, people who couldn't mind their Ps and Qs, not the righteous. It was the hopeless prodigal who understood, not his upright and disciplined big brother. Where to start trying to explain all that? But the dissonance went even deeper. It may have been fear of being found out myself, but I actually felt a strong revulsion against the morality-policing aspect of religion that was such a strong element in the Scottish tradition. I was attracted to the prophetic voice of faith that spoke against structural or institutional sin and the way the powerful ordered the world to suit themselves. I hated the prurient kind of religion that pried into personal weaknesses and took pleasure in exposing them.

Karen Armstrong has also argued strongly that the Mythos in religion can be neglected for the Logos. Holloway sees this with religious institutions, that they become more rigid, and the religious longing is captured and chained up. This is where religion can become a vehicle for all kinds of nasty practices, from telling people who are dying of aids that it is God's judgement on them, blowing up people who deliver abortions, telling people who have had IVF treatment and have children that they are murderers, and talking about wars as "crusades" against evil. The corrupting nature of religious institutions was something than repelled Richard Holloway:

All institutions over-claim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religious institutions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights to them. They segue from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to 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.

And he notices how one of the worst kinds in modern America is the apocalyptic Christian fundamentalism, which sees the end of the world as divine, and something to be welcomed. What price peace, when you believe the prophecies tell of Armageddon coming in the Middle East? Or global warming, when you regard the world as disposable!

Bad religion can be comforting, a blanket that protects us against the chilly winds of an empty universe, but it can be dangerous too. Belief in the imminence of the Second Coming became the preserve of the Christian Right in America, where it fed the growth of a conspiracy theory that became one of the most powerful weapons in America's culture wars.

The dangerous thing about the movement is that, rather than looking for ways to address the problems that beset the world, the apocalyptic mind-set welcomes them as signs that the end is accelerating towards us. The late Jerry Falwell, a co-conspirator of LaHaye's, when asked about the growing degradation of the planet said it did not concern him. Jesus would be back soon to end the world, so we should use it before we lose it.

But he wasn't too taken by the Anglo-Catholic movement in Anglicanism either, where he described:

pale young curates could be seen gazing longingly into their windows at displays of mitres, copes and chasubles - and the dazzling futures they promised. There was little harm in any of this, though it did demonstrate the mysterious weakness of the human male for dressing up in elaborate uniforms and insignia. Though it was not a fatal vanity, it could be silly and precious; when it was done mischievously, archly, it could have charm and humour; but it was never without self-consciousness.

Discussing matters with Graham Leonard, one time Bishop of London (who later left the Church of England over the ordination of women priests and jointed the Catholics), he noted how often the arguments come after the positions have been taken, and serve as a kind of rational justification for those decisions which we have already made. He makes some marvelous points against the weakness and incoherence of Leonard's position:

What I came to realise in my discussions and debates with Graham Leonard was the role non-theological factors played in theological debate. In particular, we are all experts at finding intellectual arguments for decisions we have actually taken on temperamental or emotional grounds.

In the case of women's ordination, Graham Leonard paraded the supposedly theological objection, which was as simple as it was crass. Jesus was a man. At the altar the priest represents Jesus. Therefore the priest has to be a man. A number of rejoinders were possible to this. Jesus was a Jew. At the altar the priest represents Jesus. Therefore the priest must be a Jew. Jesus was circumcised. At the altar the priest . . . and so on. He would have none of it. But he was embarrassed by the arbitrariness of his own logic. It was then the tip of the iceberg bobbed above the surface, and it revealed the anxious nature of the conservative mind as it negotiates change and contemplates doing something for the first time.

In fact, he came to realise that for him, it was people that counted first, not the institutions and the rules, when they were used to oppress:

I was also coming to recognise that I could not privilege any institution above the individuals who composed it. When it came to a choice between them - which was usually when it meant applying the rules against them - I noticed that I usually came down on the side of the individual.

That's a position that I certainly agree with; it is often a matter where a choice comes up, and sometimes that involves rethinking principles and seeing if they are actually prejudices instead. That's not to say that rules are always bad; society needs some kind of rules to function. But religious organisations tend to be good at using their rules to exclude diversity - the heretic, the excommunicated, the backslider, the lapsed - all terms which suggest that the individual concerned is in the wrong, without perhaps asking why they have chosen that path.

I remember the Exeter Christian Union in the late 1970s among whom I had friends speaking of the dangers of back-sliding, and telling me of someone who had been their CU leader at one of the Halls of Residence who had left, drifted away. Curious, I chatted to her, and found that it was more a case that she had outgrown the restrictive demands of the CU. It was the institution which was causing people to leave because of its rules, particularly the misogynism where women were concerned, but those within just couldn't see that. They excluded, where I would always tend to include. I remained friendly with people within, as well as people without, but it opened my eyes to the way that an institution can bend the mind of its members to privileging its internal rules over individuals, whatever the problems there might be with those rules. 

Victor Hugo's masterpiece, "Les Miserables", is a narrative with a central thread - Jean-Valjean, who always takes the side of the outsider, reaching out with compassion, having been the recipient of compassion at a very low ebb in his life, a convict on parole - and Javert, the Inspector whose only rationale for life is bound up with upholding the smallest print within the law, and is unbending, without mercy. It dramatises that conflict, but it is one that, as Richard Hollow found out, does not go away.

In the second part of this review next Sunday, I'll be looking at Richard Holloway's later career and time as Bishop of Edinburgh.

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