Sunday, 4 November 2012

Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt: A Review - Part 2

"We live ourselves forward and understand ourselves backward, but I had not lived long or reflectively enough to know who I was."

"We imagine there's a list of characteristics we can acquire if we fancy them, whereas the main lines of our personality were cast before we knew it. This does not mean that we have no control over our decisions and choices. It does mean that we will have little control over them till we acknowledge who we are and accept the reality of the hand we have been dealt to play."
(Richard Holloway, Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt)

After a spell working in Glasgow slums,  Richard Holloway took up residence as the priest in charge of Old Saint Paul's, a poor parish in Edinburgh. This was probably one of the most peaceful times of his life. He always liked 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."

And he noted how the silence of an open church, outside of services, draw in the outsiders, those on the periphery of Christian faith, or even those beyond it:
"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."

I've been round Southampton, where there are very few churches open and unlocked in the day. One where volunteers keep it open during the day as of historical importance, and a Catholic one where volunteers stay to pray the rosary; none are unattended, open to people to quietly drift in and out. Jersey is privileged in that the Parish churches do remain open for a stranger to come, wander round, sit in the silence, light a candle. I've always been upset that St Luke's, on the edge of the Howard Davis Park, is closed except for services; even on a Sunday afternoon, no one can enter. The closed church conveys a message all of its own; it says that only those who sign up to Christianity can come inside; it speaks of "us" and "them". There is no place for the outsider, unlike the open churches, which is as Holloway says are "places that do not shut themselves against our need".

Perhaps Holloway felt most at home here. He stayed for a while, but there seems to have been an ingrained restlessness in his being, and away he went to America, to work in an Episcopal Church in New York for a time. When he returned, he came to be appointed Bishop of Edinburgh, a good appointment perhaps for a man of his outstanding talents, but perhaps not the wisest for his restlessness would again lead to his leaving the position.

From within, he was very critical of how bound up the work of a Bishop was with administration:
The Church is a bureaucracy and bishops are bureaucrats who spend a lot of time in meetings, which come in layers of ever-deepening complexity. There is the diocesan administration, making sure that parishes deliver their quota - ecclesiastese for taxation - and keep their property in good repair.
This involves the manufacture of many committees, the universally practised displacement activity for people who are not quite sure what they are supposed to be doing. Next, there is the provincial bureaucracy, because bishops operate as a board of directors to oversee the work of the Church at the national level. The third tier, which you get sentenced to if you become a Primate or first bishop of a province, is the international meeting of Primates, a self-aggrandising outfit I'll return to later. It was the bureaucratic side of the job I enjoyed least, and the bit I regret most. Jesus told us in his Parable of the Prodigal Son that the young man in question wasted his substance in riotous living. He had something to show for it, however, even if it was only the moral bankruptcy that brought him home again. The Church wastes its substance in prolonged meetings to discuss and refine and endlessly reorganise itself, the mark of institutions in crisis throughout history. Those were the years the locust has eaten, barren years. I wish I could have them back.

From my own experience, years ago, in church related committees, "prolonged meetings" and "barren years" are certainly something which strikes me as true. Sometimes meetings actually achieve something, whether secular or religious, but many become instead - as Holloway notes so correctly - a displacement activity, a substitute for action, a talking shop where matters are endlessly reviewed. Some meetings start with an agenda - read out - and minutes - read out - and then finally proceed to the main agenda, after 20 minutes of time that could be better spent otherwise.

It was during this time that he caused some ructions by presenting quite a different view on the parable of the Good Samaritan:

The conventional reading of the parable understands it as a condemnation of religious hypocrisy. Instead of following their religion's code of compassion, the Priest and the Levite take a wide swerve past the man who had fallen among thieves. In fact, this little story is not about the dangers of insincere religion; it is about the dangers of sincere religion. It is not about religious hypocrisy; it is about religious fidelity. That's the kick in the story, the surprise. The Priest and the Levite followed their religious code to the letter, a code that forbade them to touch foreigners or dead bodies, and the naked man by the roadside was probably both. Their heart prompted compassion, their religion prompted caution, and they followed their religion. But in the Samaritan, bound by the same code, compassion overcomes the strictures of his religion and he goes to the aid of the dangerous stranger.

The story encapsulates Jesus's attitude to the danger we are in when we allow our moral codes and religious traditions to assume absolute authority over us. We need moral and religious systems to protect us from the chaos of our passions; but if we give them absolute authority they become a greater danger to us than the unfettered passions they are supposed to curb.
But he found that despite the meetings, despite the fervent views of fundamentalists with which he clashed, that there was something remaining; that which remained, like the silence of the open church out of service times, was still something precious, and still had something to impart to those in need:
Religion's insecurity makes it shout not whisper, strike with the fist in the face not tug gently with the fingers on the sleeve. Yet, beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard. And from a great way off the tiny figure of Jesus can be seen on the seashore, kindling a fire. I don't any longer believe in religion, but I want it around: weakened, bruised and bemused, less sure of itself and purged of everything except the miracle of pity. I know that the people who will keep it going will have to believe in it more than I do. Who could be persuaded by my whisper? Who could even hear it? Anyway, I no longer want to persuade anyone to believe anything - except that cruelty, especially theological cruelty, has to be opposed, if necessary to the death.

But by this time, he had enough of the struggle. His book "Godless Morality" had brought down the condemnation of no less a figure than George Cary,  Archbishop of Canterbury, and yet Cary had produced nothing as thoughtful or intelligent to put in its place. On a return from the Lambeth Conference, Holloway threw his mitre in the Thames, after having argued against the African Churches position on women priests and homosexuality at the Lambeth Conference.

At the 1998 conference I spoke of my support for those in the priesthood who were homosexual in orientation.  I remember this as a 'festival of hatred' on a particular lovely sunny July afternoon and enduring the braying, hate-filled obscenities flung at me by my peers.  I have been allergic to meetings of Bishops ever since.

His resignation followed not long after. It was in leaving that perhaps he found himself more at peace. It has been said that he lost his faith and become an atheist. Reading this book, I'm not so sure. I'd say rather that he has come to a different perspective on religious matters, in which words are perhaps not so important, or so clear cut:

The godless may no longer believe in God, but they can go on missing him when he leaves.
I am used to theists who once were atheists and atheists who once were theists challenging my uncertainties. Confidently sure of themselves, they tell me they sorted the issue years ago: 'We called the chess-board white - we call it black.' 86 At that time I had not yet discovered I could not settle permanently on either square.

It's here that he mentions "latency", the sense of something hidden, just out of sight. In its way, it is profoundly and deeply religious, but it is not conventionally religious. Perhaps if he had come more in contact with some of the Neopagan movement, that he might have found more affinity with that, or with T.F. Powys struggle with faith and doubt, expressed most poetically in his book "Fables":

How can you make yourself one with a landscape? You can tramp over it, become so familiar with its contours that you never need a map, but you can never possess it. It is always eluding your desire, just out of reach, beyond your possessing. I did not know the word at the time, or the idea that lay behind it, but on the hills I was experiencing latency, the sense of something hidden behind what is seen. How can you find words for what is beyond sound, make visible what vanishes when seen?

How do we speak of the immanent and transcendent except in imperfect and fragmentary language. As Orual puts in, in C.S. Lewis "Till we Have Faces":

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

And on the hillside, Holloway ends by meditating on the transient nature of existence, of the joy in that transience, and that what happens afterwards is a matter perhaps as much of doubt as of faith:

What's left to say? Only this: when I die I hope my children will bring me back up here. I don't want a stone or a sign left anywhere to mark the fact that I had a life on earth before I went down the stairs to join the unnumbered dead. My name will be written in ink, and ink is the best symbol for a life. Brief. Defiant. Fading. But I hope that Ann and Sara and Mark will bring my ashes up here one October day.
They can take turns carrying what's left of me in my old rucksack. Through Kitchen Moss up West Kip and East Kip to Scald Law. Because of the wind up here, they'll have to watch where they stand when they open the box to let me out to blow away into the heather. I know now that the three of them are what I was for. It has been a great purpose being one of the instruments of their becoming. I love them, and she who bore them. Then they can make their way back down the Kirk Road to the Green Cleuch and the beech-lined road below Bavelaw and home. And that'll be that. Well, almost certainly . . .

This is a very personal book, a very honest book, and one I'd certainly recommend. For anyone who thinks that Holloway's resignation was simply a case of a Bishop losing faith and deciding to be honest about it, this shows how simplistic and false that is. Instead we see here the complexity of faith journeys, and how we may not realise who we are until we reach a particular vantage point to stand back and look at the way we have come. For those who entrench themselves in certainty, perhaps it may make them a little more forgiving of those who cannot share such cast-iron beliefs, and more compassion for those on the boundaries, on the borderland, for whom articulation of certainty is not possible. As my favourite pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes said:

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses

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