Book Review: Leaving Alexandria

By John Gardner

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Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
Text Publishing $40

Book cover of Leaving Alexandria. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Leaving Alexandria. Photo / Supplied

The person who is not religious reading this former believer's journey to a lack of faith can be tempted to ask: "What took you so long?" But this response smacks of smugness when you read an account like this of a spiritual odyssey freighted with deep reflection and agonies of conscience.

Holloway was a working class boy whose father laboured in the local dye works near Glasgow.

Although the family was not particularly religious, Holloway was an altar boy and became entranced by religion. At the age of 14 he went south to England to train at the Society of the Sacred Mission, an Anglican order that trained uneducated boys for the priesthood.

Although monastic in its discipline this was no Dickensian horror camp and Holloway enjoyed his time there and retains affection for it. He went to West Africa to serve as assistant to the Bishop of Accra and duly became a priest, enjoying a long and successful church career. He served in the United States, where he met his wife and eventually became Bishop of Edinburgh.

While fascinated by the ritual elements of Christianity, Holloway tended towards what friends would call a liberal persuasion and critics might label trendy. He was a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and wryly comments on his time sitting on the back of lorries singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone and he acknowledges there was a little too much Kumbaya and He's Got The Whole World In His Hands at some of his services.

He was interested in Pentecostalism and experimented in speaking in tongues. At one stage he and his wife set up a mini-commune with another priest and his wife and a curate. It lasted six months. But underneath all this was a commitment to the exercise of religion as a force for good in the everyday lives of people, often those at the bottom of the social heap.

But while he continued to conduct his religion in a practical manner, the intellectual doubts about the truths of organised Christianity continued to grow, finding a particular focus in the issues of women in the priesthood and the church attitude to homosexuals. This brought him into mounting conflict with the more conservative Anglican elements, a confrontation that became increasingly bitter.

He describes how another bishop spread the rumour that Holloway supported gay liberation because his daughters were lesbians.

"What it did was fortify my sense that there was a profound sickness at the heart of so-called Biblical morality if it could lead to such hatred and cruelty." This discovery seems to have been more of a revelation to him than it might have been to anyone from outside the church.

Eventually his position became such that he resigned from his bishopric and walked away from conventional religion.

This is essentially a personal story, and a movingly honest one, but it also provides a platform for some interesting wider reflections. His time in America taught him that "Americans believe in belonging as passionately as they believe in believing. The shadows on this astonishing democratic energy are the conformism and outbreaks of group-thinking that regularly afflict the nation."

Of Conservative Evangelicals he writes that they did not negotiate. "They asserted what had come to them from above, from Outside, It was written so the matter was closed." The idea that a scriptural text is inviolable is not, of course, unique to Christianity.

Although Holloway's break with the church stemmed from his support for women and gays he still shows occasionally surprising naivety. He writes with some approval from his time in Accra of Africans' carefree attitude to sex. That attitude, if it exists, benefits males. African women have good reason to be less than carefree.

Even stripped of its religious elements this book is fascinating in being a story of someone who has had a long, committed and distinguished career in what turned out to be the wrong business.

It's like reading a Warren Buffet autobiography in which he doubts the merits of capitalism or a Richie McCaw life in which he says he didn't think much of rugby.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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