The agnostic bishop


First aired on The Sunday Edition (12/05/12)

When Richard Holloway was a young man, he fell in love with the Anglican Church. The Scottish-born self-described "romantic" was fascinated by the ritual and theatre of religion, the lights, the incense, and the search for truth and meaning. "I suppose maybe it was the possibility of God," Holloway told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright during a recent interview. "I think romantics are people who are searching for some great other that will fulfill them ... I thought that if I could somehow scrape my way through [the church], I'd get to the other side. I still feel a bit like that about life. We're enveloped in mystery. If we could just dig a little bit more we could find what we're looking for."

An articulate and bright scholar, Holloway rose through the holy ranks quickly, studying theology in England, Scotland and the United States, before serving as vicar and rector at several parishes. In the mid-1980s, he became the Bishop of Edinburgh.

But throughout his time with the church, Holloway couldn't shake this "nagging doubt" that he was only playing a role.

"I had this wee man on my shoulder watching me doing it. There was always this part of me that wanted to give myself entirely away to this great thing."

Only he couldn't. He continued to have doubts about the existence of God. He increasingly questioned the positions of the church, especially when it came to human rights. After grappling with his faith for years, Holloway decided to resign in 2000. It was by no means an easy choice. He has carried on as an outspoken and progressive social activist and chronicled his complicated spiritual and intellectual journey in his new memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.

"Looking back, I see now that I didn't have the institutional loyalty gene ever, and it probably was a mistake to become a bishop because you're supposed to be defending the institution. And I tend to rate the rights of individuals above institutions. I think institutions can be bludgeoning, and I see that same thing in Jesus. Jesus said the Sabbath was made for man, not man made for the Sabbath, and by that he meant institutions are there for human flourishing. If they start suppressing that, subvert them."

One of the biggest conflicts Holloway couldn't reconcile with his religion was where many Catholic leaders stood on homosexuality. Holloway married his first same sex couple in 1972 because it just seemed "unkind" and "unmerciful" not to.

"[They were] a couple of young men, and they stayed together until death," he remembers.
But he grew tired of incidents at bishop conferences in which the dialogue would be "hijacked" by Biblical literalists who likened gay people to animals.

Holloway also mentioned one particularly memorable confrontation he had with the archbishop of southeast Asia.

leaving-alexandria-125.jpg"He and I were at an archbishop's meeting in Windsor, and we were in the male urinal there. He suddenly turned to me and said, 'You are filling Hell with homosexuals because you are giving them permission to commit sodomy and no sodomite can enter the Kingdom of Heaven.' I nearly decked him I was so angry. But I just left him pissing his wormwood and gall into Queen's urinal there."

Holloway went on to add that "this man believed in the literal Hell, and believed that if a homosexual man had a homosexual relationship he would end up burning in hell forever and ever ... How grim is that? That was the kind of mentality we were up against."

Holloway may never be sure if there is indeed a God and whether his true words are captured in the Bible. But it's clear he became uneasy with the certainty that religion tends to promote, and how that certainty can lead to abuse and alienation, things he stands against.

"Since we can't really have ultimate certainty, and we're insecure with uncertainty, we kind of puff ourselves up to a kind of phony certainty, and because we know it's phony, we beat up on others."