Leaving Alexandria – Richard Holloway’s exploration of faith and doubt

I’m reading Leaving Alexandria at the moment, Bishop Richard Holloway’s memoir of faith and doubt. Richard describes the dilemma those of us of certain years experience in the Church of 2012. I have lived more easily into my doubts on the one hand and my deepening conviction that God cares nothing for legalism and correct belief and everything for infinitely generous love.

The tragedy of our times is that while the Church is held hostage by the legalists, in the west the majority abandon false conviction and empty religious practice for beliefs they intuit but which certainly don’t connect with what they encounter in ‘orthodox, traditional’ Christianity.

Today’s fundamentalism is dangerous, not just to the well-being of LGB&T people in society but to the whole enterprise of faith in a benign, creative life force which infuses all of creation with the potential for love and goodness.

Richard Holloway quotes Adam Phillips: “”Supreme conviction is a self-cure for infestation of doubts.”

Richard writes:

“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 rights to them.

“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.”

In the previous chapter, ‘Broadway’, Richard, patron of Changing Attitude, writes about the first gay marriage he performed at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh.

“It was obvious that I could not refuse the sincere request of Peter and Richard to hear them promise to live together till death. I heard their vows in the Lady Chapel one evening after Evensong, using the form of the Prayer Book wedding service: and it took death to separate them, thirty-seven years later. What I did not reflect on at the time was that this untroubled capacity for ignoring rules that struck me as inhumane or silly defined me as an anarchist.

Anarchic, in the sense in which I am using the word, means that one treats rules and regulations as having only a relative or provisional status, not as being immutable.”

“We need institutions, but they are always instrumental goods, goods for something else. That something else is human flourishing, which is an intrinsic good, good in itself. Religions are a famous battleground in this debate, because they imagine their rules and regulations are not just another variant of human arbitrariness, but have immutable transcendental authority behind them, a delusion Jesus challenged.

“All systems have victims who will sooner or later challenge the institutions that discriminate against them.”

One person challenging discrimination with great courage is Frank Mugisha, the Director of SMUG in Uganda. On Facebook today, Frank posted an email he received from an ardent representative not of Jesus Christ but a member of the institution about which Richard Holloway writes with such wisdom. Frank’s messenger Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27 before adding:

“The blood is against you, lest you repent!! Woe unto you for turning a nation against itself, for my wrath will visit you to the third and fourth generations saith the Lord!! I will spread the word to all my native Uganda friends and family members along with my American family and friends to stand against you and the homosexual community in prayer and petition!! You cannot WIN this battle against GOD and HIS followers!! satan is a LIAR!!!! I pray in JESUS name that GOD will put HIS servant in office to keep every vile thing from entering and influencing the people in a negative and evil way!! I pray that the HOLY SPIRIT will visit you and make you uncomfortable in all your ways until you turn away and proclaim Jesus as KING!!!”

The god with a very small ‘g’ used by this person to attack Frank is at the extreme end of the spectrum of the institutional god familiar in the UK as well, a god who is far more interested in rules and regulations, orthodoxy and tradition, canons and House of Bishops’ pronouncements, all dependent on ‘the immutable transcendental authority behind them, a delusion Jesus challenged’ in Richard Holloway’s words.

I know I’m far from being alone in finding the biblical literalism and fundamentalism of the C21st Church intolerable. It’s an extraordinary development, forty years on, that the Church has regressed to a juvenile state, and tragic that this continues through ++Rowan’s Archiepiscopate.

The bishops, senior clergy, position holders at Church House, have become gatekeepers of a Church lacking spiritual and human imagination and courage. I am constantly told by bishops and others that they have to act collegially can’t speak truthfully, must maintain unity, dare not risk the possibility of preferment; and above all, dare not come out to the Church. The result is stasis, dishonesty, empty spirituality, lack of imagination and creativity, not to mention lack of prophetic vision and courage.


  1. sjh says

    Leaving Alexandria I found a wonderful and very moving book, full of humanity, honesty and faith, real faith. I entirely agree that what the church offers is a diminished vision of human life. I read with interest the appreciative article about Kevin Holdsworth in the Scottish Herald, where the journalist wrote this:

    “The Olympians reminded us that there is more to life than materialism in an uplifting way. They led by example. They showed us the joy of using our bodies to greatest effect.

    Is there a parallel for the churches? Could they show us how to raise our game by focusing on the goodness in human nature for a change? Could they give us a positive steer to developing our spirituality? After all, the core message of Christianity is one of love and forbearance. It is positive and inclusive. It is attractive.”

    I thought, too, as I watched the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics last night and watched the awe-inspiring scientific narrative displayed there and heard the words of Shakespeare, “How beauteous is mankind” just how impoverished the church’s vision is, and how it simply has nothing awe-inspiring to say. It is obsessed with church, and sees life as a series of sins to be avoided, instead of a life filled with grace where we are set free for adventure and risk.

    Thank you Colin for your vision which you so often express so clearly and positively.

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