Allan Little speaks to former bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway in this 2013 interview. Having resigned from the church, did his loss of faith betray those he once preached to?
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That's all from me now.
Stay with BBC World News.
Now as part of HARDTALK's 20th Anniversary season,
another chance to see an interview first broadcast in 2013.
Welcome to HARDtalk.
My guest today is the former Bishop of Edinburgh,
He entered a seminary at the age of 14, intent
He rose to become the leader of the Anglican Church in Scotland.
But he gradually lost faith in many of the certainties
Including the existence of God.
He finally resigned from the church, accusing it of persecuting gay
Did his own loss of faith betray those he once preached to?
Richard Holloway, welcome to HARDtalk.
At the age of 14, you left your working-class home in the west
of Scotland and went off to a very austere place in England.
It was to train as an Anglican priest.
Train as a monk.
What was that like?
It was lovely.
I was a romantic wee boy who wandered the hills
where I grew up.
The hills give you a sense of beyondness, of otherness,
but that was also related to me and the kind of love for Western
movies, this idea of the lonely hero.
Riding on and rescuing.
I got kind of bitten by that.
I was discovered by the local priest.
He invited me to join the choir.
The beauty of it somehow consumed me.
He talked about the given away life, this mystical thing called
a vocation that some people had, to give themselves
to a greater purpose.
I went to him when I was 13 and said tentatively,
maybe I was hearing this call to give myself away for this great
purpose called the priesthood, and giving away life, to life.
The lonely hero.
He said, we will send you to this.
Because I was due to leave school at 14.
There is a monastery in England which trains poor boys
for the Anglican priesthood.
It was a wonderful place.
A kindly, eccentric, mad place.
These lovely old monks.
They were not trained teachers.
But it deeply embedded itself in my psyche.
But it was a strange disruption.
You say in your book, Leaving Alexandria,
which is the name of the town you grew up in, that
you were looking for something called transcendence.
What do you mean by that?
I think we are all very strange creatures.
We are not embedded in nature, the way my wee dog is,
or kangaroos in the outback.
We are conscious of ourselves, aware of being strange creatures
in a universe that does not explain itself, does not offer an immediate
manual for reading.
I think the human animal therefore hungers for meaning,
in an apparent meaningless world.
We are very divided, and religion has traditionally been
one of the ways in which the question has been answered.
Yes, there is a meaning and a purpose and you can give
yourself to it.
I'm no longer as comfortable with religious certainties,
but I am still addicted to the search, the strange human
passion of finding meaning and beauty and joy,
and that is the transcendence.
This experience cut you off from your family, didn't it?
It did in a kind of emergent sense.
It never cut me off from their love.
But what I had was the past.
It started me on the long journey to education,
for self reflection, to thinking about things,
and I came from a culture where hard work was embedded.
It didn't, in a sense, educationally evolve.
Increasingly, I did feel a bit of a stranger,
but a loving stranger.
You tell a tale in your book about writing a letter
to your father, trying to win him back for God and for Jesus.
I know, it was horrible.
Every year on Good Friday we fasted all day.
We had a devotion of three hours which were exactly to correspond
to the three hours that Jesus spent on the cross.
They were always very intense emotionally.
It was a visiting monk who preached to us.
I was fired up by the desire to spread the word of Jesus and God.
Between the end of the three hours and when we had our tea,
I wrote my father a letter, calling him back to God.
Writing the book, I realised that, as I was writing that,
I had been three hours in intense devotion,
he was probably facing the next three hours of his shift
in a terrible factory.
So I set the pious appeal to him.
He had the grace never to reflect it but I'm still ashamed.
You found the letter much later, didn't you?
In my mother's drawer.
Religion gave you permission to perform these discourtesies.
And, yeah, I'm deeply ashamed.
You say that it started to change when you hit puberty.
Yeah, because sex hit me.
I'd gone there as a wee, prepubescent boy.
I caught this monastic, romantic vocation.
I wanted to give myself away.
And part of that was celibacy.
During an Easter vacation, I used to work at a farm,
and I cuddled a land girl.
I had my first sexual experience.
I didn't know what it was.
Just this thing surged through me.
The same thing happened that night.
I knew it was sinful.
Christianity has this problem with sex in the beginning.
Not in a sensible way, saying this is a big thing that can
ruin lives, get it right, be careful about it.
The kind of Christianity I inherited saw it as intrinsically bad,
and the godly people did not do it, they were virgins,
they were celibate.
I was pulled in this terrible tension.
That was a secret I took back with me at age 16.
Looking at all these holy people, assuming they did not
have sexual thoughts.
None of it was hitting them, it was only hitting me.
When did you abandon celibacy?
You are married, you have three daughters.
When I got married.
Even that was a struggle.
I still felt a strange pull that marriage was second best.
It was a concession.
The prayer book, Wedding Rite, it says that.
It says marriage is a gift created by God as a gift for those who don't
have the gift of...
It was a methadone maintenance programme for those who could not
give up the sex life.
It always denigrated it.
There was the sense that you had licence to perform it but God
would rather you do not ask for it.
Was the question of sexuality the first step of you and the Church
The real kicker for me...
I fought my way and wrestled my way through this stuff intellectually,
but emotionally, probably for me, the real kicker came quite late
in my career.
It was the Church's continued hatred of gay people.
Although many of them were...
Most of my early mentors as priests were gay men with a divided nature,
giving themselves to God and the Church.
The Church would say it does not hate gay people,
they simply do not approve of gay sex.
It's a distinction without a difference.
If your very urges are condemned as unlawful and displeasing to God,
and I have known many wonderful gay priests who lived this kind
of divided life, I asked one of them, I said,
why are you sticking with this?
He says, because of Jesus.
He had a sense that Jesus would have understood,
because Jesus was surrounded by these discarded outsiders.
That is the bit of Christianity that still appeals for me.
In this man, they've got absolute acceptance of themselves
in their own sense of rottenness.
But Christianity became respectable.
But the people around Jesus never were.
For me, the people who carried that virus were the gay people.
They felt themselves to be outsiders.
It was when the Church, which had a don't ask,
don't tell policy for a long time, actively started persecuting gay
people in the '90s, that is when I saw that certain ways
of holding faith were cruel, and I think has to be challenged
whenever it appears.
That was the thing that really started me on a journey that
took me away.
You said even when you were in training, there was an all-male
environment, your first real crush was on a fellow novice.
What was that relationship like?
It was unnerving in many ways.
I was quite a happy student.
I worked hard.
And then I fell in love with a fellow novice.
It plunged me into regret.
Because I didn't want to be with anyone but him.
I didn't fantasise sexually about him but emotionally I wanted
to be near him all the time.
I did not know what he thought of me.
I thought he was kind of fond of me.
I met him 30 years later during my retreat to be a bishop,
we had a holiday at Cornwall together, we had to sleep
in a double bed in a farmhouse in Cornwall.
I was intrigued by the fact that I was in bed when he came back
after having brushed his teeth, and he said, I will sleep
on the topside of the sheet, to separate us.
I wondered about that.
He must have had an inkling.
When I went to make my retreat at this nunnery, in 1986,
they said to me, he has come back from Africa,
he is leaving the order.
But he is our chaplain at the moment.
It was this guy.
I made my confession to him.
And then leaving the last day, I referred to that journey,
because I remember roses blossoming on the roadside.
He said, we were in love, and I said yes.
I said, can I do anything for you?
He said, buy me a wee transistor radio.
And I did.
You have been a champion of gay people, the right of gay people
to join the priesthood.
Why does that matter to you so much?
Partly because, to me, it's a straightforward justice issue.
The most important Christian doctrine is about reincarnation,
-- The most important Christian doctrine is about the incarnation,
which is presupposed of God's love of the world and nature
and all its complexity and plurality, and being gay
is part of that.
Even though I'm not sure about God now, I'm sure that cruelty
to individuals who cannot help their colour, their sexuality,
their gender, is the thing that we most passionately must oppose.
In politics and in religion.
When I saw the Church be increasingly cruel to them,
it was about 1988...
It peaked at a conference then.
You are now the most senior Anglican clergyman in Scotland,
and you went to these...
These conferences happen once a decade.
You saw what you described as the cruelty among
your fellow clergymen.
What did you mean?
There was a debate about human sexuality, essentially about gay
sexuality, and whether practising gay people could be...
They have been in their thousands for centuries.
The African bishops, who are particularly homophobic,
hijacked the debate, and they wanted the Lambeth
conference to condemn gay sexuality in a famous proposal called 101.
It was like being at a Nuremberg rally.
It wasn't a considered debate - the Bible says we can't support
this, I want to be compassionate...
No, it was ugly, it was cruel.
They were saying the kind of things that the most horrible bigots say,
and I came out a bit drained.
Something died in me.
Outside, on a wee grassy knoll, a Nigerian bishop was exorcising
a young gay man.
Trying to cast out the devil of homosexuality.
A devil did come out but it was the devil of homophobia,
and it has bedevilled the Anglican Church ever since.
We are still wrestling with it.
Anyone under 35 just does not get it, but we are still rabbiting
on about it.
It kills me.
Is it true that you threw your bishop's mitre in the Thames?
An artist made me a biodegradable one.
But I chucked it in.
And you stayed in the church for two more years.
What it's like to stand by the altar, in the pulpit,
preaching to people who believe in the resurrection,
who believed in the divinity of Christ, when you,
yourself, have long since given all that up?
Well, that was a slow evolutionary process.
It was more the ethical thing that did me in.
You can deal with...
Doctrinal stuff is metaphoric, it's poetic.
Not to every priest.
Not to every believer.
Not to everybody, yes, but to a lot of people.
But the resurrection, surely, the literal truth
of the resurrection is non-negotiable for most
I suppose it is.
But I think that it's always been interpreted in a number
of different ways.
It seems to me that the resurrection is about more than a resuscitated
body walking out of a tomb.
What's the significance of that?
The resurrection that made the woman go to the front of the bus instead
of staying in the back of the bus, that made Martin Luther King
challenge racism, that's real resurrection stuff.
I'm not interested in the biology of bodies walking out of tombs.
I'm interested in the resurrection narrative that changes history.
That, I've always believed in.
A lot of people literalise these great myths.
Religion is a story.
It's not factual, scientific knowledge.
It's a fundamental category error to misunderstand that.
The trouble is, we falsely scientised it.
I think scared theologians have falsely scientised it.
If it helps you get through life believing those physical...
I wouldn't try to knock that for you.
But just don't force me to say that they're factual,
when I treat them as metaphorical, and poetical.
And that makes them even more powerful.
Can you understand why a lot of people in the Anglican Communion,
a lot of Christians whom you lead, feel betrayed by the way
in which you've changed your thinking about religion?
And I hate hurting people. I did hurt a lot of people.
I said that in my final sermon.
I said I'd become, in my 60s, the kind of Bishop I hated
in my 30s.
I had to be kind of true to that. It was a slow, emergent process.
Yeah, I get that.
I get the complexity of all of this.
I hurt lots of people, to whom I was a precious
source of support.
That's why I had to go away and take a sabbatical from religion.
That's the trouble with religion, it got stuck 2000, 3000 years ago.
It got stuck with women, it got stuck with gays,
it got stuck with ways of understanding the astronomy
of the universe.
You can keep the best of religion and still intellectually go on.
And that, I think, is all I was arguing for.
I wasn't saying that you mustn't believe in a physical resurrection
or a six-day creation.
If it helps you through life, do it, as long as it doesn't make you cruel
and persecutory, that's not the way I understand these things.
I'm sure I know how much I hurt people.
They wrote and told me.
I've got a big mailbag.
There was a kind of helplessness about it.
In many ways, I was a divided soul.
It's a classic Scottish thing to be, it's what McDermott called
the antisyzygy, that you can incorporate two contending realities
in your own soul.
I think that's not a bad way to live, because truth
is really simple.
Should the church be forced by law to marry gay people,
even when it doesn't want to?
No, I wouldn't do that.
I'm enough of a liberal...
I don't like the way the French do this.
I like a secular society.
If people want to cover themselves in a head to foot cassock cloak,
I don't want to interfere with that.
I quite like the accommodation we've reached in Britain,
we're pretty much a secular society, but history's untidy.
There are elements of the old religious domination.
I think religion should be free to practice their beliefs
and rituals in the sanctuary.
What I don't like is when I try to bully people in the secular square.
"Because we forbid this in the sanctuary, we are not
going to let you get away with it in the public square",
we must oppose that.
I wouldn't want to interfere.
And they get opt outs.
They discriminate against women, they discriminate against gays.
I let them be their eccentric, bigoted selves in the sanctuary.
But I stand defiantly against them if they tried to emancipate
these imprisoned people.
Successive Archbishops of Canterbury have always prioritised preserving
the unity of the worldwide Anglican communion.
And admitting gay priests would have shattered that community.
Weren't they right to hold onto that until the church is ready to take
that step together?
There is an argument for that, clearly.
It's this duality thing again.
If your primary value is institutional unity,
if you prize unity above, say, justice, you'll do that.
And honourable men, and it's all men, have done that.
I can respect that.
But if that's all you have, if you just have institutional
unity, if you don't have awkward, maverick people saying you shouldn't
be doing that, you shouldn't be penalising gay people and women,
that's called the prophetic tradition in Christianity.
The three classic roles in Hebrew religion, prophets,
priest and king.
Kings rule, priests justify the rule with Godly anointing,
and it's always the prophets, the awkward squad, who come along
and say, that's wrong.
If you purge the prophetic element from the church,
you purge its cleansing element.
Now, it's probably not a good idea to make prophets archbishops or even
bishops, so probably I was a mis-description.
I ended up feeling I had to prophetically challenge these
But in my understanding of the ecology of institutions,
I know that it takes a while.
But it's always the awkward sods, the minority that bring change,
because the big, powerful institutions never volunteer
to empty themselves of power.
Male patriarchy in Britain didn't volunteer to give women the vote.
Women died to get the vote.
They chained themselves to railings, and that's what brings change.
OK, I can understand that, but morally, I'm sorry,
I still think that justice trumps institutional unity.
And you haven't walked away from the church altogether.
You still sometimes attend your old church,
Old Saint Paul's in Edinburgh.
It's a pretty forgiving church that welcomes
you back, isn't it?
Well, I think, on the whole, the Anglican Church has been
a forgiving church.
It's been a messy, muddled church.
It got hardened in the 90s when it was drifting
and they thought the only way for churches to survive
was to become very conservative, evangelical and give people
the perfect package, answer every question.
Whereas, on the whole, the Anglican Church tended
to question every answer.
It's still a spacious, imaginative church.
Yeah, I'm in church most Sundays, at Old Saint Paul's.
I love that building.
It traps the mystery of this hunger for transcendence for me.
It's uncomfortable, I don't do God comfortably.
A lot of people talk too comfortably about what,
to me, is an unspeakable mystery.
But I'd rather be in than out.
Do you still think of yourself as a Christian?
I think of myself as an agnostic Christian.
But I'm not interested in the labels.
Jesus is still very important to me.
I never lost Jesus.
Jesus was a challenger.
He didn't prioritise institutional unity over justice and truth.
On the whole, people that prioritise institutional integrity over justice
and truth don't get crucified.
I'm interested that you still go back to Kelham Hall,
where it all started for you.
Is there part of you that imagines the monastic life
you might have led?
It's hard to talk about it without tearing up, and I get weepy.
But I go back to the graveyard, that's all that's left of the order,
because they moved out in 1973.
A bit of me still hankers after the absolutely tightly packed
given away life, without questioning this other self.
But what McDermott calls the Caledonian antisyzygy is in me.
I'm there, part of that, but I'm also part of someone
who leaves places and moves on, and is never comfortable anywhere.
And abandons old certainties.
That's been the story of your life, hasn't it?
Yes, and that's painful.
Certainties can be comforting, they're a nice woolly coat
against the icy brass.
Yeah, I'm now very suspicious of certainty.
Political certainty and theological certainty.
I think that there is a cleansing humility about doubt.
It helps us muddle our way through some of the jails
we imprison ourselves in.
Yeah, I suppose I now preach a gospel of uncertainty.
What about one of the great certainties of the Christian faith,
the idea of life after death, a life for all eternity?
I don't have that.
I'm probably more certain about not having it.
I can't say for certain.
Obviously this universe is an extraordinary thing.
In some sense, they're my grandchildren over there,
my DNA will go on in them and in their grandchildren.
But I don't expect when I die to wake up, meet Audrey Hepburn
guiding me in to the afterlife.
And all the prospectuses I've read of it don't attract me.
But who knows?
I might be surprised. Not unpleasantly, I hope.
Richard Holloway, thank you for speaking to HARDTalk.
Been a pleasure, Alan.
The weekend's weather brought us plenty of warm sunshine.
There was a bit of rain across northern and western parts
of the country.
Allan Little speaks to former bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway in this 2013 interview. He entered a seminary at the age of 14, intent on becoming a monk, and rose to be the leader of the Anglican Church in Scotland. But he gradually lost faith in many of the certainties of Christianity, including the existence of God. He finally resigned from the church, accusing it of cruelly persecuting gay people. So did his own loss of faith betray those he once preached to?