I’ve taken a couple days off to read a book, not because I can’t read books and blog too, but because this book captivated me, entranced me, even appalled me. It was like a drug, and I had to read it straight through to the end. The book? Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. I read myself on almost every page — not the part about his childhood in the Vale of Leven, or his adolescence with the Society of the Sacred Mission, but the part about his sense of personal failure, the sense of having been a disappointment to God. That rang true. What also rang true was his years of questioning, doubting, wondering, slowly moving away from faith, seeing the church as at once a living icon of Jesus, in its bias towards justice, and yet an insistent failure, locking itself in nostalgia, pomp and ceremony, hanging onto its certainties, and even retreating into them from real engagement with the world, and with the nature of being human. But this is not a review of the book, but a number of reflections to which the book prompted me as I read.
Towards the end of the book he traces the final steps that led him, after much struggling and disappointment, away from the church, away from repeated attempts to overcome what seemed to him a failure to commit himself fully, as he had undertaken to do so many years ago as a boy, to a “given away” life, a life lived for others, a life lived solely for others, and, perhaps, most chiefly, for God. Of course, I must say at once that I never thought that I could have lived such a life, though I often faulted myself for failing, not so much to live up to promises and ideals already taken on with hopefulness and zeal, but even to want such a life. I can remember now how, on Sunday, during the holidays, when I was taken to church where the services were in a language that I only partly understood, I would have to read some “improving” book — usually the life of a missionary, like David Livingstone, or E Stanley Jones, an American Methodist missionary, author of Christ of the Indian Road, or anything that was not secular — and how, then, I used to think that one day I might have heroic faith like theirs. And how, too, over the years, those youthful aspirations were disappointed by an inability to believe with the same rock-like certainty.
My father, who thought that our religious upbringing was being neglected, dreamed up different schemes to introduce devotion into the family routine. On one occasion he bought a box of small flash cards on which were written supposedly “inspiring” verses from the Bible. Before going to bed at night — at least when we weren’t away at school – each family member would have to pick a card and read it aloud. The first one I picked out had John 3.16 written on it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Mesmerised by this verse, because hell was a real place of real suffering, and I thought that I would go there for sure — of that there was little doubt in my mind — I used to read it every night — since the cards were coloured and I could put it where I would always find it — and it was a consolation to think that perhaps — unlikely as it might seem — I could still escape the fiery furnace that awaited boys like me. Of that, at least, I was pretty certain, for it was stressed at school that the way to heaven was not broad and straight, and few there are who find it.
Our characters are formed early, and this was a part of my character from very early years. My mother was vicious and unforgiving, and I had already had a foretaste of what hell might actually be like, a place where nothing you did, no matter how hard you tried, would be acceptable or adequate, and there was certainly nothing that one might be praised for. And it was only through iron discipline — and I never had even a small helping of that — that one could make oneself worthy. Worthy, first of all, of a parent’s love and praise, and then, second, much more importantly, though infinitely less likely — which made it very unlikely indeed — of God’s acceptance and forgiveness. But it was chiefly belief that I couldn’t quite manage, belief, as one of the Hindi bhajan’s (songs) put it, that “Shaitan ko jitne kelieh, Raja Jeshu aya” (“Satan to conquer, King Jesus came”). Which of course was the wrong emphasis, because, if the Christian myth were true, Jesus was no king; but it was only the unreachable, exalted Jesus, already at the right hand of the Father, that I had been told about, higher, much higher even, than my parents, whose acceptance and admiration (or even mild praise) I seemed unable to attract. And even though I had early doubts that this was what Jesus was about, and I used to make up clever sayings about disbelief even then, this didn’t mean that my life was not characterised by a sense of failure, because failing in belief was the worst failure of all.
Which explains, if explanation is needed, why so much of my life was a search for certainty, for a quality of belief that could not be shaken. Years ago, I began studying for ministry in the United Church of Canada, a church which brought together Canadian Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists — which, like most ecumenical movements, created another church alongside already existing churches. But there was no foundation there for the certainty I sought, so I left to take up other studies, although a seed had already been sown, by reading some of J.A. Froude’s work on the Oxford Movement, that would lead me, eventually, to the Anglican Church, which I joined in 1974. It was a short journey from confirmation to ordination to the priesthood, although — something that almost seems like significance in retrospect – the saint’s day on which I was ordained deacon, and the holy day on which I was ordained priest have either been changed to other days, or have been eliminated altogether.
In any event, it was a search for certainty, and, no doubt, assurance, that I became an Anglican and then was made a priest. The Anglicanism that I knew was very much the same kind of Anglican Catholicism that marked Holloway’s path to the priesthood. It was rooted in the Oxford Movement which had attracted me, and held me firmly for a few years, a religion of certainties, but also of guarantees and warrants that to be in that tradition was to be linked, not only spiritually, but physically, to the disciples chosen by Jesus himself. It made use of and sanctified physical things: language, sound, colour, the smell of incense, the plangent voice of the ages chanting holy words, hands touching holy things. But these things were holy because human beings were in themselves holy, and so the beauty of the liturgy worked itself out in terms of justice and concern for worldly things, and special concern for the dignity of the marginalised and the discarded. It was in that spirit that I took this picture of a street person in London, sleeping rough outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The picture was taken in 1990, just at the end of the Thatcher years in Britain, and it expressed, iconically, what the solemn pomp and circumstance of Anglo-catholic piety was all about. It was about justice and caring and reaching out to the marginalised and the despairing. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that I had spent so much of my own life despairing of ever achieving the goodness by which I might be redeemed, and being redeemed, might, like those bright heroes of my childhood, redeem others in their turn. And it all turned on certainty, not the kind of intellectual certainty that deemed things true, but the kind of assurance that deemed oneself worthy, that allowed one to be inconspicuously comfortable with being human. Unease was the governing part of me, an uncertainty about what and why I was and where I was going, that had driven me from those far-off days when I had tried, so pitifully, yet unsuccessfully, to win my mother’s love, my father’s respect. And being, as it seemed to me, marginalised, always on the outside, looking in, like the man sleeping rough, the human litter outside the great cathedral, everything seemed to speak, at once to the misery and uncertainty of the human condition, as well as to my own insecurities and inadequacies — though I was then, newly married, happy, and whole as I had never been whole before. The human litter bespoke a warning:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The Invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Blake’s warning was never far away, ever since I first read it. Joy and love were always only for a time, never certain or secure — that is, should they ever come to me.
But I learned to relax a bit in those coming years, and though the invisible worm did find my bed of Crimson joy, I recognised, as I had not, before, that there could be happiness even with the knowledge that things are all passing, and joy and love are only for now and must be taken on the wing. And it was that — a love and joy unexpected, freely given in bewildering abundance — that led me to see how cruel certainty can be, and how inhuman and destructive theological cruelty could be, because based on an unwillingness to bend and break under the strain that love and care and compassion place upon it. Perhaps I had found the only certainty that is available to us in this life. On our tombstone, Elizabeth’s and mine, are written the words: “Certainty like this comes but once in a lifetime.” It was a certainty that we both felt, a certainty that never diminished from the first day we told each other of our love, until the day in the Zürich apartment where Elizabeth died. It humanised me, as nothing else had ever done. And during the years we spent together — never dreaming, of course, that they would be so few — it was theological cruelty that I wanted to do my utmost to expel from my life, as well as from the church. As an Anglo-catholic I had opposed women’s ordination, I had been opposed to the recognition of gay rights, I was a fountainhead of theological cruelty and unbending certainty (although, even then, never sure).
Love changed all that, and it changed it all at once and forever. The rigid moral certainty that I was known for suddenly collapsed. It collapsed so completely that at one theological conference where I spoke, one of my colleagues got up and, very earnestly, said:
If that’s what you believe brother, then we are all praying for you.
And heads nodded around the room. For I had broken the sacred trust, based on an idea of the church as a sacred trust, something passed on, physically, to the disciples by Jesus, and then passed on faithfully, generation by generation, to the present generation, whose faithfulness alone could pass it on unimpaired to the future. But it was cruel. That is what I saw so clearly now that I had experienced a love so deep, so unqualified, so rich in joy and intimacy, that I could no longer put anything above the wonder that had spoken to me in that love. If there was to be faith, it had to be changeable, adaptable, with room, not only for compassion, or forgiveness, but for generosity of spirit — and such faith could only be a doubting faith, a faith of uncertainties. And, of course, interestingly enough, there is a thread of such faith running through the Bible. Of course, it meant facing the fact that the Bible was just a story told by human beings, uninspired and often uninspiring. I found it harder and harder to speak, without criticism, of what I read there, until I worried that there was nothing positive I could say about it, and that my faith was just a sham. And yet, read in the right spirit, the Bible seemed to encourage doubt. Jesus himself seemed to struggle with his own sense of mission and purpose, and wondered whether he was really the one who was to come; and so of course I could too.
And struggle I did. Interestingly, Richard Holloway accompanied me in my struggles, because he was struggling too in much the same way, and his books seemed to express the same uncertainty, the same doubts about the church and its purpose. It happened mainly in the nineties. Gradually, the high church Anglo-catholics and the low church Evangelicals began to make common purpose in all their negations and inflexibilities. At one point Holloway seemed to have been caught up in some of this shifting of allegiances, by experimenting with Pentecostal enthusiasms, like “speaking in tongues.” He even at one point thought that he might be, under the influence of the Spirit, speaking an actual language that he did not speak. He thought perhaps it was Chinese, and seeing a Chinese woman in an Edinburgh street, tried it out on her, and she promptly fled in panic! As Dan Barker says, speaking in tongues is something you can slip into and out of at will — if you can do it — and apparently Holloway could do this. But this was all too “religious” for me at this stage — at any stage of my life — for I was a naturalist at heart, and never could believe in occult things, and never believed, after those early years of being made to fear the fire of hell, in a life that would follow this one. And I knew, instinctively, that life had to be lived now, or not at all.
But it was the theological cruelty that drove me from the church, and Rowan Williams’ theological cruelty in particular, as I have said before. Holloway says, of some of his experiences with the reaction to his books, that he had begun “to suspect that there was more forgiveness outside the Church than in.” (334) Walking the tightrope as I was, trying not to fall into the arena with the lions, I too feared that it would not be hard for me to step over the precipice into the unforgiving hatred of those whose security came from the certainty that I had once sought so earnestly for myself. Holloway does not begrudge them their certainty, but I do. He thinks that the goodness of a few Christians makes up for the cruelty of many, but I don’t think it does. I think this shows that the deeper purpose of the church may always have been to work for the relief of suffering and the righting of injustices, but I don’t think that this was ever uppermost in its mission, which was to grow larger and more powerful so that it could dominate and spell out for others how life was to be lived. That seems to me still to be its mission, although that is not to despise the joy that I knew in those last years as I worked amongst people I had learned to love and care for deeply — and still do, even though our paths have parted meanwhile. In the end, though, it seems to me that religion’s main purpose — no matter what the religion — is to seek power and to dominate others. That does not characterise many, perhaps, even, most believers, but it does characterise the institutions in which they live out their lives of faith. And it is the attendant cruelty of that quest for power and dominance that needs to be opposed, if necessary, as Holloway says, to the death. There we are in complete agreement, though I think he still gives religion too much credit for goodness, a goodness that the institution of the church may have enabled, but a goodness that belonged to the few who achieved works of selfless and heroic goodness in lives given away for others. The church itself has never been able to manage that. It has far too many treasures on earth for that ever to happen.
Another time, however, I will discuss the book itself, and not just tell you of the reflections it prompted, but the latter must do for now. It’s a book that bears rereading, because it is a sensitive telling of the quest for faith by an intelligent, thoughtful, caring person, who found that religion, in the end, failed really to understand that we are but dust, even though claiming that that is what we are and how we are made. The rest, though, is theological cruelty and nostalgia for a past that never really existed, because it lacked — and still lacks — an appreciation for what is truly human.