The Books Interview - Richard Holloway: The Progressive Pilgrim's Gospel; ; Richard Holloway, Turbulent Bishop, Has Left His See but Still Loves to Shock His Flock. He Even Dares to Defend Christianity. Pat Kane Meets Him to Discover the Faith of the Future
Kane, Pat, The Independent (London, England)
I am sitting with the Rev Richard Holloway, formerly Episcopalian Primus and Bishop of Edinburgh, now a Michel Foucault-lookalike public intellectual. We are musing on the theology of the homosexual blow-job. "I remember inviting Rabbi Lionel Blue up to talk to my rather conservative clergy," he says. "He told us the most powerful experience of the sheer gratuitousness of the love of God he'd ever witnessed was in a male sauna in Amsterdam. He watched a young man going down on a raddled old gay man, who just didn't have the ability to pull - and it was an act of pure grace. Now, how can you have that level of promiscuity associated with the grace of God?" The bish leans in with characteristic intensity. "But this was like a biblical insight! It was the kind of thing Jesus would have said!"
It's the Holloway effect, and he deploys it well. He is a sonorously- voiced, mild-mannered elder of his Episcopalian faith, who seems at first like a fully-paid up member of what Hugh McDiarmid used to call "the bread- and-butter faction". Yet when he gets into his stride, Richard Holloway is one of liberal Britain's most persuasive and unrelenting defenders. Watching him balance the tea and cakes with the bath-house ethics, ensconced in his comfy flat in Edinburgh, you can also observe the twinkle in his eye.
Here's the paradox: it's not particularly demanding being a free- thinking radical in the purely secular world. In our bordello of Euro-American excess - Brass Eye and the Hamiltons, the kids from Genoa and that Lady Marmalade video, chemicals a-go-go from school gate to sideplate - how else might we stay sane, other than to be ethically supple and morally flexible? Ask Michael Jackson (either of them). As an intellectual challenge, liberal pluralism is hardly rocket science.
But to try and drag Christianity into the centre of this crazed, postmodern environment, and make it somehow relevant - blood- soaked, power-mad, grudge- laden, hierarchical Christianity, desperately defending its faltering grip... Well, that would be fun for a close-cropped, conceptually-lusty former bishop.
This is the task that Holloway has set himself in his new book, Doubts and Loves: what is left of Christianity (Canongate, pounds 14.99). His last book, Godless Morality - lauded by voices such as Mary Warnock, Fay Weldon and Don Cupitt - almost proves his contrarian tendencies. As an establishment bishop, Holloway wrote that impeccably secular tract, arguing that "it is better to leave God out of the moral debate, and find good human reasons for supporting the system or approach we advocate, without having recourse to divinely clinching arguments". And now he has retired, he's trying to make Jesus meaningful again.
"I go with the American philosopher Richard Rorty, when he says he respects Christ as he respects Marx, both of them social prophets," he argues. "We both think that Christianity is about the end of cruelty: that kind of radical, angry pity that Jesus had for a world which seems to crush most of the people who keep coming into it. To end cruelty! That's almost apocalyptic. I don't mind that definition of Christianity."
The pun in the title - what's "left" of Christianity - is deliberate. And Holloway is only the latest in a line of British bishops - David Jenkins, David Sheppard, Jim Thompson - turned into public intellectuals by the freedoms of office, as they spoke truth to power and cant. "That's what can make priests and preachers into edge figures, even clowns or poets," explains Holloway. "You spend a lot of time thinking, and then you spend a lot of time getting other people to start thinking as well."
In the last few years, particularly in Scotland, Holloway has been a fearless, edge-loving figure. He has admitted to taking a puff on a joint, in the midst of his defence of the decriminalisation of cannabis ("didn't do much for me, but I'm glad I tried it"). …