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Relentlessly honest look at religious faith, doubt

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THIS fascinating spiritual autobiography by the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh is a useful and timely addition to the many works about faith and doubt inspired of late by the works of "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Richard Holloway takes a different tack than these writers and their Christian debating partners in examining the big questions such as the existence of God or the truth of religion.

He does not make arguments based in religion or physics or some other orthodoxy, so much as examine the questions in the human context of a relentlessly honest memoir of his spiritual life, of his faith and doubt.

Holloway was born in 1933 into a poor working-class family in Alexandria, an industrial town north of Glasgow. His parents were not religious, but Richard began going to the local parish church where the parish priest initiated him "into a drama than chimed with the themes I had picked up in the movies and with the longings I had felt in my long tramps in the hills."

He eventually went to the College of the Sacred Mission in Kelham, Nottinghamshire, an Anglican school for boys from poor districts that were educated for free with the hope that they would become priests.

Holloway's description of his time as a priest gives us an interesting overview of the forces such as the charismatic movement and pressure for the equality of women and gay Christians that have shaped Anglicanism in the years since the 1950s.

His first post was living and working in the ancient overcrowded tenements of Glasgow doing "what was needed" for the poor. He was, as usual, quite critical of himself in comparison to one of his colleagues, who was "intuitively good" while Holloway knew "I was a phoney, a priest actor trying out a different part."

Later as a parish priest in Edinburgh and Boston, he often felt he lacked the "supreme conviction" many of his parishioners expected him to have. On a number of occasions he refers to the figure of the "doubting priest" who pretends to believe for the sake of his charges and we suspect that at times he did this.

Nevertheless he was eventually chosen to be Bishop of Edinburgh, a measure of the high esteem in which he was held.

But his doubts and critical view of some of the actions of the Church finally came to a head at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Bishops from all over the world where a debate about homosexual clergy and the blessing of gay marriage "turned into something really terrible; there was a horrible debate on the subject and something kind of faded inside me."

For Holloway, resistance to equality for gays and women in the church, based on references to Scripture, was an example of the way in which the Church sometimes tends to "follow the rules" rather than let itself be moved by love.

Throughout his memoir he refers back to the parables of Jesus like the story of the prodigal son and the Good Samaritan, which come down on the side of love. By 2001 he had left the Church.

Although Holloway continues to have influence through his writing -- Leaving Alexandria is his 28th book and he has recently broadcast a series of essays on religious doubt on BBC's Radio 4 -- one cannot help feeling the Anglican Church lost a leader of great value who would have contributed a great deal to the controversies that face it.

A lapsed Anglican himself, Jim Blanchard is a librarian at the University of Manitoba and a local historian.

Leaving Alexandria

A Memoir of Faith and Doubt

By Richard Holloway

Cannongate, 358 pages, $32

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 J8

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