The mixed-up former Bishop of Edinburgh is showing off again, says Geoffrey Kirk
Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity by Richard Holloway, Canongate £16.99
The key to this book is in its title — or rather in the punctuation of its sub-title: "What is Left of Christianity". Where, you will ask, is the question mark? Is there no "doubt" left, among Bishop Holloway's "loves", about the future of the religion which he once espoused? This is a beguiling book, full of lively images and perspicuous insights. But it is also a strangely narrow book, full of angular certainties and the hermeneutic of suspicion.
Dick Holloway — who, after all, should know — is deeply suspicious of religious professionals. He sees them as monopolists, who are sensitive about the invasion of their marketplace. And somehow he cannot bring himself to afford them a measure of his own sincerity.
He has genuine doubts as to whether our Christian and Jewish forebears ever took "literally" much of the imagery he seeks to demythologise; but he cannot, in the end, escape caricature. He is in there, knocking the spots off miracles and the three-decker universe, with the best of them. He clearly wants to be Don Cupitt, but he ends up being Jack Spong every time.
It is not, I think, an exaggeration to say that at the heart of this book lies Bishop Holloway's experiences at the Lambeth Conference of 1998. It is a matter of record that those events changed the pattern of his life. He was expecting to retire from his bishopric and take up a political role in the newly formed Scottish Parliament. He decided instead to devote his time to fighting the evils which were apparent to him in that gathering. This book is in many ways a working-out of the tensions and anxieties which he and other liberal Christians felt then.
Lambeth Conferences traditionally rubberstamp contentious changes to order or doctrine which have already been made unilaterally by one or other of the white Anglo-Saxon provinces. Lambeth 1998 was different. A coalition of black and white traditionalists fielded an overwhelming majority in favour of the Church's traditional teaching about homosexuality. It came as a shock to some that so many Anglicans still believed what the Church has always taught.
This is a book to tell those people why they shouldn't believe it, and why no cultured person with a knowledge of Western literature, both ancient and modern, (this is a book full of modish quotations) could possibly entertain such beliefs. It is the work of a man whose world is Jorge Luis Borges, Emily Dickinson and W B Yeats. It will not persuade those whose uncultured faith so angered and depressed Holloway at Lambeth, and it has not persuaded me.
Its failure is partly because the book cannot decide whether to be intellectual history, literary criticism or ecclesiastical polemic. Holloway is not bad on the intellectual history of the post-enlightenment world which is his oyster (but nowhere near so good or entertaining as A N Wilson, whose God's Funeral is what you should read instead of this). He is good and sometimes inspired on the lit crit side (better, interestingly, on modem poetry than the Bible); and depressingly scratchy when it comes to ecclesiastical polemic.
This is a book which would be read by no one if it were not written by a bishop; and a much better book if it had not been written by a mixed-up nearlyex-bishop.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen's', Lewisham