The member who suggested the book explained the reasons for his choice:
The author was the curate of his local church, St. Ninians, and a friend of his mother; he knew people named in the book.
Aspects of the last 120 pages were very pertinent as a gay man and as an atheist. It contained a humanity and stimulus that was incredibly moving. Particular emphasis was drawn to the passage:
“Churches do not speak; they listen. Clergy speak, unstoppably. They are ‘randy’ to change, challenge or shame people into successful living. Church buildings that stay open to all know better. They understand helplessness and the weariness of failure, and have for centuries absorbed them into the mercy of their silence. This is grace. Unearned unreserved unconditional acceptance of unchanging failure, our last failure, our dying. The unclosed church is the home of the destitute and the dead. And since we go on failing and dying, some of us will go on gravitating to these places that do not shut themselves against our need.”
Several members found the following, equally stark passage, noteworthy and intended to reference it during the meeting:
“It’s hard when you discover that the person you are is not someone you admire; not the person you want to be; not cut out to be a saint.”
But the author uses another quote, perhaps in reference to the etymology of the name ‘Adam’, as a perfect foil to that disappointment: “you can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark”.
The ‘character’ portrayed in the book polarised members, with one stating that “he really disliked him and found him superficial”, another claiming that “he liked him, but then went off him”. Whilst one member found him to be interesting, wise, thoughtful and compassionate and another had a “deep respect for him”, others found him duplicitous and untrustworthy.
This led to significant discussion about the author’s motives for his career trajectory; as a man possessed of significant doubts about his faith for most of his life. Following on from the author’s false claim of being a social worker, a member suggested the author was just a social worker in priest’s clothing. It was questioned whether the author just utilised the framework of Christianity to fulfil his humanist agenda, whether storytelling is the same as faith and whether the author was perpetuating a myth for the sake of a career. His choosing to take the position of Bishop was even considered hypocritical by some. However others suggested he drifted from one job role to another, from one fashionable doctrine to another and that he was more into the “smells and bells” of the religion than the one true word.
Whilst Holloway’s unswerving dedication to his ecclesiastical flock is evident throughout the book, questions were asked about his dedication to his familial flock and the effect the author’s humanist, communal slant on Christianity had on his wife and children. Whilst the absence of his father in his early life was referenced towards the beginning of the book, it was suggested the author’s focus on his parishioners illustrated a similar absence for his children. The notion of presence and absence is a common theme in the book.
One aspect more than one member highlighted was the author’s experience of the natural landscape around him and how the author found unity in his immediate landscape. The relationship he had with the churches, the physical buildings, in which he ministered, is also well documented; whilst he has a love the interior of Old St. Paul’s in Edinburgh, he cares little for the exterior. It is the quite the opposite with The Church of the Advent in Boston.
Although the story is presented as a chronological, autobiographical account, a member questioned why the author’s experience of National Service was only allowed one paragraph. It is however pertinent that the book is not a warts and all memoir, but specifically a memoir of the author’s faith and doubt. One can only suspect that his faith was on an even keel for that period of his life.
A majority of members commented how they wouldn’t have entertained reading the book given the choice, due to it being of an overtly Christian nature, but most agreed they were pleased to have read it. Despite our mixed feelings towards the author, it was felt refreshing he was so willing to be open about his struggles with faith and that he maintained such a progressive attitude towards homosexuality. That he was willing to sidestep centuries-old traditions with acts of open rebellion, such as marrying same-sex couples, decades before it was ‘legal’ to do so, is a case in point.
Although the inherent earnestness of the subject Faith is apparent throughout the book it does not become at all overbearing or oppressive and is regularly diluted by conversely lighter moments, such as the relaying of The Carriage Room story and the absurdity of the mitre-tossing escapade.
Additional Comments from the group:
The author preached at St. Paul’s, Clifton, in the aftermath of the Operation Spanner S&M trial and included the immortal words: ‘if you want to nail your willy to the floor that’s not my bag but I don’t see why the plods should be involved.’
Two of our group know Kelham. Two of us know the author.
One of us shares his issue about sacramental confession though it could sometimes be a positive experience, helping people to accept their sexuality rather than to fight it.
There are good descriptions of places entwined with his memories.
Phrases, often biblical allusions, are repeated throughout – sermon style.
There’s only one paragraph about his National Service. What happened?
He describes his reactions to the concelebrated masses at the Catholic Renewal Conference (it wasn’t a ‘conference’ – we didn’t get time to confer/discuss – we were lectured at from dawn to dusk) at Loughborough. I had the same thoughts at the time – like a National Socialist rally. He feels similar misgivings at the Lambeth Conference, so mischaired by George Carey (though he is more charitable than I am about ‘Uncle George’). It was this conference that rebelled against a nuanced, prepared statement about homosexuality by shrill demands and voted on hastily prepared homophobic resolutions.
I became emotionally fixated on another novice. It crept over me like sadness, more like falling in regret than falling in love. He was a year ahead of me, so I became aware of his presence only gradually. Easy to overlook, he was short, slight and almost nun-like in his demeanour. It wasn’t hard to believe that when he made the journey back to his seat from the sanctuary after communion he was genuinely oblivious to those around him. He moved quietly, economically, with short, quick steps, head tilted slightly forward, eyes downcast. The eyes were my undoing. They were large, a startlingly pale blue, fringed with long black lashes. His black hair, kept short, was wiry. But that was not the word I wanted to use. It suggested hardness, tautness, whereas he had the kind of beauty that evoked protectiveness, and a desire to shelter such delicacy from life’s storms. His skin was smooth and almost beardless, with a suggestion of light emanating from it.
I was surprised the first time I heard him speak. I expected a high voice. Instead I heard this creamy baritone that was so unexpected I wanted to hear him laugh. I can’t remember anything he ever said, but I can remember how he said it. He had none of the faux intellectuality of a lot of the other students. He didn’t think of himself as clever or bright or with anything particularly interesting to say. He was sideways and quirky in his angle on things, and there was something absolutely right about his take on people. No phoniness. Nothing posed. Utterly himself. I was bewitched by the completeness of the man, the oneness of the inner with the outer, the physical beauty that perfectly expressed his sweet and unexpected strangeness. It would be wrong to say that he did not have a man’s body, though it would be truer to say that he did not yet have a man’s body. He had the beautifully unformed body of a boy, neither soft nor hard, neither male nor female. He was a year ahead of me, yet I felt a century older. I was intensely drawn to him, yet his beauty reduced me to incoherence. For what could I do with such a feeling? It reduced everything else to emptiness. I don’t think I wanted to possess him physically, or not in any sense I understood or could express. All I wanted was to be with him or at least be near him. Actually, I wanted never to be anywhere else. Since this was impossible, my life became a kind of mourning. As the weeks passed I withdrew into dejection. If I could not be with him always then I must just be by myself. Increasingly, I was. Life at Kelham was busy, but it did allow time to hang out with friends, to walk with them, share a joke, gossip. I became a ghost to all of that, wandering round the edges. When I wasn’t reading gloomy Russian novels, I took it on myself, uninvited by anyone in authority, to do extra gardening jobs in the grounds, cutting weeds, hacking at overgrown bushes, raking gravel paths, anything that used up energy, though nothing ever turned off the ache of wanting to be with him, only with him.
I didn’t know how he felt about me. He must have known about the impact he had on people, must have known that they flirted with him, that he flirted back. He never flirted with me, though sometimes when I came out of the woods in which I was brooding and approached him he would smile with delight, though I was always too awkward to stay around him for long. These inconclusive encounters were almost as painful as my long silent absences. Then, though I can’t remember how it came about, it was agreed that we would take our two weeks’ summer leave together in Cornwall, ending with a visit to his widowed mother in Plymouth. We would hitch-hike south, taking our time, stopping at bed and breakfast places along the way. It was late August, and drivers were inclined to stop for two men in cassocks. I was quietly happy just being with him. We had the kind of ease in each other’s company that allowed us to be silent when there was nothing to be said or when neither of us felt like speaking. The rosebay willowherb, flaming by the roadside, was beginning to send its seeds into the warm autumn wind. The drivers who picked us up chatted inconsequentially, asking us what religion we were. I hardly noticed. We got to Cornwall on a Saturday evening and found it hard to find a place to stay. One friendly B&B proprietor told us it would be busy everywhere in Po1perro that weekend, but his cousin a few miles out of town on a farm sometimes took people in. Would we like him to phone? It was a three-mile walk through lush green countryside. The farmer’s wife gave us high tea when we arrived, after showing us the room. It was the only one they had available and would we mind sharing the double bed? We accepted the arrangement and took a walk over the fields after the meal. We were supposed to wear our cassocks everywhere in public, but was this public? We left them in the room and walked in our shorts and shirts.
After the walk we decided to head for bed. It had been a tiring day, with a lot of hiking between lifts. To my surprise, he suggested that we should sleep on different sides of the top sheet. I was already under it, so he got into bed on top of it, under the blanket, thereby creating a frail yet absolute barrier between us. I was puzzled by his insistence, but didn’t question it, didn’t ask why it concerned him. I had not figured that in bed one plus one can sometimes equal one. We did not enact that arithmetic, but I sometimes wonder what would have followed had we done so All I know is that my need for his presence was not assuaged by our days together…decades later… I remembered him who was wearing it. How could I not? We spoke to each other briefly that evening before I went into silence. I discovered that he was back in England after thirty years in South Africa. He was seeking release from his vows to the Society, vows pledged under the great dome that softened the jagged silhouette I always searched for above the distant trees as the train rushed through Newark. He was another leaver. He looked tougher, more weathered, both within and without, but he was much as I remembered him We did not reminisce about the holiday we had taken together in Devon and Cornwall many summers ago. On my last evening I made my confession to him in the convent chapel. As I expected, he was gentle. He knew whereof I was made, remembered I was but dust. And as Father Stanton used to say to the poor of late nineteenth-century London from the pulpit of Saint Alban’s Holborn, ‘You can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark.’ I wasn’t up to the mark either, but I experienced absolution’s rush as my old companion spoke the familiar words over me. He came out to see me into my car the next morning, the morning of my departure. I was about to turn the key in the ignition when I remembered the rosebay willowherb flaming at the roadside that long ago summer. I mentioned it, recalled the vacation we had taken together.
We were in love,’ he said.
`Yes,’ I replied. A quiet disturbance threaded my mind, an invisible procession going by. ‘Can I do anything for you, help in any way?’
`A radio,’ he said. ‘I’d like a transistor radio for the flat I’m moving into.’
`Is that all I can do?’
I promised to send him one (and did) and drove off to take my vows in Edinburgh. The disturbance came with me, carrying the memory of an old disappointment.
It is often assumed that gay men are attracted to Anglo-Catholicism because of the drama of the ceremonial. Holloway delves deeper and dispels this myth in a way I’ve never heard before: there is no doubt that Anglo-Catholicism, as it evolved, became attractive to gay men, though the reasons for this are probably more theologically rooted than is commonly understood. The high camp aesthetic of the more florid wings of the movement was clearly attractive to a certain kind of gay sensibility, as anyone who has had to negotiate a high mass in one of the more fashionable outposts of Anglo-Catholicism will testify. This is surface attraction, however, and there is usually a certain amount of self-parody going on. At a deeper level something more interesting and more moving is happening. Even in societies that have stopped persecuting homosexuals, gays remain a minority community, and minorities are always under some kind of threat from the surrounding majority, even if it is only from their curiosity about or incomprehension over their sex lives. Gays will always be outsiders in straight communities, and it is their status as outsiders that draws some of them to Christianity and, in particular, to its Anglo-Catholic variant. I have known many gay priests over the years. What has moved me most about their persistence in remaining within a Church that at best only grudgingly accepts them, and at worst actively persecutes them, is their identification not with campery and high jinks in the sanctuary, but with the figure of Jesus, the great Outsider. Many of them intuit that Jesus was himself probably gay, but whether or not that was the case, there is no doubt of his appeal to the rejected and discarded in ancient Israel, an appeal that is still strong today. This meant that, at its best, Anglo-Catholicism was a form of Christianity that was hospitable to the unrespectable, to people who were not good at bringing their desires to heel, people who knew their need of mercy and forgiveness because they were never going to qualify morally for entrance into sure of the more respectable religions.
I was also ignoring the rule about not marrying the divorced in Church, another matter on which the Bishop hewed to the official line. I did not think of the divorced people who came to me as items in an abstract category called The Divorced, but as individuals with unique stories and therefore exceptions to general rules. Not that I agreed with the rule. It was the same when I performed my first gay marriage ten years later at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh. It was obvious that I could not refuse the sincere request of Peter and Richard to hear them promise to live together till death. I heard their vows in the Lady Chapel one evening after Evensong, using the form of the Prayer Book wedding service: and it took death to separate them, thirty-seven years later. What I did not reflect on at the time was that this untroubled capacity for ignoring rules that struck me as inhumane or silly defined me as an anarchist. I am not using the word in the organised, programmatic sense normally associated with the term. I no more believe in anarchism than I believe in any other kind of ism.
It would be wrong to give the impression that the life of a bishop, or the life of the Church for that matter, is one of constant struggle and controversy. Religion is certainly a vexatious subject, and it gives rise to a lot of disagreement, as the history of splits and schisms in Christianity clearly indicates. But if conflict is a constant in Christian history, so is consolation, and the Church’s ancient ministry of comfort to the afflicted goes a long way towards mitigating its record for discord and intolerance. Even bishops can be useful here. If not by rolling up their purple sleeves and getting themselves stuck in, certainly by identifying areas of need in their community and finding the right people to tackle them. I had already encountered HIV/AIDS in Boston and seen it scything remorselessly through the gay community. I had heard the hatred the epidemic had prompted from some sections of the Christian community I had also seen other sections of the Church organise itself to respond with love to people who were HIV-positive and to those with full-blown AIDS. I had seen the crisis bring out the best and the worst in people, but it was the best that prevailed and, in the end, it silenced the taunting voices of the Christian Right. It was to prevail in Edinburgh as well.
Catching up with the press on my return to Scotland, I was surprised to see that Edinburgh had been labelled ‘The AIDS Capital of Europe’. The demography of the epidemic was different to the one in Boston, however. It was certainly taking its toll of gay men, but the biggest risk group were intravenous drug users, and dirty needles were identified as the culprits. This new twist in the story of the virus, now an irresistible combination of sex and drugs, was a delicious mix for the puritan mind to obsess about. We heard all the traditional anthems that identified HIV as God’s judgement on sin, but they were more muted than in the States, and we did not waste much energy opposing them. I was already clear that there was no point in negotiating with fundamentalists. By definition, they did not negotiate. You had to accept them as an inevitable part of the dramatis personae of the human comedy, like the old man who for years had been walking Princes Street wearing a sandwich board announcing that The End of the World is Nigh. We didn’t argue; we organised. As was the case in the US, the medical profession was in the forefront. Soon free needle-exchanges were set up and free condoms were handed out in clinics and health centres. A hospice for the dying, Milestone House, named after an old Roman milestone found near the site, was opened in 1991 by Princess Diana, who continued to support its work till her own death.
The churches of Edinburgh across the ecumenical spectrum weren’t far behind the doctors in rising to the challenge, and a host of imaginative ventures was established. One, conceived and administered by Helen Mein, the wife of a priest in the diocese, was called Positive Help. As the label suggested, its large team of volunteers provided help and support to people with HIV and AIDS, such as driving them from Edinburgh’s most afflicted housing scheme on the north side of the capital for treatment at the City Hospital and Milestone House, miles away on the south side. Jeannie did her share of ferrying. Like many of the clergy, I gave my support to a lot of these activities. I sat on committees and spoke at events, but the biggest contribution I made was to identify the unusual gifts of a woman in the diocese, whom I appointed as our chaplain to people affected by HIV/AIDS. She was an example of the hidden work of love that goes on everywhere behind Christianity’s bluster and posturing, and helps to redeem them. She possessed in abundance a gift I conspicuously lacked. It was the gift I had already noticed and envied in Lilias and Geoff back in our Gorbals days, the capacity to abandon their own interests and preferences and, as Hugh MacDiarmid put it in the poem I have already quoted, sink:
. . . without another care
To that dread level
of nothing but life itself.
MacDiarmid went on to describe it as the capacity for ‘mere being’, and he thought it was more common in women than in men. It is the ability to wait beside someone when the waiting is all that can be done or ought to be done. I have been too driven and purposeful in my life to be good at this, and that failure is now one of my deepest regrets. I have, of course, screwed myself up to do it when I had to. I have waited by bedsides of the sick and dying, but I have always been conscious of the meter whirring away inside my impatient soul, calling me to the next thing and the next. Jane Millard had the capacity for waiting, the ability to sink to the level of nothing but life itself, and she had it to an unimaginable degree. During the heavy early years of the epidemic in Edinburgh, before doctors developed combined drug therapies that kept people alive, AIDS as still a death sentence, and a grim one. This meant that Jane’s was a parish of the dying and the grieving. It meant waiting, again and again, beside men and women whose young Lives were being stolen from them by the virus. It took its toll on her, the way war takes its toll on soldiers who live with relentless grief. At the height of the crisis she was involved in two hundred funerals. An aspect of the art of her ministry was to craft services that gave expression to anger as well as grief. Above all, it was an art that celebrated the courage and humour of those she had accompanied to the end. Of enormous cost to her were sixty long vigils she kept by the bedsides of dying friends, as she helped them slip their moorings and drift from life. During these vigils she kept notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes or any other scraps of paper she could lay her hands on at the time. She called her scraps ‘Fragments of the Watch’. In one of our regular meetings to find out how she was coping, she told me about them, and I asked to see them. The next time we met she brought them in a plastic bag. Scraps of torn envelopes, pages from old notebooks, anything she could lay her hands on at the time to record the going out of another life. They were more moving to me than the famous `AIDS Quilt’ that was touring the world at the time. In 1987 a group in San Francisco had started the Names Project, in which three-by-six foot quilted panels, memorialising those who had died of AIDS in America, were stitched into a quilt. As the toll mounted, the quilt kept growing till it could have filled hundreds of football pitches. Part of it came to Edinburgh, and I went to see it. It was hard not to be stunned by the loss of these thousands of young lives, each represented by the tender art of the quilter. It reminded me of how hurt I felt at Old Saint Paul’s when, after leading them down the stairs and under the bridge to their final resting place, I had to come back and write the names of the dead in that heavy old book in the sacristy. Death had undone so many, and I had to write down their names. Jane’s fragments brought back that sorrow. To sift through them was to touch worlds of grief. I asked her to let me publish them, but she refused. They were sacred to her and she wanted to keep them secret. More than twenty years later, she has allowed me to include four of them here in their raw state.
How do you think dying is?
I think I will fly
Bird or plane?
Bird, eagle or something
My mind fills with passages — Isaiah, psalms, already on my way to making his service of celebration and thanksgiving.
But he is very close to death now An eye flutters open. `Going by boat,’ he says distinctly.
Upsetting my plans.
So at his service I read the story where Peter walks on the water, and Our Lord catches him, and then gets into the boat to go the rest of the journey with him . . . just to make sure he gets there.
I only had one conversation with you, and only because I knew you had been a jockey, could discern it was something about horses. Your Mum and Dad had been sent for as you had taken another clip in your laboured breathing. I wanted you to know that you could just slip away, or wait for them to arrive, so I offered a journey.
It’s a crisp summer afternoon — a real Scottish summer — and you are riding down a path in a wood. The path is covered in forest debris, and the hooves make that muted thud of a measured stride. You are bareback, and can feel the warmth of his skin against yours, feel the power from his rippling muscles in the springy step of his keen walk.
It’s up to you when you move on a pace. Remember that you are bareback and will come to the point when you are losing control, his heaving, sweaty sides like glass. If you want to wait for them, keep him back under your control.
If you are ready, let the reins go slack and get the rush from the exhilarating gallop.
At the bottom of the track is a high gate. Jumping that is your transformation. Remember you are the one to urge him on or hold him back. You are in control.
Your Mum and Dad are on their way, and can be with you as you jump that gate if that’s what you want. He’s a wonderful horse, you are well matched. Ride well.
Days from dying, he insisted that he teach me to fish, and we made a precarious journey to Flotterstone so he could talk fishy tactics. In his day, he could catch fish with his hands.
When he was dying, he began to bleed heavily from most orifices, but the nurses graciously allowed me to accompany him undisturbed by clean bedding. The warmth of the blood on his thighs became the numbness of water on wading boots as I used his teaching from those few days before to take him fishing. I had in my mind’s eye that the scooping of the fish from the water in a rainbow of droplets would be his leaving But it wasn’t like that. He began to gulp air like a fish, he became that fish, and I couldn’t put him back in the water.
She was very afraid of dying. ‘I don’t want to die. Him upstairs will get a big stick and shout at me, tell me to go to hell. I’m frightened. I don’t want to be shouted at.’
And I hugged her, bereft of anything theological to say that sounded real, and she snuggled in.
`Talk to me,’ she whimpered.
`There was a man who had two sons . . .’ and I told her the story of the prodigal son and loving father.
Will you be with me when I die? Be sure and tell me that story.’
So I did, about an hour ago, now we are waiting for the undertakers.
At the height of the American epidemic a Manhattan doctor had reminded me of Camus’ words about another plague, that `there are more things to admire in men than to despise’. Holding Jane’s ‘Fragments of the Watch’ in my hands, I wondered if Camus’ words could be applied to the Church. I tried it: there are more things to admire in the Church than to despise. Not a bad fit, I thought. Not perfect, but good enough. And people don’t always hear it. They hear the scary voices. Sadly, there seemed to be a lot of Christians who liked making the scary voices. The congregations that were growing, the ones good at evangelising, were the scary ones, the ones that spoke with absolute conviction about everything. Conviction sells. Did that mean that uncertain, unjudging Christianity was on the way out? Or was there something we could do about it? Was liberal evangelism an oxymoron? Can there be an evangelism of uncertainty…?
the even more contentious issue of homosexuality.
As with women’s ordination, there was a wild variety of opinion on the subject. This time, however, the opposition’s tone was uglier. And no canonical condom was available, no get-out-of-gaol text to help us fudge the debate. Paul had not told us in his Letter to the Galatians that in Christ there was neither gay nor straight. What references there were in the Bible to homosexuality were all hostile. Stick to the Bible and you were stuck with hatred of gays. Fundamentalists from the Bible Belt understood the logic: God hates fags. What I hadn’t expected at Lambeth 1998 was to hear so many men in purple cassocks mouthing the same sentiments with the same ugly avidity.
I turned up not expecting the Communion to support gay rights, but I did expect a reprise of the Runcie strategy and I was firmly under the impression that the new Archbishop, George Carey, intended to steer us in that direction. There would, I assumed, be passionate debate, equally passionate disagreement, and ugly things would doubtless be said; a commission would then be appointed to consider the impact on the Communion of our disagreements — to report back before the Second Coming — and the problem would roll into the high grass for a generation. Meanwhile, provinces would deal with it in ways appropriate to their own context, as they had with women’s ordination, and we would muddle through again. I turned up at the campus in Canterbury with little enthusiasm, but with no idea that it would be as grim as it turned out to be. My own reception was not encouraging. As a patron of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, I had invited the bishops to a reception in Canterbury to meet some gay Christians. I did not expect all 749 bishops to attend, but I thought we would get a representative sample. I was wrong. To be fair to him, George Carey was one of the few opponents of change to turn up. I was moved when a young man told him that it had taken more courage for him to come out to the gay community as a Christian than it had to come out as a gay man to his family and friends. The gay community’s perception of Christianity was unsurprisingly negative, given the ugly things Christians said loudly about them. He hoped the conference would help to soften that perception.
In the event, the conference made it far worse, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, probably more out of naivety than collusion, allowed the African bishops to force an unconstitutional debate on a subject that had already been prudently dealt with by an official sub-group of the conference. He presided over the rout with smiling incomprehension as the damage was done. Bishop after bishop, mainly but not exclusively from Africa, got up to denounce the wickedness and animality of lovers of their own sex. There were some valiant African opponents of the coup, including the Archbishops of South and Central Africa, but it pursued its ugly course to the end. A resolution was passed by a large majority, denouncing homosexuality as a practice incompatible with scripture and refusing to legitimise the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of homosexuals. But it was the tone of the debate that did the real damage. One American bishop, a man with a big heart and a small body, told me that he had been physically menaced by the bishops around him whenever he had raised his hand to vote against their increasingly intemperate resolutions. Immediately after the rout, on a grassy knoll outside the conference hall, a Nigerian bishop attempted to cast out the demons of homosexuality from Richard Kirker, the Director of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement, who had bravely challenged him about what had happened. A demon was released that afternoon, but it did not come out of the brave young man being apostrophised by the African prelate. A South African woman present at the conference as a consultant, a university professor, told me that what we had just witnessed was not just about African attitudes to homosexuality; it was an imperious assertion of male control over sex. One aspect of this had always been the control of women by men, but the other had been the ancient prohibition of sodomy because of the way it undermined the idea of male dominance in the sexual act. Andrea Dworkin had addressed the problem years before.
Can sodomy become a legal form of intercourse without irredeemably compromising male power over women, that power being premised on men being entirely distinct from women in use, in function, in posture and position, in role, in ‘nature’? Or will the legalisation of sodomy mortally injure the class power of men by sanctioning a fuck in which men are treated like women; the boundaries of men’s bodies no longer being, as a matter of social policy and divine right, inviolate?’
Behind Lambeth’s contempt for gay men, there lay a deeper contempt for women themselves, because they too are incapable of the fuck in this primordial sense. Men fuck. Women get fucked. Q.E.D. That was the demon that was released that afternoon, and it will never go back whence it came. It began the unravelling of the Anglican Communion that has been gathering pace ever since, an unravelling that the saintly scholar who succeeded George Carey at Canterbury will never be able to halt.
A Nigerian bishop had been spreading the rumour at Lambeth that my support for gay liberation was because my daughters were lesbians. He made the mistake of repeating the lie to the rector of a church in Connecticut where he went to preach after the conference. The rector, who had been one of my curates in Boston, challenged him on the claim, but he insisted it was true. It would not have mattered to me and Jeannie if it had been true, but it wasn’t. What it did was fortify my sense that there was a profound sickness at the heart of so-called Biblical morality, if it could lead to such hatred and cruelty. I wanted to get in my car and come home to Scotland. Michael Peers, the Archbishop of Canada, persuaded me to stick it out to the end. We helped put together a resolution apologising to the world’s lesbian and gay Christians for what the Lambeth Conference had said about them. Out of the 749 bishops present, 182 signed it, including the Primates of Brazil, Canada, Central Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and Wales.
Finally the conference was over, with a sting in the tail, in the form of a meeting of the Primates who were asked to stay behind to review what had happened. I had a dust-up with George Carey during that fractious hour, but at last I was free to come north again. The only sweet memory I brought away with me was throwing my mitre into the Thames.
While at Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh and against the tenets of his church, Holloway had quietly been marrying gay couples since the 1970s. In the early 1980s, when he was Rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston – where coffee hour after High Mass was, according to a local magazine, “the best place for a gay pickup in Boston” – not only had he many homosexual parishioners, but he saw at first hand the ravages caused by Aids and the courage and grace of the gay community in responding to the epidemic. To see 700 bishops at the Lambeth conference be so virulently opposed to any rethinking of the Church’s attitudes to homosexuality was, he says, “one of the most horrifying and horrible experiences of my life”. If that was what organised religion was about, he could do without it. http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/books/interview-richard-holloway-writer-broadcaster-and-former-bishop-of-edinburgh-in-the-scottish-episcopal-church-1-2140139
Your namesake, the Rev David Holloway, has described your views on homosexuality as “heretical and very serious for the Episcopal Church”. How would you answer this charge?
A: In two ways. The very use of the word heretical shows a mindset that I no longer regard as appropriate. It suggests that there is an absolutely defined and packaged truth and therefore that there is an absolutely defined and packaged untruth, namely heresy. If I’m certain of anything I’m certain of the fact that Christian theological and moral history is an evolutionary history. The ordination of women was heretical until we did it; the emancipation of the slaves was heretical until we did it; so the use of that kind of epithet is pretty meaningless. I’m much more interested in arguing the truth of the issue; whether, for example, it is appropriate for gay and lesbian people to have full Christian status and the freedom of loving in their way, I hope as responsibly and safely as the rest of us struggle to achieve – that’s the issue, and not whether it has been traditional. Clearly it hasn’t been traditional in the Church, but it has always been there, and I have known many wonderful and holy gay priests. I was brought up an Anglo-Catholic and the Anglo-Catholic tradition has undoubtedly had many gay priests. The real issue is the substantive one, about the moral status of gay and lesbian people, and not whether it’s technically heretical. The Church is always evolving into another position, and these transitions are invariably painful.
David Holloway is an intemperate kind of a person, and he’s always phoned up by the press for the standard quote whenever someone says something even mildly liberal; he’s part of that pantomime cast of characters, just as I am, except I am phoned up for the opposite kind of quote.
How could you ordain a priest who practices sodomy … isn’t that against everything you believe in?
A: Sodomy always comes up. I don’t know the sexual repertoire of the average gay person, but I’m told in fact that the prevalence of sodomy is higher among heterosexual couples than among homosexual couples, and in fact it is sometimes used as a form of birth control. That is a separate issue, however what you do with your sexual organs is not, I think, the moral question; it’s the nature of the relationship and whether it is violent or abusive. Sodomy as such need not be either; it may be an unsafe physical practice, but there is no doubt that sexuality expresses itself in all sorts of extraordinary ways, including oral sex, fellatio and cunnilingus, and one might just as easily consider those to be unnatural.
Homosexuals I know have a varied sexual repertoire, but I don’t honestly think that’s the issue. The issue is the quality of the relationship. For some reason there is a kind of fascination with other people’s sexual practices. I get lots of letters in which sodomy is written in block capitals. It’s one of those words that set people off, though as far as we know the sin of Sodom was lack of hospitality and not anal intercourse. So the answer to your question is this: for a priest to be in an established relationship with another male seems to me not to contradict the possibility of a valid and fruitful priesthood. I know many examples where this is the case. What goes on in the bedroom is a matter of private choice, provided it’s non-abusive and provided people are trying otherwise to follow the Christian ethic.
You once said: ‘There are complexities in human sexuality that it behoves us to understand and not merely to condemn.’ That is a compassionate position which a great many people would understand and sympathise with, Christian and non-Christian alike. Where does that leave you on the business of moral absolutes? Are there any moral absolutes nowadays?
A: I don’t think there are moral absolutes, and if there are any they are likely to be so general as to apply only in a very broad way. Sexual consent is an important principle, I would say almost an axiom, almost an absolute, which is why rape is always absolutely wrong. Obviously the young cannot give consent, and this makes pederasty and paedophilia tragically impossible. There can never be an allowable sexual relationship there, although it undoubtedly remains one of the mysteries of human sexuality.
But given those overarching moral principles, there is still an enormous sexual repertoire which can be mutually fulfilling and consenting, and I think that we should mind our own business and not meddle with other people’s lives. This should be the case even if we are personally repelled, as indeed I am by certain aspects of sado-masochism, for example. Mutually consenting sadomasochism, however, stops short of the heavier kind of wounding of people, and so I believe it is up to the people involved. I have no appetite at all for it myself, it’s a mystery to me, but it does seem to be a part of some people’s experience. I find it aesthetically displeasing, but that does not give me the right to try and outlaw it. There has been a lot of crucifying of people in the name of this kind of busy involvement in other people’s sexualities. I would prefer to allow freedom within an understanding of constraint and appropriateness. Between consenting adults, I do not think that you can say confidently “you can do this, but you can’t do that”
It is really up to the adults themselves. http://trushare.com/51aug99/au99holl.htm
In 1967, the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations finally became law in Britain, permitting homosexual activity between two consenting adults in private. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time expressed the view that while homosexuality was likely a sin, it should not be a crime. That probably reflected my own thinking at the time.
I was eventually posted to Old St. Paul’s, an Anglo-catholic parish in Edinburgh that had a number of gay men in the congregation. In the early 1970’s, I announced there that I planned a series of sermons on sex. I felt that this was an important subject, because like many Christians, I had struggled with feelings that my own sexuality, although heterosexual, was “dirty.”
My sermons were going to examine the troubled history and contemporary tension in the Christian Church on the topic of sex. Although the authors of the Bible apparently did not see sexual matters as a priority, it was a subject of concern to a number of later prominent Christian theologians, notably St. Augustine and St. Jerome. From their teachings emerged the notion that the holiest condition for a Christian was celibacy, and that marriage was a distant second best for good Christians. Even within marriage, according to their teaching sex was only to be for the purposes of procreation and sex for pleasure even between married persons was sinful. This doctrine remains important in the Roman Catholic Church and in part supports their requirement of priestly celibacy. Although Anglican priests are permitted to marry, I did feel I was somewhat of a spiritual failure as I could not face a life of celibacy and chose to marry instead. I believe that these Medieval Christian teachings, teachings that are very negative about sex in general, still influence the thinking of many Christians today, including their attitudes toward homosexuality.
Before I presented the sermon series, a member of the parish approached me who was a self-described “screaming queer.” An outrageously camp man, he was the most courageous man I have ever met.
He invited me to include a discussion of homosexuality in the series. I agreed, and I did so, although it was a modest effort at the time.
Later, in the early 1970’s, this same man approached me with a friend. He announced that they were in love and he asked me to perform a ceremony of blessing of their union in my church. I did so. By this time, I had moved to the view that homosexuality was not a sin, and that the love of Jesus Christ that was extended by Him to social outcasts in His lifetime, should not be denied by the Church to gays and lesbians.
I then watched the emergence of an even more disturbing trend in the Church. The old unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay priests, that had seemingly served us reasonably well, was supplanted by something of a witch hunt aimed at exposing gay priests and refusing them preferment. This trend was accompanied by a regressive trend in theology, marked by a revival of kind of Biblical literalism that I had thought was no longer a force in the Anglican Church. This literalist approach to scripture had long been dismissed as hopelessly un-historic and unscientific even when I was first studying theology years earlier. I was dismayed when we seemed to be going theologically backwards instead of forward, but the worst was yet to come.
The nadir of these developments was the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The Lambeth Conference, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury every ten years, brings together the Anglican bishops worldwide. Some of us were hopeful that the 1998 conference would establish a commission to examine the theological and moral status of homosexuals in our Church, and that this might lead to a healthy dialogue and improvement in way the Church dealt with the subject.
The move to a more open position was supported by some prominent and respected bishops, including the recently retired Archbishop of Capetown, Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Laureate and probably the most respected Anglican in the world.
The search for a compromise was defeated by coalition of dissident traditionalists from the USA, Africa and Asia. Worse, a resolution condemning homosexuality was passed. Worst of all was the tone of the debate, which was marred by booing, hissing, and insults. One bishop likened it to a Nuremberg rally. It was the most horrible experience of my life.
I am quietly satisfied with the fact that one of the most moving acts of my episcopate was to celebrate a Mass honouring the 25th anniversary of the wedding of the two men at which I had officiated in Edinburgh in the early 1970’s. While this union of my friends is not officially recognized by church or state in Britain, it has proved to be a bonded relationship of absolute integrity.
I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin, but rather it is a natural fact, a gift from God. I have no theological objection to marriage between two persons of the same sex. I believe that gays and lesbians are capable of forming loving and enduring relationships, which are entitled to the blessing of the Church. Although my opinion may be a minority opinion within the Anglican faith at present, and while it is certainly not the official policy of the Anglican Church, I believe that there is an increasing number of persons of great learning and faith who agree with me. I know that there are many Anglican priests, male and female, gay and straight, who would happily marry persons of the same sex if they were permitted to do so. In Toronto, for example, I recently spoke at Holy Trinity Anglican Church at a conference called “Loving Justice” about homosexuality and Christianity; Holy Trinity has a long tradition of outreach to and support for social justice, including equality for gays and lesbians.
I am familiar with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. It is a new, but legitimate Christian denomination. I not only respect its teachings on homosexuality and Christianity, I personally agree with its view that there is no inconsistency between being a good Christian and a practicing homosexual. While many traditional Christian churches might officially disagree with this position, there are many within those churches who share my belief and who view such official Church policy as outdated and wrong.