I've been putting off posting about Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria because I didn't really trust myself to be fair about it. On the personal level, Holloway is charming. Which is, of course, part of the reason he provokes strong views: charm is a very easy gift for those who don't possess it to resent. On the other hand, theologically and philosophically, I can scarcely express how deeply I disagree with him. So all in all a potent affective brew I was content to leave alone for a while.
But it'd been sitting on my Kindle for a while, and I finally succumbed. Given that every review I've read has been favourable (Telegraph linked above; (Glasgow) Herald here) I'm relieved that I can recommend it. And I'm even more relieved that I came away liking Holloway rather more than I did before. The book begins with a heart wrenching return to Kelham Hall, former home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, where Holloway trained as a priest, now transformed into a Local Authority 'events centre', but still with the almost forgotten graveyard of former members of the Society which he visits. Despite a certain amount of posturing that goes on in the book, the sense of loss and regret here I've no doubt is both genuine and genuinely touching. Moreover, the one aspect of his career that really made me fume -how he could have accepted positions of power and authority in the Episcopal Church and then used them to undermine it- takes on a more human aspect: he wasn't fully aware of his developing doubts until after he became Primus. And given the detailed narrative in the book, that claim becomes more plausible than it might seem in the abstract.
OK. So as a human document, read it. But most of the reviews I've seen go further and praise its understanding of religion and God. For example, the Guardian:
Even more valuably, it meditates on the ways in which a doubt-filled life can still be filled with grace. "The mistake," he says, "was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was sure religion was." This is simply put, but with the whole weight of a very thoughtful and courageous book behind it, it summarises an argument that a lot of people will find sympathetic, as well as compelling.
On this level, it's hopeless. There's a very clear line of argument running through the book which goes like this. Religion -in its institutional, particularly (Anglo or Roman) Catholic state- is oppressive. Rather than developing the freedom and poetry that is within it, it allows itself to crush and pervert our natural human impulses:
The conservative mind believes that the only way to contain the unruly wills and affections of sinful men is through strong, stable and ruthless institutions that are prepared to sacrifice the individual for the greater good of the community. And the Church was one of the most important of these restraining structures. (Leaving Alexandria, p183).
Here, I think he does identify a problem, but a problem with only some versions of traditional Christianity, and in particular, with the version of Anglo-Catholicism he encountered at Kelham. Anglicanism, even in many of its Anglo-Catholic forms, is profoundly Erastian: it sees itself as a department of the state or world with its own peculiar, and heavily circumscribed sphere. And that sphere is indeed often social control: reconciling us peasants to the existing political power. In essence, Holloway sees 'good' religion as being a conscience: a critical and prophetic voice which challenges the world and calls it to a greater depth and love. But when it comes to work -moral thinking beyond the immediate and pastoral; creation of institutions and the rule of law- that's not religion's job: that's the job of the world. And by the end of his career, he's not even sure that religion is that good as a critical voice: if you want poetry, why not turn to a poet? If you want philosophy, why not turn to a philosopher?
When I was an Episcopalian, a lot of priestly activity seemed to be directed within the church: 'Look, we all know you've been brought up in this dreadfully oppressive understanding of God -but now we're going to free you from it!' Having been brought up as an atheist with very little guilt about anything, this always struck me as rather beside the point: I'd been attracted to Christianity, not by its bad bits (it contains human beings, of course it's got bad bits), but by its good bits -and in particular, an understanding of the world (and indeed of sex and personal relationships) that had been developed over two thousand years of constant reflection and engagement with the wisdom of the ancient classical world and Judaism. But the good bits weren't really mentioned or seriously considered. It was all: 'We used to oppress you with the thought that sex was bad, and now we're going to save you from that oppression. We used to think that reason was bad, but now we're going to get you to read and think for yourselves (but just so long as it's only stuff about how bad the Church used to be).' In my gloomiest moments, it all seemed (and still does seem) like a job creation scheme for redundant clergy: 'The only job left for the Church is to free those people still too stupid to leave the Church.'
At its worst, Anglicanism is dumb spirituality and ritualism. It lacks the philosophical background that Catholicism has in scholasticism. Moreover, unlike Holloway's Anglicanism, Catholicism is not just (although it is in part) a critical voice: it is also a constructive voice offering a full vision of a society and human life rather than outsourcing these activities to the state. Catholicism, unlike Holloway's Anglicanism, is not just the drama of priests working out how to spend their life in a world that increasingly ignores them: it is an institution and a tradition which shines forth in the life of every Catholic, from the migrant worker struggling with the injustice of immigration systems to the politician struggling with establishing a cohesive society; from the campaigner struggling to preserve the institution of marriage against sexual licence, to the families abandoned by a partner who has succumbed to that licence.
Institutions such as schools (or seminaries) always have their crassnesses. So do individuals. Pointing to their inevitable failings, whilst part of the struggle to make lives better, should not entail the abolition of either. Religion is in part the institutionalization of that struggle for meaning and love that ought to be part of the highest human activity. To abolish it is not to achieve salvation, but only to deliver us defenceless either into the crassness of secular institutions or into the emptiness of the individual who is sufficient unto himself.