Review: Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt – Richard Holloway

Here’s my review of Bishop Richard’s book which recently appeared in inspires:

It is hard these days to engage with the media of the chattering classes without encountering Richard Holloway. He who was once merely our Primus has become the darling of the exasperated folk for whom the church is no longer a vehicle for the divine but has instead become a stumbling block upon the way. Scarcely a week goes by without someone at church wanting to talk to me about the perceived ‘fact’ that the former Bishop of Edinburgh has lost his faith. Some are inspired by him. Some are frustrated by him. Some are outraged.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Upon reading Richard Holloway’s new memoir Leaving Alexandria, it becomes immediately obvious that the author has not simply lost his faith. That, after all would be to see the world in black and white – the very thing that he insists we guard against. The truth is considerably more interesting.

This is a beautiful book. It is often a melancholy book. It is a book that must come top of the list of recent books which someone seeking to understand the modern Scottish Episcopal Church needs to read.

We begin, as each romantic needs must do, in a graveyard. To be precise, we begin in the graveyard at Kelham College. Kelham was the monastic community into which the young Richard Holloway was entrusted in order to turn him into a priest for the mission field. Kelham is no more and as the author gazes around the graveyard looking at the graves of his mentors and teachers there is a strong, powerful sense of acute loss.

Did Kelham succeed with Richard Holloway or did it fail? Did it manage to embed into his soul its unique charism? Or did it fail him utterly or even fail the church by producing him? Is the demand that Richard Holloway makes of the world even now to take seriously spiritual questions, in fact simply his own response to a lost religious community that lives yet in his heart?

Years after ceasing to be the Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Richard Holloway is still capable of generating headlines; still has an immense tolerance for the limelight and still says things more interesting than most of the other religious figures in Scotland put together. That in itself ought to be reason enough to want to read this book which whilst masquerading as autobiography is really something considerably more profound.

For those who know the Scottish Episcopal Church, there are plenty of other reasons too. Familiar figures pop up throughout its pages. There are glimpses into the world a Primus must inhabit. Some are clearly glamorous – some much more uncomfortable, such as having to face Episcopal colleagues grumpy at a description of opponents of the ordination of women as “miserable buggers” and “mean-minded wee sods”.

There are many pages here that move me, but none more so than those dealing with the reasons for the Mission 21 initiative in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Much that is written about mission these days seems to be about keeping churches going – often churches which seem to have lost their entire raison d’etre. The motives behind Mission 21 remain as compelling as ever. Here we find a heart beating for the poor in spirit, a soul desperate to reach out to the theologically needy and a passion for those who have been abandoned by much organized religion. It is an agenda for mission which remains completely relevant and persuasive in a way that makes congregation-saving seem utterly banal.

Having read this book, I have my own sense of melancholy about Richard Holloway’s ministry. However, I’m unable to think terribly negatively about his life. I’m unable to believe that his current proclamations about doubt are the tragedy that many people seem to think. They seem more likely to me to be merely the latest successes of a consummate attention-seeker, trying to draw the world back to an encounter with the deepest spiritual values of all.

Kelham did something to Richard Holloway which ensured that whilst he has breath in his lungs the rest of the world will think about God.

Never more so than by reading what is written in these pages.

Buy now at Amazon: Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt

Comments welcome


  1. Tony Whatmough says

    Like you, I found Richard’s book greatly moving. It reduced me to tears on many occasions. But one thing I’ve found interesting over the years, is the effect on so many priests of the Kelham training. I’ve met many over the years, with different styles of preaching, but there is something distinctive about them all. Not all of them regarded Kelham with approval: one described it as a theological Borstal, but whatever, it made an impression on them, and like Richard, it has been life long. I wonder how many other theological colleges have done that?

  2. John MacBrayne says

    Am reading it now. Not quite sure what to make of it to be honest, although thus far I have detected the age old problem of an individual confined by the strictures of an organisation….and a desire to move beyond that and back to a simpler life…not finished yet though!

  3. Elizabeth says

    ‘It is a book that must come top of the list of recent books which someone seeking to understand the modern Scottish Episcopal Church needs to read.’
    What a teaser! What other titles would you place on this list?

  4. Allan says

    ‘Consummate attention seeker’, eh? Well, well……
    And it’s ‘He who’ not ‘whom’. Just saying.

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