'I don't believe in that God'
Richard Holloway, bishop of Edinburgh, talked to James Panton about chilling out in church
'Call it "God", call it "cosmic ethic", or call it "nothing". You can't prove the "nothingness" to me any more than I can demonstrate the "thingness" to you. I've just committed myself to the [existence] of meaning as opposed to ultimate unmeaning.' With a faith as woolly as this it's not surprising that Richard Holloway, bishop of Edinburgh and primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, has made enemies of fundamentalist African preachers and diehard conservative men of the cloth.
But does the 65-year old deserve his reputation as the most controversial churchman in the UK? His recent book Godless Morality: keeping religion out of ethics may not be what you expect from the representatives of God on Earth. Yet Holloway only speaks aloud what the mainstream Anglican Church (of which his is the Scottish branch) is trying not to think.
Much of Holloway's notoriety has come from his rejection of the church's traditional attitudes to people's personal lives. A proponent of gay rights, Holloway doesn't see how young people's 'shagging' around can be dismissed as immoral behaviour, and he does not see what right he has to tell people that they can't smoke hash or look at porn if that's their thing. On the ordination of women and the rights of homosexuals - two of Holloway's particular bugbears - the Church of England seems unable to maintain its traditional stance, and even Archbishop George Carey can plead nothing stronger than that we all ought to be nice to one another. Holloway says, 'moral leadership is not saying, as far as I'm concerned, who should sleep with who. It's not telling mature people how to negotiate the complexities of their private lives'. But is that so different to the liberal vagueries now uttered by the mainstream church, discussed by Mark Ryan in this issue?
What worries the traditionalists is that Holloway, unlike Carey, seems willing to take the hands-off approach to personal morality to its logical conclusion. Not for him the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God who must be obeyed: 'I don't believe in that God', says Holloway. 'I don't think that's intrinsic to my way of being a Christian. When Christianity started to develop it inherited a pre-Copernican worldview: heaven "up there", Earth in the middle and hell "down below". But there's been a revolution in our understanding of many things, including the meaning of "up there" and "down there" - what is "up" in a quantum universe?'
Sounds like he is on to something. The theological metaphysics of bygone days make no sense of the world at the end of the twentieth century. But haven't atheists been on to that point for quite a while now? Holloway shrugs off the challenge. 'The real danger for believers is not atheism, it's idolatry - making absolute that which isn't.' In Holloway's view, it seems that the fundamentalists of his own faith are more of a problem than the secular heathens. Lucky for his colleagues that Holloway does not believe in hell.
In Holloway's vision, the church should be anything you want it to be. 'I despair at the kinds of religious systems that are "systems", because there are no perfect systems - you always have to keep examining the premises', he says. So we can use the metaphors of religion, but we do not need to interpret the texts too literally. Where this all leads, for Holloway, is to a downplaying of the spiritual aspect of religion, and to an emphasis on how human society behaves. As a result, he ends up sounding more like a sociologist than a representative of God.
In attempting to make its ideology more palatable to modern times, the church is having to ditch more and more of its core principles. And if you follow Holloway's line of argument, God will surely not be far behind. Why spread the word of the Lord, when there are so many other things to give praise for?
'I'm an evangelist about movies, too', enthuses Holloway. 'If I see a good movie, like The Blair Witch Project or Shakespeare in Love, I tell my friends they must go see it.' But even here, he is keen not to seem too judgemental. 'I'm not telling them they're damned if they don't. It's just that I want to share my excitement with them. The amazing thing about human beings is that we make these extraordinary discoveries about ourselves and the world, there's a depth to us - baboons don't do it - there's some strange kind of geist in us that makes us interested in our own meaning. To me, that's what it's all about.'
So as a 'Christian', what about the two-thousandth birthday of the Son of God? 'Jesus is one of the great figures of world history. It's worth taking time to remember the birth of this extraordinary man', he says, sounding as if he could be talking about Shakespeare or Che Guevara. 'But the Millennium Dome, I really don't have an opinion on. I don't think I'll be going to the spirit level - is that what it's called? No - I'm not too fussed about that.'
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000