Through a glass darkly – 71

All religions will pass, but this will  remain,

simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.”

Vasili Rozanov

This aphorism prefaces the opening chapter of Richard Holloway’s 2004 book Looking in the distance. Richard notes that the words served as a prompt to his own life; as he was drawn from his first encounter with romantic, incense-filled religion in his hometown in the west of Scotland into a heroic quest for something that remained too often elusive. The story is told in his 2012 book Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. A beautifully written memoir which drew admiring reviews from Christians and non-christians alike. “So compelling and so intense. Nobody, whether interested in religion or not, could fail to be intensely moved”, wrote Mary Warnock in the Observer, “… What a deeply lovable man; and what a wonderful book.” 

Leaving Alexandria

In Looking into the distance, Richard claims to recognise himself in the A.S.J. Tessimond poem Portrait of a romantic

He is in love with the land that is always over

The next hill, and the next, with the bird that is never

Caught, with the room beyond the looking-glass 

… … 

He is haunted by the face behind the face

He searches for last frontiers and lost doors

He tries to climb the wall around the world.

He gave his life to that search, becoming successively an Anglican priest, a bishop, and then  Primus {presiding bishop] of the Scottish Episcopal Church. “Now forty years, and many battles later, it has passed and I am left sitting in the chair and looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway

Clearly Richard doesn’t spend all his time sitting in a chair gazing quizzically into the distance. Since he retired as Bishop of Edinburgh in 2000 he has written almost a dozen books, many of them looking at the Christian faith from a sympathetic, fellow-travelling stance. Some have liked to label him as a post-Christian bishop. Though I think that may be a bit simplistic. He was my bishop during the twelve years that I served in the Edinburgh Diocese. It is a small enough diocese to have direct contact with the bishop. I liked him a lot, but I found myself out of sympathy with his generally liberal views abut all sorts of issues. And his frequent declarations of support for gay and lesbian Christians, and for the recognition of same-sex relationships, didn’t play well in my own parish in the predominantly conservative church culture of the Scottish Borders. But I recall he wrote me a very nice letter when we went off to Lyon in autumn 2000.

Shortly before we left for France he came down to preach in Duns. And used as a text something he had found on a fridge door in New York. “I get most of my theology from fridge doors nowadays”, he said.  And later “ I’ll read you a couple of lines from a poem by Philip Larkin, and I’ll bowdlerise them in case there is a reporter from the Daily Mail present.” [There was. Lord Palmer’s brother] The Duns congregation loved him.

A couple of weeks ago Richard came to speak, at St John’s, Princes Street, to an occasional meeting of SARAC. An association of retired Anglican clergy in Scotland, which was encouraged into [a precarious] life a few years ago by the late Ken Gordon from Aberdeen. The topic was Forgiveness. The turnout was very modest, and we sat round a couple of tables as Richard spoke before we moved into a general conversation.. 


Much of what he said was in his 2002 book Forgiveness. He wanted to believe that scripture has given us many of the best stories and metaphors. He quoted from Hannah Arendt; to the effect that things [and relationships] remain stuck until forgiveness takes place. He distinguished between corporate forgiveness and individual forgiveness. He didn’t suggest that any of it was easy.

There was the inevitable question about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the unfolding war crimes. Richard pointed to what had happened in South Africa, the work of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, inspired by Desmond Tutu, and to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, as examples of intractable problems being turned around by a willingness to forgive. There was more discussion about individual forgiveness. And about how difficult it can be to forgive ourselves. Richard encouraged us not to set impossibly high standards for ourselves. Acknowledging that we will always fall short. He acknowledged too that, even when we forgive ourselves, our dream life does not always get the message !

The attendance was disappointing. And some of the problems continue to be difficult. But Richard is an excellent communicator; wise, humane, and, as Mary Warnock noted, lovable. Which is perhaps not something that you could say about a lot of Anglican bishops.

April 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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