Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Leaving Alexandria - A Book Review

I preached a sermon a few years back when I admitted to doubts about my faith, perhaps a little too candidly. It was a Marmite sermon. People came up to me either with genuine gratitude or suggestions of resignation.

I haven't read this author before. The little voices of my rapidly-fading evangelical credentials whispered, 'Don't touch.'

But I recall hearing him speaking about an earlier book 'Godless Morality'. He argued that if you use God in any way in an ethical discussion the response 'I don't believe in God' is final. No more can be said. So, he said, Christians must learn to do their arguments informed by God but expressing them differently. Holloway ending up chairing the ethics committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. So he had secular clout.

Unusually for a thought-provoking Christian author Richard Holloway can write like a dream. It makes it easier to follow. Sometimes you have to, in the words of John Habgood, '...be determined not to let this idiot of an author prevent you getting to grips with the subject.' Not so here.

And that is a good job because the subject, as the sub-title says, is faith and doubt.

So here's a question, which I have asked myself many times: if you have doubts, does it demonstrate more faith to offer your life and career in Christian service than if you are clear and convinced? And if you do so offer, doesn't that prove that you had faith all along? It's complex, paradoxical.

Don't worry, this will be a book review.

Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit says Galatians 5. Faith is a gift of the Spirit says 1 Corinthians 12:9. This apparent contradiction suggests that somehow one can serve God in the gap between experiences of his existence. There will be times when this gap appears. 1 Samuel refers to a time when the word of the Lord was rare and there were not many visions. Yesterday's lectionary reading at Morning Prayer had Saul enquiring of the Lord but getting no answer. The disciples once had to wake Jesus and asked, in a boat mid-storm, if he cared whether they died. In other words, God is not asleep at the wheel, but sometimes it feels like that.

So this book is the story of a man who was convinced by Christian service and Catholic expressions of religion, but not so much by the heavenly destination his faith pointed to. His ministry, especially to the poor, whilst struggling with the reality behind the faith that had led him there was remarkable. He ended his stipendiary life as Primus (Archbishop) of the Scottish Episcopal Church. His learning and scholarship saw him become Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London.

Maybe the Catholic repetition and ritual of worship carried him on long after it had been drained of content; duty not joy. At the end he could go no more. He resigned his post and slowly, painfully left the church. He did it without great fuss.

He observes that an institution in crisis spends far too long in meetings discussing its purpose and future. Perhaps the one sentence I take away and wrestle with is the thought that out of certainty comes great evangelism, but out of doubt comes great pastoral work. Does the genuine consideration that the reward is in heaven take the edge off our desire (or need) to help the poor. In which case a belief that this life is all there is will make us determined to improve the suffering of all.

How often we reduce '...the mystery of what is beyond all utterance to chatter.'

I didn't end this book feeling sad but with gratitude for its honesty and the realisation that there is only so much honesty in this area you can exhibit as long as others will want you to retain your post. To be honest.


Anonymous said...

Is your last paragraph a statement about the need to curtail honesty to keep respect, a call to maintain what may indeed be widespread isolation in dark moments of clerical life or a sad statement of realism devoid of hope? I'm not sure if I should be really sad to read this and you are actually voicing a widespread issue. In which case if there any way it could be different?

Steve Tilley said...

I think it is reality but it doesn't necessarily have to make you sad.