Retired Scottish primus rethinks authority

Published April 1, 2001

Archbishop Richard Holloway

It is time for the church to change, to leave behind a “dying mind-set” of authority over people’s private lives and become relative in a pluralistic world, says the recently retired Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, Archbishop Richard Holloway.

Archbishop Holloway was in Toronto recently to give a keynote address at a conference on full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Anglican church. The author of numerous books and a sometime television host for the British Broadcasting Corp., he spoke with the Anglican Journal the day before the conference.

“What I’m wondering is if we can pioneer a new way of being a church which is also consistent with being contemporary, that defines right and wrong such as the abuse of children or rape or abuse of power in relationships,” he said.

“But victimless, individual ethics, leave that for the people to decide. What right does anyone have to interfere with that? You can have sexual guidelines that protect professional people. But why bother with what weed they’re ingesting, or the kind of sexual activity they’re up to and with whom?”

The problem, as Archbishop Holloway sees it, is that the church is “pre-modern, patriarchal and paternalistic,” whereas society is post-modern and has resolved issues such as homosexuality and abortion.

He pointed to the 1998 Lambeth Conference during which African bishops initiated a bitter fight over the issue of homosexuality, saying that it is condemned in the Bible. This, Archbishop Holloway said, is a “paradigm” issue for the Anglican Communion, adding that he found Lambeth’s “high-octane homophobia” disturbing.

“It’s deep and anachronistic, a kind of idolatrous approach to scripture, that scripture becomes an absolute. And we know that this isn’t true, because we’re a church that ordains women. A lot of (opposition to the inclusion of homosexuals) is a deep fear and anxiety about difference. Fear of homosexuality does funny things to people, especially males who have anxieties about their own sexuality.”

The issue is a symptom of deeper questions, he says, about the way Anglicans view scripture.

“It’s a well-known phenomenon that you project your own discomfort onto others and persecute them. The psychology of theology in the Anglican Communion and the way we’re handling big, difficult subjects is by focusing on that particular group of people (homosexuals). It prevents us from really addressing the nature of theology and the nature of scripture, the fact that we all disagree about it, that there is no certain way of understanding it, the fact that it is human, and therefore revisable.”

The church needs a balance of tradition and change, he said. Bishops, he added, can get paralyzed by trying to preserve tradition and “not recognizing the moment when the brave decision needed to be made. ? Sometimes the only way to preserve tradition is to let it change.

“The old way was that if you didn’t go to church on Sunday, you would go to hell. That certainly has been a Christian point of view, a religion of salvation for after death. If that is true, then going to church is your passport for going to heaven.”

Does he believe in hell?

“No, I don’t. For me, any valid power left in Christianity is enhancing life in this world, especially for those who are getting it rather meanly. ? I have moved into a more radical theology in the past 10 years. I think it is important to keep God out of moral debates because how can you trump God? It’s really a Christian thing to say, you’re going to go to hell if you don’t do it my way. Islam is much gentler about your final destination. Harry Williams said that religion is what you do with madness.”

If Mr. Williams is correct, then what has been Archbishop Holloway’s career?

“I sometimes wonder. I’ve occasionally done the odd little bit of mercy and good. I look back on it after 40 years and feel like a general who has retired and starts worrying about the ethics of the wars that he’s fought. Not all of them. On the other hand, I never did buy into the cruel and ugly versions of Christianity. I may have been wrong all along in assuming that Christianity could be compassionate and open and inclusive and affirming. If those things are not possible, then I’ve wasted my time.”

He compared today’s church to Christianity as it began.

“I don’t think Jesus intended a church, certainly not the way it’s turned out. Jesus was an extremely moral and religious person and he created a human explosion. We are part of the distant reverberations of that, but I don’t think he came into the world to set up a divine organization with bishops and all of that.

“It is part of the historic evolution and I don’t deny there is truth and value in it, but he didn’t come down to deliver this. He might be very uncomfortable and baffled by what we’ve done.”

Margaret Dinsdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.


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