Edinburgh International Book Festival: Richard Holloway
Appearing before a full house at the Book Festival, Richard Holloway displays his customary common touch, common sense and uncommonly good way with words. The former Episcopalian bishop of Edinburgh begins with a diagnosis of the human condition, whose profoundly dual nature – creative and destructive – had brought us to crisis point. But, he continues, the institutions which humans had created to tame their own unruly wills were themselves in crisis: “Our banks steal from us, our police spy on us, and our politicians take us to war, in our name, but without our consent.”
The big question – who guards the guardians – once had a big answer. It was religion which used to do this. But now, Holloway observes, religion is also in crisis, unable to control the numbers haemorrhaging from its churches.
With a twinkle in the eye, he has a substitute to fill this spiritual vacuum. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, he declares, is “the right kind of church”, a place where the congregation can laugh, think and disagree.
In his recent autobiography, Holloway is candid about the doubts which had surfaced in his mind regarding religion. Today, he describes himself as “not a complete atheist”, preferring to sit uncomfortably inside the church than to stand uncomfortably outside it.
There’s one aspect of life about which he has no doubts, however. Holloway is an enthusiastic evangelist for the arts, and he speaks warmly of his work as chairman of the Scottish Arts Council and encouraging children in deprived areas to embrace orchestral music.
For Holloway, art, music and literature are worth celebrating, not for their economic impact, but in their own right. And he expresses affection for the Scottish Arts Council, an organisation that could suddenly provide a sum of money to a struggling author writing a book about a boy wizard.
Another of his enthusiasms is putting meaningless strictures to the sword. Prompted by a member of the audience, Holloway expresses his opposition to rules that become ends in themselves: “We need anarchists to say the rules are wrong”
It was this passion for people before protocols that saw Holloway conduct a same-sex marriage in his church as early as 1972. Today, he’s vocal in his support of LGBT rights, asserting that oppression of homosexuals, whether in Scotland or in Russia, must be opposed.
Rounding things off, on this, the 30th anniversary of the Edinburgh Book Festival, Holloway is asked what kind of country he would like to see thirty years on. He expresses the hope for a union of friendship among the peoples of the British Isles. But to achieve it, he cautioned, would require politicians to put a stop to short-term posturing.
Sadly, that’s something he might have to wait longer than thirty years to see.