His Master’s Voice

Richard Holloway was born into a poor family in Possilpark in 1933. Taught by Anglican monks, he became a novice but later withdrew from the novitiate and was ordained in the Scottish Episcopal church in 1959. Bishop of Edinburgh since 1986, he has become well known for his forthright opinions.

Naim Attallah spoke to him

Q: Do you sometimes court controversy for its own sake, just for the hell of it? It’s difficult to believe you are trying to avoid the headlines when, for example, you call the opponents of women priests “miserable buggers” and “mean-minded sods”.

A: I genuinely don’t know the answer to that, question. But with regard to that particular incident, it was at a private meeting in support of the ordination of women and I was not aware that I was being recorded. Also, I know people don’t believe this, but you’ve got to be a Glasgow man to know that you can use the word “bugger” almost in an affectionate way; it’s a term of endearment in Glasgow.

The words out of context sound awful and I apologise for them – they were a lapse of judgement and of courtesy – but at the time I was talking about the experience in our church of having ordained women, and how most of us had found it a liberating joy, and I was saying that there were others whom it had rendered angry and hateful, and they couldn’t share the joy, and it was in that sense that I said “the poor miserable buggers”.

I do not wake up on a Monday morning and ask myself, how can I hit the headlines this week? The press is opportunistic; journalists want to catch you off guard, which is why so many bishops end up protecting themselves from these gaffes by saying nothing. You either choose to be more or less out of it, or you run the risk of occasionally making a fool of yourself, and I clearly opt for the second of these.

Q: Your namesake, the Rev David Holloway, has described your views on homosexuality as “heretical and very serious for the Episcopal Church”. How would you answer this charge?

A: In two ways. The very use of the word heretical shows a mindset that I no longer regard as appropriate. It suggests that there is an absolutely defined and packaged truth and therefore that there is an absolutely defined and packaged untruth, namely heresy. If I’m certain of anything I’m certain of the fact that Christian theological and moral history is an evolutionary history. The ordination of women was heretical until we did it; the emancipation of the slaves was heretical until we did it; so the use of that kind of epithet is pretty meaningless. I’m much more interested in arguing the truth of the issue; whether, for example, it is appropriate for gay and lesbian people to have full Christian status and the freedom of loving in their way, I hope as responsibly and safely as the rest of us struggle to achieve – that’s the issue, and not whether it has been traditional. Clearly it hasn’t been traditional in the Church, but it has always been there, and I have known many wonderful and holy gay priests. I was brought up an Anglo-Catholic and the Anglo-Catholic tradition has undoubtedly had many gay priests. The real issue is the substantive one, about the moral status of gay and lesbian people, and not whether it’s technically heretical. The Church is always evolving into another position, and these transitions are invariably painful.

David Holloway is an intemperate kind of a person, and he’s always phoned up by the press for the standard quote whenever someone says something even mildly liberal; he’s part of that pantomime cast of characters, just as I am, except I am phoned up for the opposite kind of quote.

Q: At one time you spoke of retiring as Bishop to stand as Labour candidate for the new Scottish parliament, but have decided to stay in post to fight for gay rights within the Church. Are you still of the same mind?

A: Yes, but it’s subtler than that. The Lambeth Conference last year had a profound effect on me. I’ve always associated Anglicanism with inclusiveness and tolerance of various angles to the truth, which is one reason why we’re described as having a tendency to fudge. But I believe that liberal plural communities have to do that to maintain equilibrium. I myself have learned a great deal from other traditions, the Sufi tradition for example, and my life has been much enriched by otherness. The Anglican communion used to be good at affirming that; their catholicity was about universality liberalism and radicalism and conservatism, working together, sometimes painfully but creatively, struggling with the truth and mystery of God.

Lambeth ’98 seemed to represent a declension from that particular way of being Anglican … and it was profoundly depressing. Whatever you think of the gay and lesbian issue, the experience of sitting in that debate and hearing the hate was awful. I mean, my stuff about miserable buggers was Enid Blyton compared to the malevolence experienced there. I was overwhelmed by it.

The underlying issue is how we interpret scripture, what we mean by authority, how we encounter evolving attitudes. For instance, we had an enormous struggle over women in the Anglican Church, which your church (the Roman Catholic Church) is still just beginning. I’ve no doubt at all that it is appropriate to ordain women, and I have no doubt that the great Roman Catholic Church will eventually come to that – you move more slowly because you’re a much bigger liner than we are. In some ways it’s part of our prophetic vocation in Anglicanism to act as the tugboat in front of you, and that’s one of the things that we have been quite good at doing.

At Lambeth ’98 1 felt that that way of being Anglican was being eroded. I tend to make decisions intuitively, I don’t tend to agonise, and I found myself hardly able to wait to get back to Scotland, knowing that I wasn’t going to go into the parliament, that I would stay on as Bishop of Edinburgh for a bit longer and therefore as a player in the Anglican communion.

I believe that this theological cleavage has to be tackled. So the issue is far bigger than the gay and lesbian thing, and in my letter to Donald Dewar I told him that there were trends in the Church that I wanted to stay around in order to challenge. The gay and lesbian thing is the symptom rather than the underlying cause.

Q: How could you ordain a priest who practices sodomy … isn’t that against everything you believe in?

A: Sodomy always comes up. I don’t know the sexual repertoire of the average gay person, but I’m told in fact that the prevalence of sodomy is higher among heterosexual couples than among homosexual couples, and in fact it is sometimes used as a form of birth control. That is a separate issue, however what you do with your sexual organs is not, I think, the moral question; it’s the nature of the relationship and whether it is violent or abusive. Sodomy as such need not be either; it may be an unsafe physical practice, but there is no doubt that sexuality expresses itself in all sorts of extraordinary ways, including oral sex, fellatio and cunnilingus, and one might just as easily consider those to be unnatural.

Homosexuals I know have a varied sexual repertoire, but I don’t honestly think that’s the issue. The issue is the quality of the relationship. For some reason there is a kind of fascination with other people’s sexual practices. I get lots of letters in which sodomy is written in block capitals. It’s one of those words that set people off, though as far as we know the sin of Sodom was lack of hospitality and not anal intercourse. So the answer to your question is this: for a priest to be in an established relationship with another male seems to me not to contradict the possibility of a valid and fruitful priesthood. I know many examples where this is the case. What goes on in the bedroom is a matter of private choice, provided it’s non-abusive and provided people are trying otherwise to follow the Christian ethic.

Q: As someone who has considered standing as a Labour candidate, do you have any reservations about New Labour about the emphasis on middle class rather than working class values, for example, and about their closeness to big business?

A : Yes. It would be dishonest to say that I don’t, but I operate on two levels here because all political parties inevitably have to make compromises and alliances for the sake of power, and power is intrinsically corrupting. One of the ways of interpreting what has happened in the political culture in Britain is to talk about the triumph of the right in economic terms and the triumph of the left in cultural terms, and I am watching with interest to see if Tony Blair can pull this off. It seems to me that there is an interesting experiment going on here in trying to harness the economic modalities of conservatism which seem certainly to have been more efficient than some of the command modalities of socialism, but to use them to achieve social reform and an ethical vision of the left. I think it’s a daring experiment and I hope it succeeds. There are inevitable losses, but there’s no doubt at all that the old monolithic kind of opposition between absolute leftism and absolute rightism is a thing of the past

To that extent I am reasonably comfortable with it, but inevitably I get a bit anxious in case New Labour go too far and forget their historic commitment to the poor, who continue to suffer in our culture.

Q: For the first time for many years we have a prime minister who openly acknowledges and practises his deeply held Christian faith. His enemies sometimes accuse him of parading it. What do you think about Tony Blair as a politician, and more importantly, as a human being and practising Christian?

A: I think it unfair to say that he parades it; he just doesn’t hide it. I believe his faith is genuine and deep. He is clearly a man who needs the sacrament and I don’t think he flaunts it in the way that some American politicians do, for example. It’s just part of the natural expression of his life. He’s clearly a man both of rooted convictions and liberal sentiments.

I find him intellectually a fascinating phenomenon. I’m impressed. He believes that the traditional political modalities are ethically bankrupt and there is a need to transcend them hence his Third Way. There is almost something Hegelian ‘in this, and I’m intrigued by it. The old conservative orthodoxies and the old socialist orthodoxies clearly on their own never worked in their pure form; they always influenced each other. The Tories inherited the health service and believed in it, and even though they might have eroded it, they were never going to cancel it. So I watch what is happening with a certain amount of intellectual excitement. Inevitably compromises are made, but I get the impression Tony Blair is trying to achieve a more inclusive Britain and I think that any person of good will would want to support that.

Q: You have annoyed many people – again – by suggesting that there should be no prayers said and no blessing called down on the Scottish parliament. What is your reasoning behind that? As an ordained priest, don’t you believe in the power of prayer?

A: Let me put this in context. I did a Thought for the Day, a reasonably tranquil piece, not heavy, not attacking anyone, in which I addressed what seemed to me to be the two main issues. I think it is appropriate for the churches and all faith communities to be available to the parliament to offer spiritual sustenance. I also believe that the parliament itself should be studiously secular in its structure and its way of running, because Scotland is a plural country. There are probably as many unbelievers as believers in this country, and if it’s their parliament as well as ours, so why should we have, as it were, an official status which is denied them? Modern government in plural cultures should protect and allow freedom to all religious communities but privilege none, especially when you’re setting out to create a brand new one. It’s different in Westminster there has been a connection between Church and State for centuries and they have a Speaker’s chaplain who says antique prayers, and it’s all part of the long running costume drama that is the history of the British parliament. We are starting something new here; we don’t have to plug in to quite that tradition. Brussels doesn’t do it and I approve strongly of that kind of secular objectivity. I also believe in the separation of Church and State, because perilous collusions can happen if you privilege one group against the other.

My second reason for suggesting that there be no official prayers is the difficulty of setting about doing it if you want to be truly representative. One MP who attacked my point of view said that there were 18 religious groups in Scotland and he reckoned they should all get a shot at it, with the atheists getting two minutes silence once a year. Well, it then becomes almost a farcical thing, but it’s not an opinion I hold with any great passion. I expressed a point, of view, and it created a furore, but I fail to see why a minister of the Christian church should not be allowed to have opinions on subjects like that.

Q: Except perhaps that you are trying to spare the feelings of non-believers, but wouldn’t even non-believers concede that prayer does no harm to anyone.

A: It’s not a question of it doing any harm. It is very important to me in my understanding of the meaning and the mission of Jesus that we do not use spiritual power in an abusive way, that we do not assert it over people. There is a history of spiritual institutions doing what God doesn’t do. God eschews power, empties himself of it, comes among us as a slave, but there is a history, particularly in Christianity, of lording it over people and operating dictatorially – in other spiritual traditions as well. That is inimical to the heart of the Gospel, and the thing that moderately distresses me in Scotland is a sense that the Church is scrambling to get a bit of this power for themselves, to assert their rights.

Well, I don’t think Christianity has any rights; it’s about service, it’s about receiving the grace of God. It’s not about asserting your position over and against other groups. So, let all spiritualities be provided for, including Christian prayer, but let it not be officially stamped upon the parliament.

Q: What is your concept of God? Who or what is God?

A: The old traditional way of positing a kind of super male figure, the Zeus God, Jehovah God, God of battles – all of that is clearly projection. And some philosophers reckon that all concepts of God are inevitably projections of our own longings. I believe that God is such a mystery that it seems to invade us with a sense of possibility: even the sense of the absence of God that is prevalent in our culture is strangely provocative, because how can you sense an absence if there had never been a presence?

Q: You served on the Warnock Commission on Human Fertility and Embryo Research which produced results since denounced by the Roman Catholic Church. I refer, for example, to the Commission’s expressed view that research on human embryos up to 14 days development is permissible. Do you have any qualms about this?

A: I was not a member of the Warnock Commission, but a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which was set up as a result of the Warnock Commission. I was invited to join the Authority, which was formed in 1990, and since I knew nothing about the subject, I went on a fast learning curve. The most contentious part of the debate was precisely about experiments on human embryos, but although it’s morally problematic, I believe that it is morally justified. The Roman Catholic Church has a very clear and coherent point of view which I respect but do not share. They believe that from the point of conception, the embryo has full moral status. This view certainly has the virtue of coherence, but I do not myself accept it.

It was decided that it would be morally appropriate to allow embryo experiment for 14 days since there are advantages in combating unexplained infertility and in investigating various kinds of genetic defects. It was one of those calculuses which have to be weighed up. It’s like abortion. The Roman Catholic Church, the hierarchy at least, has a strong moral agenda on that, but one not necessarily shared by the rest of the population. On the whole, the Abortion Act is probably one of those problematic things that we need. I would describe myself as being anti-abortion, but pro-choice.

Q: The ordination of women will never be granted in the Roman Catholic Church in the lifetime of the present Pope, nor will Anglican orders be recognised. If both these obstacles were removed, would you like to see reunion with Rome?

A: Yes. It would be with a changed Rome, but of course it is already a church that has changed dramatically since Vatican II. It is a magnificent extraordinary institution and I have a kind of nostalgia for it. I’ve always had good Roman Catholic friends, and most of them are radical people, theologically and politically – monks, nuns, secular priests and so on. If there is to be a united church I very much hope that it will be one that will diminish the tendency to authoritarianism within its structure, moderate the understanding of papal infallibility, and will allow a range of theologies to be expressed.

Q: You say in your book Who Needs Feminism? that Christians are called to lead examined lives. Does that mean that beliefs have to be constantly inspected and modified and, if necessary, altered? And if so, what can it actually mean to say ‘I am a believer’?

A: Christians should lead examined personal lives, that’s fundamental. Plato said the unexamined life was not worth living, and indeed it is absolutely vital to know yourself’… We should also understand the springs of our own prejudices, and listen to the challenges of others … I think that where institutions are concerned it is more complicated. Obviously individuals can change their minds rapidly, they can leave one party and join another; but institutions take longer, and you need prophetic leaders who are out in front, because the mass on the centre ground, not to mention the people at the back, don’t want any change. Cardinal Newman said that to live was to change and to be perfect will be to have changed often, and there’s no doubt at all that the history of Christianity is a history of continuity and change.

We believe in a living presence, someone who walks with us through history, and is indeed ahead of us. We never ever get God down finally in any form of words, so there should be a certain kind of lightness of touch in the way we look at these things. Nevertheless, we have to be ready to say, this is the memory of the tradition, this is the way we expressed our relationship to this mystery then, how can we better express it today? We, repudiate the years of persecution of the Jews, we repudiate our treatment of minorities but we don’t necessarily repudiate our credo statements.

Q: Apropos the persecution of the Jews, you have applauded Pope Paul VI’s repudiation of the ancient accusation that the Jews had killed God, something which led to centuries of anti-Semitism. What worries me is this: before this act of public repentance, the view which we now accept as wrong was deemed to he right. If at any point in the future something which we regard as right can be declared wrong, doesn’t this rather undermine all the views of the Church?

A: Yes, in one way. But one of the points that I’m constantly trying to make is that all our views have to be held with a certain lightness, a sense of their provisionality, their revisability. And this applies equally to doctrine and dogma. It’s even truer of purely social and cultural and ethical ideas, which change dramatically. Just think, the Christian church justified slavery for 1,800 years, and it’s there in scripture, I Timothy 6, where the slaves are told to be good little slaves lest the church be brought into disrepute. That to us is now obscene, and it’s not enough to apologise for it; we have to identify it and say it was clearly a moral obscenity. OK, you can see historically how it came to be justified, because the early Christians didn’t think they were going to be around for long, they thought that Jesus was going to come back, so what was the point in altering human arrangements in the short term.

But the long reach of history succeeded that kind of apocalyptic expectation, and we went on justifying slavery, just as we went on justifying many other oppressive things. It is very important to be open to new knowledge, new ways of looking at things that might make us change and own that we’ve got some things wrong.

Q: Isn’t one of the basic problems the fact that all the religions of the world lay claim to the truth? Even Mahatma Gandhi said that Hinduism was the religion of truth, and many other spiritual leaders would say the same of their own religion. Can there be such a thing as universal truth, do you think?

A: There probably is in the abstract, but I doubt if any single individual or institution gets a handle on it. A friend of mine who wrote a book on inter-faith outlines an approach which he calls grounded openness, i.e. valuing the truth given to you by your own particular tradition, but at the same time being open to other truth systems. You don’t become them but ‘ you’re open to them, while being grounded, holy, good and compassionate within your own tradition. You respect the other tradition, you may learn from it, you may believe that you have something to teach it, but you remain in your tradition in a non-defensive way. I think it would be marvellous if we achieved that kind of maturity. In my own case, I’ve learned a great deal from Buddhism; I’m not going to become a Buddhist- that would be against my every instinct and culturally quite an odd thing to do – but I’m a Christian who is open to Buddhism. I’m also an Anglican who’s open to Catholicism, and so on. If you have a certain kind of security in your relationship with yourself and with God then you’re able to do this.

Q: In your book Another Country, Another King, you seem to dispose of Hell and the Devil as 1st century myths, but since the terms ‘God’ and ‘Devil’ are simply variations of good and evil, can we believe in one without the other -that God exists but the Devil does not?

A: Yes. If there is a Devil – and I don’t believe there is in any objective sense – I think it’s a metaphor for all sorts of experiences. We are seeing a living hell in Kosovo; we saw it in the Holocaust. But I don’t believe morally in the possibility of hell because I think there is something morally contradictory in a God of justice giving eternal punishments for temporal transgressions; I’m more likely to believe in purgatory than in hell because I recognise the importance of moral evolution. Whatever happens after death, I feel sure we will continue the journey, and that journey may involve pain, but not ultimate or everlasting rejection by God. This would be inconsistent with the understanding of God as made known in Jesus.

Q: You seem to be saying hell is a state of mind. Is heaven also a state of mind?

A: You could say that. I certainly don’t believe in a geographically locatable heaven. It is simply a convenient way of describing the closer presence of God. I don’t know what heaven is except that if there is that mystery we call God, then there is a sense in which to he near God we will have to be in that state which we have in shorthand called heaven.

Q: Unlike the Bishop of Durham you have not publicly cast doubt on the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. Is this out of consideration for the simple beliefs of your flock, or do you see them also as 1st century myths?

A: I am genuinely committed to the plural approach to all of these things. If you can believe in the literalness of the Virgin Birth, if it works for you and brings you closer to God and your brothers and sisters, then I’m not going to undertake the project of disturbing that. If on the other hand you treat it as a Roman Catholic priest friend of mine treats it – as a theological symbol for the understanding that Jesus came from God in a spiritual sense – I can live with that as well. I am probably closer to the theological Virgin Birth understanding of it, but I don’t have a problem with a people who want to believe in miracles.

Q: Do you believe in miracles?

A: I don’t disbelieve in them. But I don’t actually find much need to believe in them. I don’t find it difficult to believe that Jesus performed works of healing. I think that the walking on water is probably a metaphor for something else, but if he did walk on the water, so what? It’s like angels dancing on the head of a needle – if you like that kind of thing debated, fine. Jesus himself didn’t seem particularly keen on the kind of faith which was the result of seeing miracles. So for me, it’s not a big deal, not a particular issue. The universe is weird and wonderful enough without miracles.

Q: In your book Who Needs Feminism? you say: ‘All our language about God is oblique and provisional’. Since the language of faith is very imprecise, isn’t it almost impossible to know what another man means by God, or salvation, or divine mercy?

A Yes. Apart from silence, all we have to talk about God is language, and language is always going to be imprecise. This is one reason why I increasingly prefer poetry, because poetry is about transcendent experience. Once you actually start defining these indefinable things you do violence both to your own intellect and to other people’s hearts. In the book to which you refer, I was trying to promote the equal status of women in the church and to explore the possibility of using a more varied language to talk to God.

Q: Is it possible to know the mind of God?

A: Certainly not in its totality. I’m always anxious when visionary, hectic figures tell me that they know the, mind of God, because I know that someone is usually going to suffer for it. There are great dangers in making absolute claims; many people thought it was the mind of God to persecute the Jews. I would always like to have qualifying phrases, such as ‘this is how it seems to us at the moment’ or ‘this is how we feel the mind of God is expressing itself through the community of faith, or through my own insights’.
Q: You have talked compassionately about the pain and hurt caused to women over the centuries, in the way they have been treated in what has been a patriarchal church. Is it possible that God is a woman?

A No, I don’t think God is a woman. But it would be just as anachronistic or inappropriate to say that God is a man. It is possible to use both male and female metaphors and images to reach a certain understanding of God, just as you can talk about God as shepherd, or as fountain. I think there is motherhood in God, and I feel it easy to pray to the Mother of God, by which I don’t simply mean the Virgin Mary, but something even larger than that.

Q: You once said: ‘There are complexities in human sexuality that it behoves us to understand and not merely to condemn.’ That is a compassionate position which a great many people would understand and sympathise with, Christian and non-Christian alike. Where does that leave you on the business of moral absolutes? Are there any moral absolutes nowadays?

A: I don’t think there are moral absolutes, and if there are any they are likely to be so general as to apply only in a very broad way. Sexual consent is an important principle, I would say almost an axiom, almost an absolute, which is why rape is always absolutely wrong. Obviously the young cannot give consent, and this makes pederasty and paedophilia tragically impossible. There can never be an allowable sexual relationship there, although it undoubtedly remains one of the mysteries of human sexuality.

But given those overarching moral principles, there is still an enormous sexual repertoire which can be mutually fulfilling and consenting, and I think that we should mind our own business and not meddle with other people’s lives. This should be the case even if we are personally repelled, as indeed I am by certain aspects of sado-masochism, for example. Mutually consenting sadomasochism, however, stops short of the heavier kind of wounding of people, and so I believe it is up to the people involved. I have no appetite at all for it myself, it’s a mystery to me, but it does seem to be a part of some people’s experience. I find it aesthetically displeasing, but that does not give me the right to try and outlaw it. There has been a lot of crucifying of people in the name of this kind of busy involvement in other people’s sexualities. I would prefer to allow freedom within an understanding of constraint and appropriateness. Between consenting adults, I do not think that you can say confidently “you can do this, but you can’t do that”

It is really up to the adults themselves.

Q: What sort of society do you envisage if all the causes you have espoused come into being: if drugs and prostitution, same sex marriages, even among the clergy, were legalised, and so on? Would it be a genuinely better society do you think?

A: All I have said is that there are issues here that need to be debated and we should he able to look at all possibilities. I would decriminalise cannabis, for example, as would most sane people in the country. I would certainly allow its use for medical reasons, and it seems to me absolutely ludicrous that you can’t even talk about that without having the tabloids on you. As regards prostitution it is is not called the oldest profession for nothing. It is always problematic when you involve the law in prohibiting something that most people seem to want, and prohibitionist cultures, as we witnessed in the States when they tried to ban alcohol, invariably don’t work.

But I don’t know the answer to these things. I’m not in favour of prostitution, and the trouble with legalising is that you appear to give it a kind of favourable rating. On the other hand it is a fact and it will go on being a fact, and to criminalise the poor lassies that get into it – usually because they are poor – is a great mistake. But to go back to the substance of your question, I don’t believe in Utopias. I do long for a society that takes care of the needy and the poor, that doesn’t persecute, that allows as wide a set of freedoms as possible that are consistent with the public good. I want the maturity that recognises that living in a plural culture, religiously, sexually, politically, requires great sophistication, tolerance and understanding. I prefer the risks of freedom to the risks of order. I find that young people in our culture have a kindliness and tolerance about them that is very appealing.

Q: Bertrand Russell once expressed the hope that the entire world one day would become one vast coffee coloured republic. Do you have any sympathy for that view?

A: Oh, yes. One of the fascinating things about mixing of the races is that you get good results. You get more beautiful people, and also some fascinating genetic leaps, so yes, that kind of merging and human communion would be a wonderful thing. And I’m not much of a monarchist. Again, I wouldn’t put energy into getting rid of the monarchy, but if I were given a blank sheet of paper, I would have some kind of republic, with a bit of fun and burlesque attached to it.

Q: You have experienced ‘the ‘dark night of the soul’ which you prefer to call the dark night of the intellect, when belief in God disappears. Have you experienced the opposite – the presence of God?

A: Oh, yes, I’ve had one or two moments of ecstasy. Oddly enough, I had one walking in Shaftesbury Avenue once. It was just a straightforward muddled streetscape, and then it’s as though I went over a threshold and everything became a sort of a ballet. It was one of those oceanic moments and I just wandered down the street grinning at everyone I met. I had a similar experience in the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow once. It was a Christmas pantomime when they did a tableau of the whole of Glasgow life, the women going to clean the offices, the shipyard workers on the Clyde, and I suddenly got a great sense of the human drama as a great ballet orchestrated by a loving mystery.

There was another moment when I was driving back from North Berwick on a lovely June evening. I was listening to Radio 3 which was playing Holst’s The Planets, and I was looking straight across to Fife, the evening was clear and still, and I suddenly felt that if I had only had that moment in time life would have been worth it. I saw that life is such an extraordinary gift, even for those who are experiencing tragedy and suffering. It gave me a great sense of thankfulness, and reaffirmed my longing to be someone who said yes, rather than no.

Q: You have three children, presumably brought up as Christians. Have they kept the faith? ,

A: They have all kept the faith in the sense that they are people who have values and a spiritual sensibility. I suppose they have an affectionate relationship with the church, they are still sympathetic to it, but for good moral and intellectual reasons they find themselves more on the edge than in the centre. So much of my own evolution has been in conversation with my children, so I’m very relaxed about where they are. We talk about these issues, we have a lot in common, but they are certainly not conventional members of the church.

Q: Do you fear death?

A : No, but I am wistful about losing life and I hope that I’m spared a bit longer. Whether it’s the end, or whether it’s a wakening to the new morning, it will be the last great risk and adventure.

Q: Do you expect to be reunited after death with those you love?

A: I don’t know. I do not have an opinion on that. I neither expect it, nor would it entirely surprise me.

The full version of this interview is included in ‘Insights’ by Naim Attallah, to be published by Quartet in October

Richard Holloway’s book ‘Godless Morality’ is published by Canongate Books on 16 August.