Introducing him as bold and troublesome, James Runcie went on to suggest that Richard Holloway had gone from being Britain’s barmiest bishop to Britain’s brightest, baldest old bugger – words that sounded more like those spoken by Holloway himself. This was clearly going to be a spirited and frank discussion, not only of his latest book, but about the former Bishop of Edinburgh’s personal journey.
The book (which might not be his last) is nevertheless titled Waiting for the Last Bus and is – as the sub-title says – Reflections on Life and Death. It came out of a series of essays written for the Radio, and is described as a 21st Century Ars moriendi, a ‘handbook for making a good end’ as it says in the book.
Rather than engaging in deep discussions of eschatology (which these days are in the hands of scientists more than priests) or reflective melancholy (the domain of poets) this was a conversation about ‘reclaiming our dying.’ Since there is so much poetry quoted in the book, it wouldn’t surprise me if Holloway was quoting Sylvia Plath when he said “Dying is an art.”
Ironically this is from her poem Lady Lazarus. It’s likely that Holloway regards the Lazarus story in the same way he approaches the Resurrection myth: as a psychic encounter. At eighty-five, showing little sign of signs of slowing down, Holloway has had much time to “prepare to leave the stage.”
Understandably, not every life enjoys such longevity or mental clarity, but the emphasis on being kind to one’s past seemed to be a strong theme. An un-reconciled death, and even forgiving yourself, is hard, so we must also be kind to others’ pasts as well as our own.
Often we lack the vocabulary to deal with death, especially if it is early or unhappy. Whether or not we buy into the religious script, there is much poetry in the Bible and liturgy – in Ecclesiastes, or the Funeral Sentences – that can help people come to terms with the inevitable agnosticism that we face in our approach to death and dying.
James Runcie suggested that, like gender-fluidity, there is now a fluid approach to religion and faith, to which Richard Holloway agreed: the ability to live with uncertainty is necessary. “Those who think they have the answers are the most scared.” He goes on to say that it’s important not to hammer one’s views, but to be passionate about uncertainties. You cannot absolutise everything.
One thing of which there is no doubt is that Richard Holloway continues to be an engaging, entertaining, and deeply inspiring man, despite his own doubts and contradictions. He ended by saying how he had blessed an elderly priest that morning in the name of a God he doesn’t quite believe in. “If that makes me a hypocrite,” he told us: “F**k it!”
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