ROBBIE LOW: THE INTERVIEW

 

David Holloway

 

THE NAME HOLLOWAY is synonymous with controversy. Mention the word in any gathering of Episcopalians within these islands and it will provoke a strong reaction. Try it out in conversation with an oratory of orthodox and you will find them crossing themselves and reaching for the Commination Service. They will, of course, assume that you are referring to the Heresiarch of Hibernia, Richard of that ilk.

Tease a prelacy of liberals with the same eight letters and the kindest words you will hear are maverick, fundamentalist and bigot. For their minds will instantly have turned to the Vicar of Jesmond, a strange cove who seems to think that the Bible is authoritative, that there are discernible Christian moral principles and, to add insult to injury, runs a highly successful and popular parish. This one’s called David and, one of his favourite pastimes, appropriately, is taking on the Goliath of an arrogant and invasive establishment. Of late he has been much in the national press for standing out against the heterodox teaching of the new Bishop of Newcastle, Martin Wharton. On the day I caught up with him he was in London for a press conference for the launch of the Christian Institute’s latest publication.

We met in the foyer of the National Liberal Club and adjourned to a quiet corner of the neighbouring Horse Guards’ bar for a light lunch and a jug of ale.

Holloway is medium height with wavy short hair, gold rim specs, secular suited and with eyebrows in the Denis Healey class. He is warm and direct and you’re not long in his company before you realise that the speed and thoroughness of his speech is a direct result of trying to deliver the results of a mind whose connections and perceptions are turbo- charged. If I had tried to record all Holloway’s tabletalk my battery of pens would have expired and I would have burnt a hole in my pad. I defy anyone to be bored in Holloway’s company. I asked him...

Where did you begin?

"Stanmore in Middlesex. My father was a bank manager and my mother looked after us and the family home. I had one sister, Ruth, who is now a schoolteacher in Canada."

Was it a Christian household?

"Yes. We came from free church to Edgware Parish Church and the vicar, Gordon Harman, was a big influence on me. I was fortunate at school, too. A Roman Catholic teacher, Geoff Carrick, a former pupil of C.S.Lewis, introduced me to that area of the faith and a classics master, Mike Benson, later Church Society, was a good Christian influence."

Where was school?

"University College. it was a very good intellectual environment in the radical tradition. Benthamite utilitarian foundation - all the difficult questions were asked and wrestled with. One of the most irritating things that liberals in the church say is that "we must ask questions". We always asked them, it was part of a rigorous educational process under a remarkable headmaster Mr Walton. We were privileged to have the opportunity to examine the arguments and the evidence before making our minds up. At home too we were privileged to have people like Aylward and Guthrie and Ellison to dinner and listen to them. The comfortable liberal caricature of us as idiots worshipping a shibboleth won’t wash."

What about your faith?

"I’d been to a Billy Graham mission but was not inclined simply tom take something on authority. But, by my last year at school I had passed Descartian scepticism and the ultimacy of nature. I had concluded that what was ultimate was not an IT but a HE."

And then?

"Oxford, University College. Classics - always my great love and, as ever, plenty of sport - especially rugby and cricket. Tom Parker, the chaplain, was a great help and I found myself moving in Christian circles. St Mary’s warned me against the Christian Union - "bigoted fundamentalists" apparently - so I went straight there and discovered John Stott on the scriptures. I only really got involved late on in my time and was generally regarded as a liberal! Ironic really, because many of my evangelical contemporaries now seem embarrassed by evangelicalism."

And theological college?

"No. I didn’t want that so I opted to do a theology degree in the university. Jim Packer was around a lot. Mind you so were David Jenkins (later Durham), John Baker (later Salisbury), Alec Graham (later Newcastle) and Leslie Houlden (later Cuddesdon and Kings). Those were the days when Jenkins could be quoted as saying: ‘When someone says something that is contrary to the scripture - know that they are wrong!" and I remember Tom Parker demolishing the liberal reductionism of Bultmann in a brilliant sermon on angels.

What do you make of that liberal critical method which has so dominated the theological colleges of our time?

"They are always talking about daring to think the unthinkable. My experience, on the whole, is that they can’t think their way out of a paper bag. The liberal critical method would be held in utter contempt in any other scientific or literary discipline. If, in classics, you followed the style arguments which deny Pauline authorship, you would find that Plato didn’t write half his letters. And, as matter of fact, if you applied the same flawed system to what you write now, you would discover that your early sermons were almost certainly written by somebody else."

So you studied alone?

"No pressure - I could think for myself. My criteria were: is this theology preachable and teachable; does it change lives; is it true? I became convinced of the essentials of the faith while acknowledging that, this side of heaven, some things remain a mystery - we see 'as through a glass darkly' ".

And then theological college?

"No. Africa."

It was 1963. "Honest to God" had just come out. Holloway read it on the train to a selection conference. He turned down college places and went to the Sudan in a time of extraordinary ferment. The missions were closing, but mission schools were still accepted. Liberal western bosses were encouraging dialogue with the rising powers of Islam and the then-powerful Marxists. A country the size of Europe was beginning to tear along the Northern / Arab / Muslim - Southern / Negro / Christian divide. Holloway saw the first signs of this implosion and the forerunner of the Islamicisation campaign. The converted Christian headmaster was rescued before rioters, tanks and tear gas destroyed the school and, later, thousands on the streets, and the destruction of the mission compound. The genocide was in its infancy.

Has this coloured your attitude to Islam?

"I believe there is a common grace, some shared revelation, but saving grace is through Jesus Christ. This is a fundamental clash of civilisations and it is cloud cuckoo-land to think that there is some easy accommodation here. I saw real suffering and transparent faith, living experience of Jesus Christ. One of the most moving experiences of my life was the re-opening of Juba Cathedral after all that, and seeing the procession come in singing "Yesterday, today, for ever, Jesus is the same."

There is little doubt the enormous effect this time had on Holloway. He has kept up his African contacts and extended his involvement to Kenya and Uganda. Watching people suffer and die for their faith put the English experience in perspective. Standing up to heretical bishops or protesting at evil state laws incurs merely marginalisation and disapproval here. A small price to pay - yet alarmingly few, in the deadly Anglican culture of deference, are prepared to pay it.

And then theological college?

"Yes. Ridley Hall in 1966. The culture had undergone a sea change. Nineham (the guru of ultra liberals) was teaching there! Montefiore was at Great Saint Mary’s. Extreme liberalism on the theological and moral level was widespread. The American bishop and spiritualist Pike was around! But there were good teachers. Caird and Moule and Chadwick were excellent, and Demant. Surreptitious meetings of charismatics were happening with people like Michael Harper (now Orthodox). I read Knox on "Enthusiam" but the experiences were of God and providential. Also, having done the degree, I was free to read books that would equip me for effective parish ministry".

When did you marry?

"1967. Joy is a paediatrician and we met on a mission in Ireland. We’ve got three children - Michael, 28, teaching in Japan; Annabel, 25, finishing her M.Phil. in Oxford; and Zoe, 22, just finished at Oxford and helping at St. Ebbs.

And then?

"St George’s, Leeds, under Raymond Turvey: ministry to students at the university and a crypt with 200 alcoholics and drug abusers. One of Joy’s first studies, "They can’t fit in", was done there. The same year I was the student rep. at the Keele Conference. At the plenary session of 2000 people I said I was horrified at the drift from the platform. The Abortion Act was going through and there was a need for Christians to act. The platform tried to talk me down, but Turvey defended my right to speak."

Did you learn much from Turvey? "He was a remarkable man but always too busy to teach you. I learnt from the curate, John Wallis (now Vicar of Emmanuel, Northwood). But I learnt from the model there, the base line - wide outreach; middle stump evangelical; Biblical preaching."

After four years there, Holloway was invited by Jim Higginbottom to come and help him rescue Wycliffe Hall which had almost been snuffed out by liberalism and needed to restore evangelical confidence. He came to teach doctrine but also learnt other valuable lessons and stayed to teach pastoralia too.

"Jim taught me church politics. When they tried to amalgamate the colleges, he demonstrated that it would cost more. It showed, as so often is the case, that centralism can only be combated by the money argument."

This reminded me very much of a remark made to me many years ago by an experienced and godly priest about the establishment. "They don’t care about your principles and are largely ignorant of your theology but threaten to cost them money or refuse to subsidise their wasteful hobbies and experiments and they will give you their undivided attention and be down on you like a ton of bricks."

And then?

"In 1973 I was asked to go to Jesmond. It was the last week before the patron’s rights reverted to the bishop and, although I was very young, they knew I was convinced of the faith.

It was a key job for the Gospel, lots of students and graduate work - preaching and teaching opportunities. We worked from first principles - incarnation and resurrection, Jesus is The Way. We were concerned for the interface between church and society and we grew.

This wasn’t in the diocesan plan, of course. The Archdeacon told me it was expected to be closed in five or six years."

What’s your Sunday attendance now?

"About 800 on a normal Sunday."

This is to say nothing of the extraordinary national ministry Holloway has through the Christian Institute, Reform and his astute inspiration and advice to fellow evangelicals as well as his media appearances in defence of the faith.

How does a church grow like this?

"Read the church growth movement books, Peter Wagner, Lyalla Schaller - work from the Fuller Seminary on church management and sociology. You learn a lot about how to run churches - very practical realities for the society supernatural to live in society and transform it.. We have so much to learn. My criticism of the C of E is not simply doctrinal - we suffer from disastrous management - and there’s no need."

You got on General Synod very early?

"Yes. I was asked to stand - didn’t know very much about it but, on the first day, I spoke on faith and action in society and was put on the Board of Social Responsibility. There were a lot of solid believers on then - I remember Robert Warren and I used to swap notes over lunch. My involvement with the Board led directly to involvement with the homosexual debate. When, in 1979, the Bishop of Gloucester’s report justified homosexual practices, in some circumstances, I was involved with Graham Leonard in drafting the critical response. It became clear the way the bishops were going and that many were simply turning a blind eye or, in some cases, privately encouraging. Most evangelicals were simply not aware of these realities."

Then you got involved with Jenkins

"Yes. We’d just had his outbursts on the virgin birth and the empty tomb. I cannot tell you how I agonised about it before writing to The Times. I have always had a respect for authority and office but not when it is betraying its mandate. If things are wrong, one should say so. Once you’ve done it, there is a tremendous freedom. I briefed evangelicals on Synod and assumed they would all be on-side. Some were. but a surprising number were hostile or cautious. Too many have gone native in the establishment."

But your priority has never been political

"My concern has always been preaching the Gospel on Tyneside. Our motto is ‘Godly living, church growth, changing Britain.’ Our task is to be the salt in society. Everything else is a consequence of that".

And some considerable consequences there have been. It was Holloway who, after producing for Radio Leeds and involvement with Yorkshire TV, fought some of the great broadcasting battles to defend and set free Christian broadcasters. His work, in the 80s, on the Cable Bill, allowing Christians to have a say, and his long campaign to remove IBA censorship of religious broadcasting at one point involved a consortium bid for North East TV.

Holloway has also been constantly involved in education and this work has climaxed in the foundation of the Christian Institute to keep Christians informed and help them deal with social and public affairs.

It is one of the tragic ironies of Anglican life that, as the proportion of jobs in central office at national and diocesan level increases, we are increasingly dependent on the efforts of the over stretched parish priest to provide the resources. The decade of evangelism has largely relied on the missionary catechetics of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and orthodox moral and social teaching has found its buttress in Jesmond, Reform and Forward in Faith.

What about Jesmond?

"Our primary work is spiritual - preparation for heaven. But we have a great social outreach because Christians should be the Good Samaritan. Over the years I’ve been very concerned for the development and life of the city and, in the early Thatcher years, I invited senior Government people up to look at Tyneside and to form a think tank to revitalise the North East."

Whither the C of E?

"I am committed to the Western Reformed Catholic tradition. I hope the C of E sticks to that but the crisis is serious. In the 1960’s 70% of children were baptised. It’s now down to 20%. Our hold on the culture is slipping and a church that is in danger of becoming a sect cannot relate to the whole life of the nation. We cannot expect to thrive if we live a denial of the apostolic faith and, unfortunately, in many areas it is only a dead liberalism that is holding the structure together. The structure cannot hold if it is rotten through. I suspect there will be more traumas to come. Great corporations as regulating agencies break down when they are not pursuing their key tasks. The church is a voluntary agency and people are increasingly unwilling to be told what to do by people who are demonstrably incompetent and hostile to the Gospel."

Jesmond doesn’t pay all its quota, does it?

"No, we capped our contribution to the diocese when the diocese supported a neighbouring parish which was blessing homosexual unions and simultaneously doubled our quota to pay for the privilege of that support. "

Do you accept bishops in principle?

"Yes. I prefer bishops to committees because you can pin them down. Episcopacy is a good organising and pastoral principle but we don’t have Episcopacy. We have Prelacy and that won’t do."

So what advice do you have for the Orthodox?

"Be realistic. Be serious but not pessimistic. God is in control and it is His Holy Spirit who changes lives. The church is dependent on the Word of God, not on bishops and structures.

We must remain preaching the Gospel. Many of the under 30’s, victims of the baby boomer generation, see the issues more clearly and are more conservatively inclined. God’s providence and external events will validate our Gospel stand. We are called to do the right thing, not to plan the future."

 

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's.

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