Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway

Theology rarely appears on this blog, though I have a dual degree in English and Religion and read a fair number of books with religious themes. Never fear: it’s not your average pie-in-the-sky Christian talk in Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard Holloway’s brand-new book about old age and death. Holloway was a career priest and has written nearly 30 theological works, but he comes at things from a refreshingly different angle. In Leaving Alexandria (2012), one of my all-time favorite memoirs, he recorded his drift away from orthodoxy – even as he rose through the ranks of the Church of Scotland to become Bishop of Edinburgh. He recognizes morality as provisional (like in another of his books I’ve read, Godless Morality (1999)) – the Church has changed its mind about women and gay people, for instance – and doesn’t waste time pondering the supernatural or the chance of eternal life, but he still thinks religion has lessons to teach us about how we can approach death with dignity.

The thematic scaffolding of this short book, which grew out of a Radio 4 series that aired in 2016, is acceptance versus denial. For Holloway, going prematurely bald was like a preview of ageing, and the futility of the quack hair restoration pills he ordered from a magazine was his first lesson in accepting what you cannot change about yourself. Seeing ourselves as we really are is a lifelong struggle, Holloway acknowledges; some only grasp their identity right at the end, as death approaches. Predestination is a doctrine common to Christianity and Islam, but he is more inclined to mix free will and fate. His recurring metaphor is of a deck of cards: life is a hand that you are dealt, but you get to choose exactly how to play it.

This is a richly allusive book, full of snatches of literature (especially poetry), as well as excerpts from obituaries and from funeral addresses Holloway has given. He also discusses the fear of death, the dystopian possibilities of cryogenic freezing, countering regrets with forgiveness, and how the way we face death could redeem a disappointing life. Holloway’s is a voice of wisdom worth heeding, and he is honest and humble instead of giving pat answers to life’s enormous questions. I would be particularly likely to recommend this to readers of Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of who want a contrasting perspective.


A couple of favorite passages:

“I have ministered [Last Rites] myself and seen the peace they can bring at the end. I have sent good friends into the arms of a merciful God I was no longer sure I believed in. And I was convinced not only of the efficacy but of the honesty of what I was doing. I was not there to ventilate my doubts but to help the dying find the strength to cast off and take the tide that was pulling them out.”

“Religion is at its most compelling when it restrains the urge to explain death away and contents itself with voicing our sorrow and defiance that [death] keeps beating us into the ground. It feels most authentic when it stops preaching and becomes, instead, our song, our protest, the handkerchief waved against the immense tank looming at the corner of the street.”

My rating:

Waiting for the Last Bus is published in the UK today, March 1st. With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.


15 responses

  1. Carolyn Anthony | Reply

    Is Holloway retired now?

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Yes, he stepped down as Bishop of Edinburgh in 2000. He’s now 84.


  2. You’ve definitely sold me this book, which I wouldn’t normally have included on a ‘must read’ list. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds an interesting reflective read Rebecca, I especially like the quotes you’ve shared.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really have to read Richard Holloway post-haste. He sounds like my kind of theologian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure some would say he’s hardly a Christian at all — isn’t it amazing how broad the Anglican Communion is?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! And part of why I like it so much.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s a very powerful image in the final sentence of your second quote.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds very good. I don’t read a lot of theological/spiritual authors but every now and then I am in the mood for just that kind of thing. I’ll have to give him a try. My library system has Leaving Alexandria.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I wouldn’t normally go for a book like this but the term ‘provisional morality’ caught me – I’m studying a unit in ethics (related to counselling) at the moment and spending a lot of time thinking about morals, virtues, principles, standards etc.
    Equally, the quote about Last Rites – I’m involved in biography writing for a palliative care service and for people of all backgrounds, spiritual, religious or otherwise, there does seem to be something extremely important in acknowledging the end of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you would find this book of value in both respects.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] two books on death, Caring for the Dying by Henry Fersko-Weiss, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, and Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway. Really this is the kind of book I would like to own a copy of and read […]


  9. […] Waiting for the Last Bus by Richard Holloway: Ageing and death […]


  10. […] Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a short book for the Anglican Communion to use as Lenten reading. This study of the crucifixion focuses on seven of the Stations of the Cross, which are depicted in paintings or sculptures in most Anglo-Catholic churches, and emphasizes Jesus’s humble submission and the irony that the expected Son of God came as an executed criminal rather than an exalted king. Holloway weaves scripture passages and literary quotations through each chapter, and via discussion questions encourages readers to apply the themes of power, envy, sin, and the treatment of women to everyday life – not always entirely naturally, and the book does feel dated. Not a stand-out from a prolific author I’ve enjoyed in the past (e.g., Waiting for the Last Bus). […]


  11. […] needs rather than on the supernatural or abstruse points of theology. His recent work, such as Waiting for the Last Bus, also embraces melancholy in a way that many on the more evangelical end of Christianity might deem […]


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