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'It would be great if our politicians were more trusting of each other and worked together for the common good of our community'

By Cate McCurry

The Very Rev John Mann, Dean of St Anne's Cathedral since 2011, talks about his career, including the annual Black Santa charitable sit-out at Christmas, and his hopes for the forthcoming Stormont elections.

Q. You were ordained in 1979, what made you want to go into church life and how did you find God?

A. I was brought up in London and had a very traditional upbringing in the church there. I sang in a choir and did all the things that families involved in churches would have done.

When I was 18 my family moved to the Isle of Man. At the time I got a place at Queen's University so I moved to Belfast.

Life in Northern Ireland in 1973 was very different. The accommodation I got was at the Church of Ireland student centre and was part of a Christian community at university.

I think that was one of the major influences towards going from a traditional church background to a very challenging situation where I was thinking a lot about my faith.

I went to Queen's to study pharmacy but during the course of my first year I changed to theology course.

There was a very significant moment. I had been through the selection conference to be received for ordination, but I still wasn't sure whether I was doing the right thing.

At this stage I had married my wife, Helen, and we were living back on the Isle of Man. We chatted and thought maybe we should return to Ireland.

I wrote to the Bishop in Ireland and decided to visit him and he was very encouraging and suggested that I should go and think about it some more.

I did and then I went to the theological college in Dublin.

Q. Tell me about your family - your wife and children.

A. I married Helen, who is a nurse, in 1976 and we have two children - a daughter, Rowan, and a son, David. They both moved to England some time ago. Rowan got married to Graham in the cathedral here last year, while David lives in Coventry.

Q. Since taking up your role as Dean you also took over the role of Black Santa. How have you found this?

A. It has been very interesting and a great privilege. The first year was a tremendous novelty.

Discovering the interest there was in the community in this Belfast tradition was lovely and I am absolutely loving it.

I get to speak to so many people and then there's the other side to it when you have collected all the money and you are going through the applications from charities.

You think that it would be great to give them lots of money and you are weighing one application against the other.

There's also the fun experience of standing outside for all of these hours.

I get lots of support from staff and volunteers in the cathedral while I'm there for nine hours a day. Part of the experience is feeling the privilege of it and even when you feel a bit fed up if there's not many people walking by you know this is worthwhile.

This year we are going to be able to distribute £235,000. That's the most we have ever raised.

It is a street collection so it's staggering how much money is raised.

There's definitely a fun element to it, particularly when the weather is bad, people are sympathetic.

Q. You are going to give out the money you have raised in the next few weeks, can you tell me how that is done?

A. It will be given out on February 5 at the service in the cathedral. We ask the charities to come to the cathedral to collect the cheque as it's important. It gives a chance for other charities to listen to each other.

Q. How do view religion in today's society, is it still as important as it once was?

A. There is a lot of talk about Christianity today and if people take it seriously, and it is a topic for conversation.

I take a very optimistic view and think all faiths that are outward looking and expressing their belief in a way that is involved with issues like justice, peace, the state of the world generally, climate change and concern for those less fortunate than themselves is a way that faith communities work together.

I believe the way that St Anne's presents its mission is the way that I believe the Christian church should be.

Serving the community and be seen to be serving the community.

We try to be open and invite people to take part in our services.

We always try to reach out to the community and be part of the community through things like Belfast's Culture Night.

We are at the centre of the Cathedral Quarter which is an exciting place to be.

We also have very significant financial problems with the cathedral which is a real headache sometimes.

To run a cathedral costs more than £1,000 a day.

Q. Do you think there is too much clamping down on religious freedom within today's society, particularly in the workplace?

A. I think that if you take, for example, funding bodies, there is a reluctance to fund organisations that are promoting religion and we would find this in grant applications.

There seems to be a feeling in society that we should not necessarily be overtly religious and should be coupling our social concern with a religious tag.

Some believe that by us doing something that may be perceived as good in the community we are doing it because we want to promote the religious aspect of what we are doing and this is where there is a fine dividing line.

Yes, we are doing things we feel compelled to do because of our Christian commitment, but that's different to entering a situation where you are promoting your Christian beliefs and it's at that fine dividing line that society has become cautious and perhaps I would think these days, overcautious.

We should have an opportunity to talk about our faith in an open way and not feel constrained because if we do that then we are perceived to be only doing a loving thing because we put that message across as well.

Q. What's your view on the current political situation at Stormont?

A. I feel I would love to come out of the whole mess with some clarity. It would be great if this election could move to a place where politicians are not only trusting each other in a more open way, but working together for the common good of our community.

If we can achieve it then we would find a way out of this mess and we might get a springboard into a new situation.

It could be that one or two people are going to have resign to allow that to happen.

I feel that if we create a similar situation from this election then it's going to make more people anxious.

The focus should be on those who don't have a voice at the moment.

Q. You described homosexuality and same-sex marriage as one of the most "divisive and hurtful" issues within the church. How are you addressing that?

A. It is such a divisive issue in the church. Hardly a week passes that someone doesn't send me a link about some article or what the church is doing generally. Part of the concern is that this is not just an issue for the church but a matter of deep concern for families and for individuals in that situation.

It's that point that I use the word hurtful. One of the hurtful things to say to someone is that they are part of the issue and they are not.

The church, pastorally is moving on in its thoughts, in particular the concern for those with same-sex attraction.

The document called Guide to Human Sexuality in the Context of Human Belief is encouraging debate within the church and what it has done is that it has raised awareness and I think that has led people to talk more to gain better understanding.

Q. Do you foresee any major changes in the church with this issue?

A. At some point the Church of Ireland will certainly be discussing this in General Synod again. For the last four years there has been little talk.

I will be reporting back to the synod this May and we will be talking about how the 12 diocese of the Church of Ireland has been moving on in their thoughts from a recognition that this is a divisive issue to what are we doing about it.

It is also a major concern as to how we, as a church, are engaging with people in our parishes who are living with same-sex attraction, either within themselves or within their families.

Ultimately, that is where further discussion will come and there will be moves to improve the pastoral ministry living in these situations.

Q. Next year the Pope is planning a visit to Ireland. If he travels to Belfast, how will you welcome him to St Anne's?

A. If he comes to Belfast he will be coming to the Catholic community. He would certainly want to express something ecumenically and with St Anne's being so involved over so many years this would be a good place for him to come. But we don't know yet. If he does come and is willing to come to St Anne's we would want him to speak at the cathedral.

Q. The first Catholic priest was recently appointed to serve on the Church of Ireland Cathedral governing chapter - how has that been accepted by members of the church?

A. Fr O'Donnell was the one who was nominated and appointed and he now has a right to a seat in this cathedral. His role means he can come in at any service and has a seat in the canon's stalls here. The cathedral community think it is wonderful and has been supportive. There will be some people who feel that a Catholic priest can't take part in an Anglican church or feel that it isn't a thing to have a priest ministering in an Anglican Cathedral.

We knew those points of view would be expressed but I say that nobody is being asked to compromise their belief over this. Those who protested on the day he was installed would say it is not possible for him to become part of the clergy team. But within the constitution of Church of Ireland it is allowed.

Q. What have been the key moments throughout your time as the Dean of St Anne's?

A. There have been some big services here that have taken a lot of preparation.

The really important things that happened include our decision to make it policy that our choirs are cross-community. Going back five years there was an occasion where two girls, one was Catholic and the other Protestant, who were both singers came out together arm-in-arm, that was good.

Our engagement with the culture night is quite important, we usually have 10,000 people here on culture night. It gives us an opportunity to meet people. We can be terribly isolated in a place like this unless we are out there.

We had a celebration last year with all organisations in Northern Ireland who are working with the migrant community and those who have been making a new home here. I thought that was very important. There has been sad things as well and when tragedies happen we very often set some sort up memorial up, those are also important occasions.

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