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Alf McCreary in conversation with Ruth Patterson - first woman ordained in Ireland

'I was the first woman in any denomination in Ireland to be ordained, 43 years ago... the  road has not always been easy

Leading role: Ruth Patterson OBE was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church
Leading role: Ruth Patterson OBE was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Ruth Patterson (74) has been the director of Restoration Ministries since 1991.

It is a non-denominational Christian organisation committed to healing, reconciliation and peacemaking.

Her third-level education was at Queen's University, Belfast (BA and a Diploma in Social Studies, 1962-66), the University of Toronto (Master's in Social Work, Community Development, 1966-68) and the University of Edinburgh (BD, 1971-74).

From 1968 to 1971, she worked on the chaplaincy team at Queen's with Ray Davey, and in 1976 she was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church - the first woman to hold the role.

For more than 13 years, she was minister in Kilmakee Presbyterian Church, Dunmurry, and in 1991 she began work with Restoration Ministries full-time.

In 2001, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Presbyterian Church, and in 2003 she was appointed OBE for her services to reconciliation work.

Her older sister, Joseen, was the first female surgeon in Northern Ireland and her younger brother, Don, is a marine engineer and a well-known musician.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. I was brought up in a Christian home. My father, the Very Rev Dr Tom Patterson, was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church from 1977 to 1978. We were really good friends, as well as father and daughter, and I was glad that I was ordained as a minister in time to be one of his moderatorial chaplains.

My father was tall, 6ft 4in, but my mother, Ruth (nee Gaston), was 5ft. What she lacked in height, she made up for in dynamism. She was a GP, but during the Troubles she worked in A&E at Altnagelvin Hospital.

My parents were always encouraging us in whatever we sought to do. Their strong faith and sense of humour were enormous gifts to us.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God? If so, why?

A. Not with God, but I have been angry with those who perpetrate evil and oppression, and who do not recognise a common humanity. It's not God who does these things. He stands with the poor, the dispossessed, the humiliated, the forgotten. The biggest gift God gave us was the freedom to choose. Many have taken that freedom and used it to diminish humankind - and God weeps.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis or gnawing doubt about your faith?

A. Of course I've had doubts and questions. I'm sure everyone does. It's not so much about faith itself - after all, risk is perhaps another word for faith - rather I would sometimes have doubts and huge questions about some interpretations and demonstrations of faith that run totally counter to the way I would be seeing things.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? Are you able to live with that criticism?

A. If we waited until everyone agreed with us, we would never do anything, or go anywhere, and that includes where our faith leads us. I get criticised in some quarters for where faith has led me - to ordination as a woman to ministry 43 years ago, to the ministry of reconciliation, peace-making and healing, to a conviction that God creates diversity, not uniformity, and sees that it is good - and much else.

Q. How did you react to becoming the first female minister in the Presbyterian Church?

A. I was the first woman in any denomination in Ireland to be ordained 43 years ago. The road has not always been easy, and often I feel it has been made more difficult than it could have been. I was the only woman minister for a few years and I felt that the whole question of whether or not women should be ordained was resting on how one person performed or did not perform.

It was a rather difficult and lonely road to travel, and I am so grateful for people like my father who were always there with wise advice and support.

Q. How did you feel about not becoming Presbyterian Moderator after two elections?

A. I knew it wouldn't happen, but it wasn't top of my agenda. I felt it important to let my name go forward to draw people's attention to the fact that there were women ministers in the Presbyterian Church.

I believe that there will be a woman Presbyterian Moderator some day. The ordained women within the Church are remarkable individuals for whom I have the deepest regard and respect.

They, along with so many gifted and able lay women, have much to offer the Church as a whole that has not been tapped into yet.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?

A. I value greatly the Presbyterian denomination that nurtured me in faith, but it has changed a lot. I am not ashamed of my own Church or denomination, but I am saddened and frustrated often, not only by my denomination, but by the institutional Church, in all its branches, when we fail to live up to the charter of the Kingdom as delivered and incarnated in the person of Jesus.

Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond it?

A. I am not afraid of death. It is the ultimate letting-go, but it is also the doorway into another chapter. However, I have to admit to being somewhat apprehensive about the dying process.

Q. Are you ever worried about Hell?

A. No. The worst hell would be separation from God, accompanied by the awareness that I was the cause of that separation. God's ideas of justice are very different from ours, and I can safely leave all of that with him.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? If so, what will it be like?

A. I believe in a resurrection, but I don't know what it will be like. It doesn't begin at some vague point after death, but begins right now, every time a person opens their heart to the nurturing love and grace of God.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. No one person or group is the sole possessor of the truth, and the truth in the person of Jesus the Christ cannot be possessed. If we think our way is best, then perhaps we haven't even started.

I have always been totally committed to ecumenism, to unity. We can start, at the very least, with a recognition of a common humanity.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. Sometimes, it seems as if we are more concerned about our particular traditions, political stances and culture than we are about God, who is above and beyond all of that and, at the same time, intimately concerned with every detail of our living. We can so easily make a god out of lesser things.

Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?

A. Religion has definitely hindered, but faith has done the opposite. A person can be very religious without necessarily displaying the Gospel values of mercy, justice, truth, peace, inclusion and acceptance.

Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?

A. One of my favourite films is Babette's Feast, a Danish film, and another is Of Gods and Men, the true story of a group of Trappist monks who live among their Muslim neighbours in Algeria.

As for music, there's Handel's Messiah, which I love. I also soar with Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

One favourite book, among many, is Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. North-west Donegal and the Island of Iona, and every time I take the space to sit down with the awareness that I am in the presence of God. That can be anywhere.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. That's up to others. My niece wrote a song entitled I Am Still Learning. Perhaps that would be good on my gravestone.

Q. Have you any major regrets?

A. Regrets can hold us captive to the past. There are things that I would have loved to have done differently, or refrained from doing, but today is all I have. I cannot base my life on regrets from the past or anxieties about tomorrow.

I am constantly challenged to live fully in the present moment with as much grace and courage and love as I can.

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