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Donal McKeown: 'Belief is not without times of crisis, but challenges are a chance for us all to grow'

In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith

By Alf McCreary

Donal McKeown (68) grew up in Randalstown. He has a brother, James, and sisters Mary and Teresa. As children, they played with neighbours from other Churches.

His first 11 years were spent in a house with a water pump in the yard, and there was no electricity until he was 10.

His father, James, was a watchmaker, and his mother, Rose, a primary school teacher, though she could not work always, because she was married and had four small children.

There was a strong sense of community and of being part of a large family network - his father was one of 13 children and his mother was one of eight. As a young man, Donal McKeown played Gaelic football and hurling with Creggan Kickhams, near Randalstown.

He has run a number of marathons, one in 1982 as part of a 48-strong parish team raising funds for a new church building, and another in 2001 to raise money for a new minibus for St Malachy's College, where he had been principal in Belfast. He also took part in the Belfast-Dublin Maracycle in 1996.

"My studies at Queen's University in German and Italian gave me a chance to travel in Germany from 1970 to 71. In my last two years at Queen's, I was the Belfast correspondent for a German news agency," he says.

"When studying in Rome, I read the Sunday English-language news bulletin on Vatican Radio, as well as reporting for RTE in Irish."

He was ordained in 1977 and served for 24 years in the pastoral ministry, predominantly in education. He was Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor (2001-2014) and was appointed Bishop of Derry in April 2014.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. Faith has always been a part of my life - beginning in the family and developed, initially, in excellent schools. As part of a large family circle, I learned a lot about life and death, baptisms and bereavements, love and loyalty.

Being a believer is a core part of me. I believe that I am called to be a minister of the Gospel - not just someone who does the job.

Ministering mainly in Belfast during the Troubles, from 1978 to 2014, provided many challenges. Some of us did Roman Catholic Bible study in the H-Blocks in the early Eighties. I was part of a group called A Christian Response to Strip Searching, and was involved in a substantial amount of cross-community work. I feel that God is not finished with me yet.

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

A. No faith journey (or relationship) is without times of crisis and growth. We are always on a personal Exodus journey - and the Promised Land is in front of us. Challenges have always been a time for growth, where I have to let Jesus be Lord - and not my plans.

However, it is always easier to believe in 'the pound on the ground when I am around', rather than 'pie in the sky when I die', as Muhammad Ali is supposed to have said.

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

A. Never in a major way. However, it can be difficult to face the reality of pain and evil and to cope with a lack of enthusiasm on the part of some who say they believe.

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

A. Faith is often criticised and individual religions/religious systems are often - and rightly - attacked. Criticism hurts, but I can cope with that because of the great people whom I know from the Churches and the blessing that faith has been to so many in processing the pain of being human. I believe in a God who is working in all things, despite human failure.

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

A. I often feel ashamed of the actions of some members and of the culture that has developed in some places and times. Feeling personal, or communal, shame helps us all to face the truth and to live with it. Original sin is alive and well inside Church, as well as elsewhere, but I believe that God can work through even the weakness of institutions.

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

A. Death does not terrify me, but I do enjoy living. Our lives are of eternal beauty and value, whether they are short or long.

Q. And what about Hell? Are you worried about it?

A. I trust in the mercy of God if I ask for it.

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

A. I believe that here is not as good as it gets. Resurrection is also a statement that our bodies are sacred and that what we do in the body is of eternal value. The New Testament is clear that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that we do not belong to ourselves anymore. That is where so much of our understanding of sexual morality comes from. When we lower our bodily intimacy to the level of the merely animal, we demean ourselves.

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

A. Inter-church work has been part of my life since I went to Queen's in 1968. The Rev Cecil Kerr was a big figure for me, along with Rev Ray Davey of Corrymeela and Fr - later Bishop - Anthony Farquhar.

I believe that none of us is as smart as all of us and God's Spirit inspires people of goodwill, whatever their background.

The days at Queen's - prayer meetings, political awareness and writing for the German media - helped me to meet great clergy who knew it was better to be unhappy with the right questions than happy with the wrong answers.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. I have often sought to learn from others. The great monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam - are the closest to each other and a bit further away from the polytheistic, or non-theistic, religious traditions. But we all see as in a glass darkly.

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

A. Churches have quietly done many wonderful things - and some terrible things. But we would be much worse off without the message of faith in society.

Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?

A. Organised religion has been riddled with scandals and failures and Churches have often been based on a belief in the Church, rather than a belief in the love of God.

When the institution lets them down, they have little to fall back on.

In an age of individualism, the message of the Cross is culturally at odds with the market's insistence on 'obey your thirst' and 'life is too short to say no'.

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

A. The film The Shawshank Redemption is a great story of faithfulness and redemption. I don't have a particular favourite book, or music, but my favourite radio stations are BBC 3 and 4.

Q. Do you ever feel lonely as a Bishop?

A. Leadership is always lonely, but I have good friends and a wide family circle, who include me in so many things. Even as a school principal, I tried to have a collaborative style of leadership.

After one long project, my successor said: "I want to pay you a compliment - you aren't missed."

A good leader builds a team that shares the vision. And the Lord is a great friend in prayer.

Q. Where is the place you feel closest to God?

A. In the Liturgy celebrated with a community and in personal prayer.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. 'Blessed be God for ever." I would not want the message to focus on me. My achievements are irrelevant.

Q. And have you any major regrets?

A. That I was not a better priest and a better human being.

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