'A friend who, like me, is the son of a Presbyterian minister, said he was glad his father had not lived to see what had become of the Church that he had loved. I felt the same'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
Lord Alderdice (64) is former leader of the Alliance Party from 1987-1998 and a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords since 1996.
He is a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. During his political career in Northern Ireland he was the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998-2004. He is currently a senior research fellow and director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, based at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford.
Q. Can you tell us about your early background?
A. I was born on March 28, 1955, and educated at Ballymena Academy and Queen's University in Belfast. My father, the Rev David Alderdice, was a Presbyterian minister and a devoted pastor and preacher. My mother, Helena Alderdice (nee Shields), was a homemaker and unpaid church worker.
They taught me the history, doctrines and practices of the Christian church and I had the special privilege of being able to argue with the preacher every week over Sunday lunch when I did not agree with some element in his sermon! They also taught me by their love for each other and their lives of manifest concern for other people, that I should do what was right in the sight of God, behave in a way that was respectful and fair to others, maintain an active curiosity, always searching after the truth and not refusing light from any quarter, and that above all the Gospel of Jesus was the message of the love of God. I have two sisters, Anne and Ruth, and a brother David - all married with their own families.
I met my wife, Joan (nee Hill) when we were both pupils at Ballymena Academy. She was a year younger than me, but we started going out together at school and both went up to Queen's University to study medicine. We got married while we were still medical students and she went on to become a consultant pathologist while I went into psychiatry. We are now living in rural Oxfordshire. Our son Stephen is married to Heidi Bochio (from Sao Paulo, Brazil) with two children, Thomas and Abigail. Our other son Peter is married to Rebecca Zahn (from Hamburg, Germany) with two children, James and Charlotte, and our daughter Joanna is married to Stuart Grieve (from the north east of England) with one child, Elsie.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
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A. I remember an occasion in the Sunday School of Westbourne Presbyterian Church on the Newtownards Road, when I prayed with a teacher, devoting my life to God in following Jesus Christ. In truth this was no dramatic change. I had always lived in a home atmosphere where faith was the guiding principle of life and while there were also other special times of commitment, for example going forward for communion when I was 12, faith is something that has developed throughout my life.
Q. Does this faith play a real part in your daily life, or is it just for Sundays?
A. Faith has always been a primary guiding force in every aspect of my life and relationships. Do I sometimes fall short? Every day. But my faith is still the guiding light for my life.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. I am old enough to remember the old television sets where the picture disappeared down into a little white dot in the centre of the screen before it went off. There have been times when my faith became like that little white dot, but it never disappeared. Instead it expanded to the full screen again, often with some new insight or understanding.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God, and if so why?
A. I do not recall ever being angry with God. I have always felt that I was enormously fortunate and that when things went awry it was usually my own fault or sometimes that of someone else, but I did not feel that God was to blame.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith and are you able to live with that?
A. I am more often criticised for foolish things that I have said or done, rather than for my faith. I have at times been criticised for my beliefs, more often by others who call themselves Christians than by other people with other beliefs.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
A. As you know, last year I resigned from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland after a lifetime as a member, and 30 years as an elder. For many years I had been unhappy about the direction of travel of the denomination and the decisions of the General Assembly in June 2018 were a 'rubicon' for me. I joined First Belfast Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church and attended there until we moved to England, though I still maintain my membership of First Belfast and attend from time to time when I am back in Belfast.
I will not rehearse again the details of my deep unhappiness with the trajectory of PCI, but many friends wrote to me to support what I had done. A number of them were also sons of Presbyterian ministers and one of them summed it up when he said that he was glad that his father had not lived to see what had become of the Church that he had loved and to which he had devoted his life. I felt the same.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. I am not afraid of death, though I hope that my later life will not be dogged by pain, disability or dementia.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection, and if so what will it be like?
A. The more I learn about life and the universe in which we live, the more extraordinary and mysterious it is to me. What is beyond this life is a great mystery, but in death, which is the final adventure of this life, I will venture beyond with the same faith in God that has guided my life.
Q. Are you worried about hell-fire?
A. Not at all.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. They are also searching for God, and we are all searching for meaning. I can learn from all sorts of people in the way they live their lives and conduct their relationships.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. I find it impossible to imagine that the whole of the rest of the world is so benighted, and that I and the community I come from, is so enlightened, that there is nothing to be learned from others. I have been fortunate to travel and to build relationships with people from many different cultures, faiths and traditions, and this has been enormously enriching for my life and my faith.
Q. Do you think that the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. While individual people of faith have truly lived out the Gospel mission, the churches largely deserve much of the same critique that the people of God received from the prophets of old.
Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. In the West particularly, many people of all ages see organised religion as failing to inspire better lives and, on the contrary, believe that the religious structures are failing miserably to follow the guiding light of the spirit. They still look for the spirit, but sadly they often fail to find that spirit in organised religion.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Personal faith and following the Gospel of Jesus Christ has enabled many people to be loving, courageous and marked out by integrity. Others have interpreted religion not as a relationship with God but as a set of beliefs that justify a very different and unloving way of living. Most of us are something of a mixture of both.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. My favourite film is Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough, who was a colleague in the House of Lords for many years. My book, The Changing Vesture of the Faith by J Ernest Davey, has had an enormous impact on me and I re-read it every other year. Since boyhood Mozart has been my favourite composer.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Somewhere beautiful where I can be quiet and listen to contemplative music - though the natural music of the sea would suffice.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. I will leave that entirely to others.
Q. Finally, do you have any major regrets?
A. Major regrets are very debilitating and one of the many ways in which I have been blessed is that I have not had to live with any major regrets.