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Archdeacon David McClay: 'I was widowed as a young man but I have never doubted God's goodness'

In conversation with Archdeacon David McClay

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New challenge: David McClay, Bishop of Down and Dromore

New challenge: David McClay, Bishop of Down and Dromore

New challenge: David McClay, Bishop of Down and Dromore

Alf McCreary talks to David McClay, who was consecrated today in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast as the new Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore.

Q. Tell us something about your background.

A. I was born in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, on June 5, 1959. I'm the eldest of four children and my parents, Roland and Kathleen McClay, still live on the home farm where I grew up.

I was widowed as a young man, aged 33. My daughter Cherith was four years old when her mother Irene died.

Some years later I met and married Hilary. We have three children; Cherith married to Ciaran, Ruth married to Matthew, our son Jordan and one grandchild Annie.

I was brought up in a loving home and from my earliest years was a regular worshipper in the local Church of Ireland parish church in the village of Ballintra. I was a pupil in the local Church of Ireland Robertson National School, then at the Royal & Prior in Raphoe, before embracing a career in industry with Magee & Co in Donegal town.

I was ordained deacon in the Church of Ireland in 1987 and priest/presbyter in 1988. I served a curacy in Magheralin with the rector Dean Roland Hutchinson. In 1990 I was appointed rector of Kilkeel, then of Willowfield in 2001.

I became a canon of St Anne's Cathedral in 2004, Archdeacon of Down in 2013 and now the Bishop of Down and Dromore following my election in November 2019.

I also lead New Wine Ireland, a movement of churches working together to see mission and growth throughout the island of Ireland.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. It was in my late teenage years that I came to a personal living faith in Jesus Christ. This came about as I realised my need of forgiveness and that we all need to make inherited faith our own.

Q. Does this faith play a real part in your daily life or is it just for Sundays?

A. Faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit is for me very real. I believe every Christian is called to live under the authority of God's Word and the Holy Spirit lives in us enabling us, giving us the strength to love and follow Christ.

The discipline of Bible reading and prayer is part of how I order my daily life. Being a Christian for me is about living a blended life in which I try to follow Christ in all aspects of living. It is actually unhelpful and even dangerous to try to do some aspects of life and living without reference to God and obeying His word and commandments.

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

A. Through all the ups and downs of life including grief, bereavement and disappointment I never doubted God's goodness and God's love. The cross challenges me to count living for Christ in every and any circumstances a privilege. I have, however, often been disappointed in myself and my own apathy as a follower of Jesus.

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

A. I can honestly say that I have never been angry with God. I have been frustrated that my prayers were not always answered, or things have not always worked out as I had planned.

I have been disappointed at times by people, but I believe that God is holy as well as good and kind. He is to be feared as a holy God as well as someone we know closely and are constantly cared for, loved and protected by. These don't contradict each other.

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

A. I'm not unfamiliar with criticism, but I'm fairly resilient. One of my heroes of faith is a woman called Jackie Pullinger who, in her book Chasing the Dragon, talks about those in Christian leadership needing to have a soft heart but hard feet, able to walk through tough places.

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

A. I'm sometimes disappointed at aspects of our denomination's life and witness. We have as a Church incredible potential to serve Christ in Ireland and to serve the people in Ireland for Christ. I do believe we could be much more intentional in making Christ known in word and in practical acts of kindness than we are. But I am also aware of my own shortcomings in this regard.

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

A. I'm not afraid to die. With St Paul I want to say, 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain'. However, I don't think that anyone looks forward to sickness or weakness that can so often be our experience before death.

Q. Are you worried about hell-fire and if you believe in a resurrection what will it be like?

A. I believe in heaven and I believe in hell. I am thankful for the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, that because he died and rose again those who die believing in him will share heaven and eternal life with him. Heaven will be being with Jesus where there is no sickness, sorrow or pain, a new heaven and a new earth where the old order as we now know it will have passed away.

Hell will be that place of eternal separation from God and all his blessings.

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

A. I am always wanting to learn from others. One of the joys of following Jesus has been to work with, worship with and witness alongside followers of Jesus from other denominations and Christian traditions.

I admire some of the qualities and traits that are found in people of other religions and none, and long that they will come to know Jesus. The words of a hymn by Charles Wesley capture this for me: 'O that the world might taste and see the riches of his grace! The arms of love that compass me would all the world embrace.'

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

A. Churches vary a lot; some do well at fulfilling Christ's commission to make disciples; some don't do so well, and some do poorly, but all of us could do better. It is the Holy Spirit at work in us that enables us to do the work of God.

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

A. People aren't so much turning their back on organised religion as not being given opportunities to meet with Christ. When people encounter Christ, when they encounter his presence, when they meet people whose lives He has changed, when His word is proclaimed lovingly and in the power of the Holy Spirit then lives are changed by Christ forever.

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

A. Religion without Jesus is ineffective at best, harmful at worst, while Jesus without dead religiosity changes communities as well as individual lives.

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

A. My favourite film is any John Wayne western. My favourite book apart from the Bible is Billy Graham's biography because he finished well and that's my prayer, that I would finish well. Don't hold it against me but my favourite music is anything of Abba's (that gives away my era!).

Q. Place where you feel closest to God?

A. I feel closest to God on my own, on my face before the Lord with an open Bible. The physical space doesn't matter much (but it helps if it's warm and the floor is carpeted).

Q. Inscription on your gravestone?

A. Please put as an inscription on my gravestone if you must put anything: David McClay, a servant of Jesus Christ.

Q. Finally, any major regrets?

A. I would have liked to have spent more time with people, with friends, with family and less time trying to solve unsolvable issues. However, I don't have major regrets other than I could have loved Christ and served him more effectively.

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