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Archdeacon Scott Harte: 'So often there seems to be no answer to the question, why?'

In conversation with Archdeacon Scott Harte


Belfast native: Archdeacon Scott Harte

Belfast native: Archdeacon Scott Harte

Belfast native: Archdeacon Scott Harte

Archdeacon Scott Harte spent the major part of his ministry in Co Donegal. He was married to Isabel (nee Chesnutt) for 22 years until her death in August 2000. Their daughter, Lauren, is a Belfast Telegraph journalist.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I was born in 1946 and grew up in east Belfast, the second son of Albert, an engineering inspector, and Violet Harte. I have one brother, Bill, who lives in Glasgow with his family. He worked in various countries as part of the international YMCA movement. In 1978, I married Isabel Chesnutt, a schoolteacher from Kilcar, Co Donegal, but sadly she died on August 12, 2000. We have one daughter, Lauren, who works in journalism.

I attended Lisnasharragh Primary School and Annadale Grammar School. Having worked for a few years in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, I entered Trinity College, Dublin and completed five years of study in arts and divinity before being made deacon in the Church of Ireland in 1971. In 1972 I was ordained as a priest.

Q. What about your Church career?

A. My first curacy (1971-1974) was served in the parish of Bangor Abbey, after which I moved as curate assistant to the parish of Ballynafeigh, with its landmark church of St Jude on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Although these were turbulent and violent times in the life of the city, tremendous leadership was exercised by clergy of the main denominations in the area.

Sometimes in the face of considerable opposition, they promoted and maintained a positive climate of peace and reconciliation.

In 1976, I moved to south west Donegal and spent 22 years of fulfilling, people-centred ministry in the parishes of Ardara, Glencolumbkille, Killybegs, Portnoo, Glenties and Lettermacaward. Subsequently, in 1998, I moved northwards to the Dunfanaghy group of parishes where I spent the last 15 years of full-time ministry.

In 1983, I was appointed Archdeacon of Raphoe, a role which entails assisting the Bishop in the administration of the Diocese, and in 2007 I became a Canon of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland.

Q. What was it like moving from Belfast to be a minister in Donegal?

A. In some aspects it was like entering a different environment. There was a great degree of integration and a warm and welcoming community spirit. Somehow people seemed to have more time for one another. The wide open spaces and invigorating air were indicative of a breadth of acceptance that was relaxed and uninhibited. The Church of Ireland was very much in the minority, but it was respected and afforded a valued position in social and cultural life. There was also a positive ecumenical dimension and a climate of mutual support and co-operation.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. For me, faith is an ongoing journey of adventure and discovery. Certainly, my faith was family-nurtured, but it has been tried and tested through unexpected twists and turns along the way. Somehow, in spite of ourselves, we receive strength to persevere and to realise that difficulties, however intractable they may appear, can be transformed into opportunities for growth and development.

Faith needs to make a difference for good in our daily lives and relationships. In particular, we are called to reach out caringly and practically to people in need, especially to those who feel marginalised and rejected. A question posed by the New Testament writer James is timely and pragmatic: "What good is it for people to say that they have faith if their actions do not prove it?"

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

A. I believe doubt is an integral part of faith. There were doubters even among Jesus's closest followers. Like them, we may be enabled to learn that doubt can be the means of recovering our faith. We are never discarded because of our fears and failures.

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

A. I am not sure that I would use the word "angry" in relation to God, but I would definitely be perplexed by issues such as the degree of suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters, the prevalence of poverty and deprivation, the misery of exploitation, and everything which diminishes people and usurps their quality of life.

So often there seems to be no answer to the question "Why?"

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

A. I do not receive much in the way of criticism for my faith, but I am very much aware that I fall far short of the standards to which I aspire.

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

A. I am fortunate at present to be part of an accepting and inclusive parish church of St George, Belfast where all are welcome, irrespective of their social status, faith credentials, racial background, or sexual orientation.

I feel ashamed of my own Church tradition where I experience examples of a narrow, judgmental and intolerant exclusiveness. There is a wideness in God's mercy.

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

A. I derive much comfort from a prayer which speaks of passing "though the grave and gate of death... to our joyful resurrection". I like the image of the gate, which suggests an entry, a means of access into a fuller and ampler life. The end of faith's journey marks a new beginning.

Q. Are you afraid of hell at all?

A. No, I am not afraid, because I believe and trust in a God of love, not a God of wrath.

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

A. Central to St Paul's belief in the resurrection is the conviction that, "We shall all be changed".

I would be reluctant to try to elaborate on that. We shall all be changed in ways that we cannot now imagine or envisage. But we believe that ultimately we shall share Christ's victory over sin and death and live with him for ever in God.

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

A. I am sure there are potentially enriching experiences to be gained by sharing in the faith journeys of others. It would be foolish for any of us to claim to have a monopoly of truth.

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

A. By all means. Learning is about sharing and discovery.

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

A. Yes, in the sense that there are many fine examples of effective, caring outreach. But there is invariably room for improvement.

Q. Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion.

A. Organised religion carries too much cumbersome baggage of hypocrisy, lack of transparency, empathy and compassion, self-preservation and uncharitableness.

In many respects, it has become disconnected from the lives and everyday experiences of numerus people.

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

A. There are conspicuous, positive influences attempting to heal divisions and to overcome prejudice and sectarianism. But historically, and even to some extent today, there exists a tendency to create, rather than dismantle, barriers of mistrust and separateness.

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

A. One of my favourite paintings is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Some years ago, I was fortunate to view the original in The Hermitage at St Petersburg.

It radiates a powerful message of repentance, welcome, compassion, forgiveness and love. There is a wonderful book, with the same title, by Henri Nouwen. Also, Seamus Heaney's New Selected Poems 1966-87 and Seamus Heaney: 100 Poems, chosen by his family. The former is of special personal significance, as it was a retirement gift given from my Bishop, the late Dr James Mehaffey and his wife, Thelma, who remains a valued friend. Favourite music is the song Gloria The Gift of Life. My favourite film is the current production of Jane Austen's Emma.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. Wherever I am sharing in the bread of life and the cup of salvation: "Here faith can touch and handle things unseen."

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. The inscription, which is already on my wife's headstone in the grounds of St John's Church, Killybegs, Co Donegal, is from the Song of Songs and reads: "Love is strong as death".

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. For whatever hurt or pain I have caused to others.

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