Alan Bell has been a member of Greystones Presbyterian Church in Wicklow for 60 years and an elder for over 35. He owned a family drapery business in Greystones for 35 years before retiring.
Q. Can you tell me about your background?
A. I’m 84. I’ve lived for 60 years in Greystones, ever since I married my wife, Lucy, but I’m a Tipperary man. Lucy hailed from Cork, but we never lost our sense of origin. My dad, Alan, was born in Edinburgh. His family relocated to Ireland, but never lost their Scottish Presbyterian identity. Isabel, the love of his life, was an Underwood from Kildare, proud of her Church of Ireland heritage. My youngest brother, Cyril, made his life in Australia. The eldest, James, has died.
My parents sent me to an apprenticeship as a draper, so I put away my dream of being a carpenter. But God never closes one door... Drapery was good to me. More importantly, I met Lucy, my soulmate, there. She died in 2009, some 48 years after we were married.
Q. How did you come to faith?
A. Tipperary Presbyterian Church, where I grew up, was small. Mam and dad never forced us to go to church. They never preached at us, but if ever there was a case of preaching the Gospel without words, they were a great example. I joined the Presbyterian Church in Kilkenny. Goods of Kilkenny, the firm where I worked, was run by Methodists and 100% of the staff was Protestant. There were six apprentices at any one time. We got board and lodgings. We’d no money for pubs, or dancing. Aeons before Netflix and the internet, our social lives revolved around the churches and Christian Endeavour. That was our life-forming influence. I had no blinding light finding of faith. I was gently nurtured.
Q. Have you ever had a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. Show me the person who doesn’t have questions. We all have questions, maybe even doubts. How can we, with finite minds, begin to understand an infinite God?
Q. Have you ever been angry with God?
A. You can’t be human and not be angry and frustrated at suffering and death. That’s what drives me to prayer. God’s big enough to deal with that. And, mysteriously, there’s always that still, calm, reassurance that He is in control. I don’t have the answer to why He allows suffering. I don’t think anyone has. But I know that, when I pray, I must be open to being part of the solution. I have no time for platitudes.
Prayer is important, but faith without action is dead. Sunday intercessory prayer sometimes frustrates me. It’s too easy to tell God about the problems and leave them there as though our job is done. If our engagement in serving others, fighting injustice, relieving suffering, or extending the kingdom extends only to praying on a Sunday (or any other day), then our faith is a meaningless waste of time.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve been asked, “It must be difficult to be a Presbyterian in the south.” How wrong. I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life: in Tipperary, Kilkenny, Dun Laoghaire and Greystones. I’ve always experienced respect and acceptance. Outsiders don’t understand that. Maybe that’s the point: we’re insiders. We’re Tipperary men and women, or Dubliners, or Galwegians — whatever.
Our origin is our bond. Because of that, our difference is accepted and respected. That’s a lesson for the Church’s mission. You can’t win the southerners without becoming one of us. I think that’s why Jesus chose to become human.
The General Assembly’s 2018 decision to deny full membership to same-sex couples made me embarrassed to be a Presbyterian. I’m not making a case for or against same-sex relationships. However, we’ve created a hierarchy of sins, sexual and otherwise. Jesus never humiliated anyone because of their humanity. I don’t think He excludes anyone based on hierarchy. Churches of all denominations have earned huge disrespect. But there’s still respect for people who live out their faith. The future is bright if we live as the people of God, more than people of the Presbyterian Church.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. I fear the process. I want to die well and with dignity, but I don’t fear “being dead”. Aren’t we assured that we never really die? We just live somewhere else. Maybe that’s what others fear: where that other place is. If only I had a Euro for every time I hear, “I hope I’m good enough to make it to Heaven.” The first step to being acceptable is to realise that you’re not acceptable. Jesus makes it possible.
Q. What about the resurrection?
A. I’ve thought long and hard and the only logical explanation for what happened in the tomb is that He was raised. I’ve a friend writing a book about the physical nature of Heaven: a place where we’ll need bodies. The scriptures offer something far more attractive than disembodied cloud-dwellers.
Q. Can you learn from other faiths and denominations?
A. All the scriptures are true, but not all truth is in the scriptures. Others might also have pieces of the truth. Presbyterians claim not to refuse light from any quarter. We need to be informed by science, anthropology, theology and other “-ologies.” I’m uncomfortable when people won’t engage in conversation with other faiths. I’m secure enough in my own faith to pursue truth, so I’m happy to learn. I worry when I see cosy consensus and closed conversation. I suspect it’s more about control than truth.
Q. What is your favourite book, film and music?
A. I don’t read books, but my favourite film is Casablanca and I like classical music and some opera.
Q. What about the inscription on your gravestone?
A. “In Heavenly love abiding”.
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. No major regrets, apart from my regret that I never got to live in an old mill, with a river to fish in.