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Dr Joe McKee: 'I'm always conscious of the old gag that there are no atheists in a lifeboat... it's easy to forget about God until things start to unravel'

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

Key notes: Dr Joe McKee has been a Church organist for many years
Key notes: Dr Joe McKee has been a Church organist for many years
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Dr Joe McKee is a well-known Church organist, BBC Radio Ulster broadcaster and former fire-fighter.

Q. Can you tell us about your background?

A. I live in Ballyhackamore in east Belfast, I'm 67 and recently retired. I've been married to Yvonne for 43 years and we have two married daughters, Clare and Christine, who live in Kells, and a son, Connor, near Ballymena. We have one granddaughter, Evie Rose, who is two.

My father, Billy McKee, grew up in a religious family. He managed a transport business close to Belfast city centre. Both he and his father had been heavily involved in the Boys' Brigade in Ballymena, and my maternal grandmother and some of her sisters-in-law were proficient pianists, or organists, and were keen to hear me play hymn tunes from an early age.

My paternal grandfather was a well-known lay preacher around Ballymena, Kells and Broughshane. We were regularly reminded that my paternal grandmother had a brother in America who was a Doctor of Divinity and a celebrated radio evangelist.

My abiding impression of my father and his parents' take on religion was that it was all about following rules. They were big on Sunday observance, but as to the softer issues of loving one's neighbour, or seeking to address ills in society, I don't recall much talk around these. My mother, Rose Allison, was also very serious about faith but, strangely, none of the rest of her family bothered with religion at all.

I'm immensely grateful to my parents and both sets of grandparents, who stressed the importance of working hard and seeing education as the passport to a worthwhile and rewarding career. Hard work, the Ten Commandments and having clean hands and highly polished shoes were the essentials for me and my two brothers in the late 1950s and the 1960s.

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Q. And what about your education?

A. I enrolled as a student at Stranmillis College. In my third year, in 1973, I joined the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade and, after finishing my degree, I worked full-time as a firefighter in Whitla station, near the Belfast docks. I also saw part-time service in Carrickfergus, Armagh and Ballymena. I count my experiences in the Fire Service as some of the most rewarding of my entire career.

My first teaching job was as head of music at the Royal School in Armagh, and I was also assistant organist at the Church of Ireland Cathedral. I then worked for six years as a radio producer in BBC Northern Ireland. Later, I was director of music at Methodist College Belfast, followed by a further eight years as head of the music service at the Belfast Education and Library Board, where I looked after the City of Belfast School of Music. At 60, I became chairman of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, which brought me full circle to what I was doing in my twenties.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. Although a Presbyterian, I had always been attracted to the more liberal and aesthetic ethos of the Church of Ireland. I remember visiting parish churches, where the words of the Creed and the Ten Commandments were often displayed in flowing Gothic script. I felt that I could subscribe to these basic tenets of faith.

I also remember happy visits with my dad's aunt to the lovely little parish church in Carnlough, where I was struck by the refinement and constraint of a formal liturgy. I was also greatly taken by Kilbride Parish Church, near Doagh, where I occasionally played the organ. I felt innately comfortable in such surroundings, and offered myself for adult confirmation at 20.

The formality of worship is helpful, so Sundays are important, but I'm always conscious of the old gag that there are no atheists in a lifeboat. It's easy to forget about God until things start to unravel.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

A. I've had experiences that have really tested my belief in an omnipotent, all-seeing, all-loving father figure. This is particularly true when you lose family members, or witness events that appear unnecessarily cruel, or where things happen which seem totally unfair. In times like this, I simply acknowledge that it's not always possible to see the bigger picture.

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

A. All of the time. Many of my friends think I'm mad to be taken in by gobbledygook, but they're much too well-mannered to say so.

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

A. I've rarely been ashamed of my own Church, although I've been puzzled by various churches' attitudes to women, LGBT issues, inter-faith dialogue, or various other quasi-political stances, which seem to me to be distractions from the core teaching of loving your neighbour and being inclusive. There's still too many Old Testament values, such as an eye for an eye, rather than embracing the more radical teachings of the New Testament.

Q. Is music important in the worship of the Church?

A. The music of the Church should be set apart and different to the music we hear in restaurants, or shopping malls or at the dentist. Music has that incredible ability to speak to us in ways that other forms of communication somehow can't. Some will find Gospel rock as their preferred way to meet God, whereas others will look to Haydn and Mozart in their orchestral masses.

There's nothing wrong too with the appropriate use of silence during times of worship.

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

A. Death is one of life's great certainties. I've always found great solace in the view that death should be viewed as a horizon and that a horizon is merely the limit of one's sight.

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

A. I hold on to the sure and certain hope that there's more to human existence than simply 60 or 70 years of life on earth followed by a period of dust to dust. What the hereafter might hold for any of us, I've absolutely no idea.

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

A. The older I get, the more I think we're all the same. We're all made in the image of God. It saddens me when I hear Church people refer to other Christians as being in error or simply wrong.

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

A. God knows! I don't.

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

A. Looking back to my teens, when we were coerced into going to church, I think it's only natural that many have decided that they've had enough. I also think there's a growing sense that many, or all, of the bloody conflicts that we see on television are centred around religion.

For some, Christianity is all about suffering and guilt, and that's not an attractive starting point for most people.

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

A. If the introduction of religion to Ireland, more than 1,500 years ago, brought with it education and a more civilised way of looking at one another, then that was to be applauded.

Since then, cynically perhaps, we've lost our way. What we witnessed here in the past 50 years had little or nothing to do with religion, although in the past couple of years there are signs that we're beginning to realise this.

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

A. Irish short stories, particularly William Trevor. I'm also a great fan of Alan Bennett.

I enjoyed the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as a modern tale of good guys and bad guys.

As an organist, I am always in awe of Bach. His intellect - and that of Mozart - is fathomless.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. At one end of the spectrum, sitting in the choir stalls at evensong in Westminster Abbey, or at choral Eucharist in King's College, or St John's College, in Cambridge. At the other end, visiting Gallarus Oratory in Co Kerry or climbing Skellig Michael.

Q. What inscription do you want on your gravestone?

A. You can't beat Spike Milligan's epitaph, 'I told you I was ill'.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. None. After all, where would you start?

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