Hazel Loney was installed as lay leader of the Methodist Church in Ireland this week. She has been married to Bobby for 44 years and they have two grown-up children, Christopher and Rachel-Anne, and two grandchildren, Claire and Andrew.
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I was born in Co Armagh, the youngest of the four children of Sydney and Elizabeth McDonald. I was baptised in Mullaghbrack Parish Church, just outside Markethill, where we lived. Later, we moved to the townland of Aghorey. My mother had been raised as a Presbyterian, so when I was about five, she moved us to worship in Aghorey Presbyterian Church. We attended Sunday school, Sunday worship, Girls Brigade and Bible class.
I became a communicant as a teenager and taught in Sunday School. Aghorey Brethren Hall was just a skip along the road, so we went to afternoon Sunday School there. I have the happiest memories of these places and the people who took time to teach us the Scriptures.
I went to Aghorey Primary School, Portadown College and then Queen's University, Belfast, studying English and Modern History. I was planning to be a teacher, but in response to the call of God, after graduating in 1975, I went to Emmanuel Bible College in England and studied theology for three years, which I enjoyed immensely.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. Just as I was leaving school, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died during my first term in Queen's, which was a huge blow. Just after that, I met my future husband, Bobby, whose father had died, so we shared a common grief. Together, we began to seek after reality. We had a lot of head knowledge, but we needed to know God personally. For me, this came after searching the Scriptures which I had learned as a child and calling on God through prayer. This was 1972, one of the worst years of the Troubles, but I found peace with God and assurance of forgiveness of sin. Light and peace filled my soul and I knew I wanted to spend my life teaching and sharing the Gospel.
In 1976, we were married and God blessed us with two children, Christopher and Rachel-Anne. In 1984, we went to Indonesia and served there for five years. Both the children spoke the language and took the whole cross-cultural experience in their stride. In 1989, we returned to Ireland and followed the leading of God's spirit to the Methodist Church. Bobby is an ordained minister and has served for the past 27 years on different circuits in the province. I am a Methodist local preacher and worked as lay pastoral assistant for about 18 years. At our conference last year, I was appointed as lay leader of the Methodist Church from 2020-2022. We now have a daughter-in-law, Leanne, and two grandchildren, Claire and Andrew, and a son-in-law, Michael. My whole worldview is Christian and by that I see everything else.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. The big crisis of faith I had was the initial one mentioned earlier, where I had to pursue truth and reality. I have never doubted God's existence, but there are times when life is puzzling and difficult, when injustice, evil and suffering cause me to wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. I don't get angry with God, but in the Psalms you can hear complaint, lament, disappointment, even frustration with not knowing why some things are as they are. This a very real part of our faith journey, so there have been times when I have complained and poured out my lament to God for situations or events that troubled me deeply.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. Everyone who embraces the Christian faith will get criticism, or jibed at, at some point. I haven't experienced much personal criticism, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ has and that's personal. It annoys me to hear our message derided on the airwaves by commentators and coarse comedians, but it's not new and we must always respond with grace.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church?
A. Maybe not ashamed, but sometimes disappointed, when congregations disagree and fall out over trivial things and damage the body of Christ, causing fractures and division, instead of unity and harmony.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. No one relishes dying, but I can look beyond death, because of the message of the Gospel. Listen to Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life."
Q. And what about hell? Are you afraid of that?
A. I'm not afraid of hell, because God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. That's good enough for me.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?
A. I believe in the resurrection and, while no one can really explain what it will be like, the New Testament throbs with the great hope of bodily resurrection. The Apostle Paul uses the analogy of a seed planted in the ground dying and coming again, sown perishable, raised imperishable, sown in dishonour, raised in glory. It's breathtaking.
Q. What do you think about people of other faiths?
A. Denominations allow us to express different ways of thinking or worship and that's good. We don't need uniformity in the Church, but we do need unity of purpose and mutual respect as we serve our common Saviour. We can always learn from other faith traditions and work together for the good of humanity, while holding our own distinctiveness.
Q. Are the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. Material well-being and affluence can lull the church into a kind of torpor, or even apathy, where she simply assimilates into the prevailing culture and loses her distinctive edge. While I am grateful for the Church on this island, we need to be constantly in reformation and renewal to fulfil our mission, which is presenting Christ to the world.
Q. Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?
A. There can't be just one answer to this, but people want more than a religious habit. They need the reality of a living faith and sometimes organised religion can stifle that, rather than foster it.
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Living faith has sustained, rather than hindered, the people through the darkest days of the Troubles. As a young person, I came to a living faith in the midst of the mayhem, as did many of my contemporaries, and that kept us from making bad choices and enabled us to walk in the light, despite the darkness.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. I was absolutely taken with the closing scene of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. After the trauma of the Crucifixion, we were plunged into darkness. Then I heard the scraping of stone on stone, we were in the tomb and the stone was moving, light began to expel the darkness, we saw the deflating grave clothes and the camera fell to the nail-print on Christ's hand. He had risen. A brilliant ending, however one might feel about the rest of the film.
As for music, it would be The Song of the Hebrew Slaves, from Verdi's Nabucco. I heard it when I was about 15 and have loved it ever since. The books we read in our childhood, or youth, stay with us. CS Lewis's land of Narnia is fascinating, with children tumbling through a wardrobe into a land of talking animals, where a curse holds them in its frozen grip, but then there is the great Aslan, who isn't safe, but he is good. Brilliant.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. I am not sure we are closer in one place more than another. However, Bobby and I did a lot of hill walking in the English Lake District and when I reach the top of a mountain, or hill, my soul sings.
Q. What inscription would you like on your headstone?
A. Simply my name and dates beside Bobby's. And the words of Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life".
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. Everyone makes mistakes and one can always see how some things could have been done better, or differently. But God has been faithful to me throughout my life, so I have no big regrets.