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'I felt I had to follow my conscience on matters such as ordaining women and priests being allowed to marry'

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

Comforting faith: Paul McLaughlin
Comforting faith: Paul McLaughlin
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Paul McLaughlin (66) grew up in west Belfast. His father, Tommy, a Second World War Royal Navy veteran, worked as a barman, and his mother, Sally, stayed at home to look after Paul, his brother Jimmy and sisters Rosemary and Eileen.

He was educated by the Christian Brothers at St Mary's in Barrack Street, which he insists was "good craic", and has spent the majority of his working life in public relations in the corporate, voluntary and charity sectors.

For the past 10 years, he has been development officer at the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) and is editor of three NIMMA books on the subject.

"I am a firm believer that mixed marriage, with its recipe of compromise and accommodation, is a blueprint for a shared future and that a charity such as NIMMA, which offers pastoral care and challenges sectarianism, is deserving of great support," he says.

NIMMA has been lobbying for years for more shared social housing and greater availability of integrated education.

Paul is married to Julie and has one step-son and a son from a previous marriage.

He is a keen member of the South Belfast Manchester United Supporters' Club and says that he was a fan long before the "magical Geordie Best".

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Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. It was given to me by my mother Sally, who referred to the crucifix as the "wee God on the Cross". She taught me my prayers and said them with me every night before I started school. Faith was something comfortable and comforting.

Both my parents gave good examples, not just by going to Mass every Sunday, but mainly by being decent, Christian people, who taught us to treat other people as we would like to be treated.

I remained a lapsed Catholic for many years before becoming involved with St Joseph's Church in Belfast's Sailortown, which was closed in 2001. The campaign to have it reopened led me to take a long, hard look at my Catholicism and to question many of its man-made aspects.

I converted to the Church of Ireland 10 years ago, taking with me everything I had believed in, because I felt that I had to follow my conscience on matters such as the ordination of women and priests being allowed to marry.

I now enjoy that comfortable and comforting faith at St George's Church on High Street, Belfast.

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

A. The simple answer to that question is no. There were many years when I did not go to church, but I always retained what I like to call 'the faith of the peasant'. I have never tried to rationalise it - I just believe. So, I consider myself very fortunate.

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

A. I have never had reason to. Not yet, anyway. I've had ups and downs, like everyone, and not everything has gone to plan, even if I had one, but God has been good to me.

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

A. I have had nothing but support from family and friends before and after I converted to the Church of Ireland. Although my denomination has changed, my faith remains the same. I believe Christ died for our sins and that all roads lead to Heaven.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your denomination?

A. I was disappointed with the way the bishops dealt with child abuse within Catholicism. I was angry and ashamed for them and still feel that they betrayed the trust of the faithful.

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

A. It's easy to say I am not afraid to die, because I am a Christian and I believe in the afterlife. That's my faith in a nutshell. However, I have never been in the position of having to put it to the test. I hope and pray I can show the same dignity that friends of mine without faith showed in the past.

I'm not a great man for pain, so whatever is waiting to get me, I hope that it's quick.

Q. And what about Hell? Do you worry about it?

A. I believe in a God of love and understanding, who recognises human faults and frailties like the many I've accumulated, but who still cares for me, warts and all. Hell is part of the Christian equation, but it's not something I think about, far less worry about.

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

A. I believe very strongly in a resurrection. I can't explain it, but I am as certain as I can be that I will see my parents again. They have left me physically, but are with me spiritually every day, and there will be that togetherness after death.

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

A. Belonging to a denomination, or faith, is very much an accident of birth, and I don't think that one denomination, or religion, is better than another. With our limited understanding of God, we should make the best of whatever faith we have while treating other people with respect and love.

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

A. They are doing their best. We all have faults, but the ecumenical movement is gaining in strength, even as Christianity faces huge challenges. I would like to see all denominations embrace integrated education as a boon for our children.

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

A. The God of my childhood, who was in every home and was talked about on a daily basis, has been airbrushed out of our lives. He is a stranger to two generations and, as a result, they are strangers to him.

We are too 'busy' to bother about God, and I think that is very sad. I turned my back on organised religion for many years, but I had something to turn back to. We all need that.

Q. Has religion helped or hindered Northern Ireland?

A. Religion was divisive in the past but is now trying to be more inclusive. There are too many grey heads, and we need to attract more young people. Some churches are reaching out to the youth, the homeless and the LGBT community, who were treated shamefully in the past, but others continue to let 'religion' blur their Christianity.

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

A. My favourite film is Random Harvest with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. My favourite books are by James Lee Burke, who writes like an angel. To call him a crime writer is like calling Leonardo da Vinci a plasterer. I love the Beatles, Jethro Tull, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and am partial to Chopin and Cat Stevens.

Q. Where is the place where you feel closest to God?

A. At St George's, when the choir sings the Sanctus during Sunday Eucharist. Sunshine through the stained-glass windows is an added bonus.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. Just my name and the dates. There's nothing more to say.

Q. And what about regrets? Any major ones?

A. There have been many things I shouldn't have done and more I should have done. What I can't fix, I try not to fixate on.

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