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'I love the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; I am a part of it and it of me... but the decision to sever ties with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church dismayed me'

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

Time to reflect: Reverend John Dunlop
Time to reflect: Reverend John Dunlop
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

John Dunlop was born in the townland of Tormore, near Newry. His father worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and his mother was an accomplished pianist. He was educated at Newry Model School, Newry Grammar School, Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Queen's University, Belfast, New College, University of Edinburgh and Assembly's College, Belfast.

He is 79 and for 53 years has been married to Rosemary, whom he met at Queen's. They have two children and five grandchildren, all living in England and Scotland.

He is Minister Emeritus of Rosemary Presbyterian Church in north Belfast, where he served for 26 years. Previously, he was a minister for 10 years in Jamaica with the United Church of Jamaica and Grand Cayman. He was Presbyterian Moderator 1992-93.

His main sporting activities were hockey, which he played at school and university, and golf, which he enjoyed "without being very good at it". He says: "My favourite game was squash, which provided intense physical competition and, unlike golf, it was impossible to lose the ball."

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. This question needs to be answered with care, because it has a degree of mystery and involves the Holy Spirit. I was baptised two months after I was born and was raised in the Christian faith in a traditional Presbyterian home among the good people of Sandy's Street Presbyterian Church in Newry. In my teens, my heart and life were embraced by the grace and love of God and I placed my faith in Christ as my Saviour and Lord and committed myself to follow him. Jesus is the Head of the Church and Lord of Creation, so I try to live my life within the broad horizons of what that means for myself, my family, the Church and society, and the world. This involves me in constant critical reflection about how we live our lives.

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

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A. I graduated in Philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast, which often challenged my faith, but at the same time made it deeper and richer. I like to sing about "The beauty of the earth", but I know that the volcanic eruptions and seismic shifts which created the grandeur of the Alps also create tsunamis, which can wipe out large numbers of people. So, as I worship God, I think about the implications of what I am singing about, or saying.

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

A. I don't think so, although I know people who have been angry with God for, as they said, "being cruel" to them and their families in the premature deaths of the people they love. There are many Psalms, which contain intense arguments with God arising from disappointment and disorientation.

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

A. I get both support and criticism, sometimes in conversation, or in phone calls and letters. It is inevitable that some people may disagree with me. I try to communicate in an agreeable way and hope that people may find me to be a reasonable individual. They may not always experience me as such.

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

A. I love the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; I am a part of it and it of me. However, I don't always agree with the General Assembly and particularly with the decision last June about severing our formal historical connections with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church.

This shocked and dismayed me. We all live by the Grace of God. These are our close Reformed neighbours in these islands. Our shared life in Christ lays upon us the obligation to be a sign of the Kingdom and not to indulge in self-righteous separatism, especially in a world which is so significantly marked by division.

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

A. Jesus died and was buried, so He knows about it. I don't think I am afraid to fall asleep in Christ in this life and wake up in the life of the world to come. I have never been told that I am terminally ill, so if that situation arises, let's see how, with the grace of God, I will deal with it. I don't think death is the end of my existence. I would be more concerned about the process of dying than dying itself.

Q. Are you worried about hell?

A. Any talk about hell needs bated breath. Jesus plumbed the depths of chaos and darkness, triumphed over sin and death and hell. My faith is in Him. But I recall his parables about "Dives and Lazarus" and "the sheep and the goats", which remind me of the obligation of rich people like us to pay attention to poor and vulnerable people.

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

A. It will be beyond the parameters of what we know as space and time. The apostle Paul wrote that burial and resurrection were like a seed that grew into a plant that didn't look like the seed. Like a daffodil bulb and a daffodil, there will be continuity and discontinuity.

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

A. I know lots of people in other Christian denominations and I find many of them impressive and inspiring people of faith. I don't know a lot about people of other faiths, although, at Lord Alderdice's invitation, I have been involved in conversations recently in Oxford with some Shia scholars from Iran and, more recently, at the invitation of Tommy Sands, with Jewish, Christian and Muslim people which resulted in the Rostrevor Declaration. This calls, among other things, for respect for people of other religions, as well as for places of worship and the right of people to express, or change, their religion without fear of reprisals.

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

A.There are deep levels of commitment and energy in the Church, expressed in all kinds of ways. Mission includes evangelism, but is wider than that. One of the challenges for the Churches is to escape from the exclusive and excluding ideologies of Irish Catholic nationalism and Ulster Protestant unionism.

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

A. Language about God is increasingly absent from public discourse, so people's awareness of God has diminished. Some people are, understandably, disillusioned with us in the Church. There is selfishness, carelessness, doubt, individualism, disappointment, secularisation, materialism, shopping and alternative activities on Sundays, all of which squeeze out awareness of God.

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

A. Both, simultaneously. Christian people in Churches, along with Christian worship, compassion and practical service have given enormous help to others, but we have failed to consistently provide a vision beyond our own claustrophobic comfort zones.

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

A. My favourite film is Kramer vs Kramer. My favourite books are Silas Marner by George Eliot and Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. My favourite music is Paraphrase 30 "Come, let us to the Lord our God, with contrite hearts return" to the Psalm Tune "Kedron" and the "Credo" from Charles Gounod's St Cecilia Mass.

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

A. In a well-planned, thoughtful act of worship with good hymns and good singing.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. If one is provided, "Rev John Dunlop, Presbyterian Minister, 1939 - "

Q. Have you any major regrets?

A. That I spent too much time working, when I ought to have been enjoying our close and wider family and friends.

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