What I believe: In conversation with Canon Kathleen McAteer
Canon Kathleen McAteer was recently appointed as a Canon in St Columb's Cathedral in Londonderry and is the first female Canon in its 400-year history.
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I was born in 1951, the second daughter of the Coppenhall Rectory where my dad, Gordon, was rector. He was always called Rob and he had been a curate there, and married my mum (Do) the daughter of his rector. When I was four we moved to Ellesmere Port, when dad was appointed vicar there. I came to Northern Ireland to study at Magee University College. I met my husband Fergus in Magee library and we were married in 1973 in Ellesmere Port. We have four sons, four daughters-in-law and seven grandchildren.
I taught in primary schools and colleges and with the Workers' Educational Association. I have always loved keeping fit and I trained to teach various forms of exercise. Eventually I took up the position of sports and recreation officer in Magee.
When I first came to Derry I went to Christ Church. Following the arson attack there in 1996, I became involved in fundraising and other administrative duties. I served as a parish reader and joined the Diocesan Fellowship of Vocation. In 2003, I was sent to selection conferences in the Church of Ireland Theological College, and I was accepted for training. I was ordained in June 2006. I am now the Pastoral Director of Christ Church, Culmore, Muff and St Peter (CCCMSP). I am also Diocesan Chaplain of Derry and Raphoe Mothers' Union, and editor of the diocesan magazine n:vision.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. Although I had been brought up understanding differences amongst Christians it didn't really prepare me for Northern Ireland. Suddenly the world was "divided" between Protestants and Catholics. I was not brought up to refer to myself as "Protestant". I was C of E! I was unsure and a little wary of contacting churches here - the term "Low Church" was quite scary to a relatively sheltered "High Church" girl. However, I made myself known to the then Rector of Christ Church, Brian Hannon, who very quickly accepted me. I even babysat the youngest rectory children (including Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy!)
Q. Is your faith only for Sundays?
A. During my pre-ordination retreat, Brother David Jardine introduced me to the book by Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. On reflection I understood that the times in my life when I had experienced uncertainty or a dryness of faith were the times when I had neglected or ignored the presence of God in every moment of my life. That still happens, but I try to be conscious of God's presence with me in everything I do. I love the idea that there is no division between work that is secular or sacred. As Pastoral Director, I feel uneasy when someone says they don't like to bother me because they know I'm so busy. That saddens me and I know I have been at fault because for too long I busied myself being a programme director instead of a spiritual director. I must be first and foremost in God, before I can serve.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. At times I've had a crisis of commitment, but I've not doubted the love and faithfulness of God. One of my favourite hymns is Great is Thy Faithfulness. It's important to talk to God about doubts. He knows the answers.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God, and if so, why?
A. I remember the Aberfan disaster in 1966 and questioning why God had "let it happen". When people are hurting it is unhelpful and cruel to point out the consequences of free will, or the inhumanity, malice, or sheer plain ignorance of humanity that can lead to tragedy. I do not believe in a God who "gives" tests or is arbitrarily cruel, but I do believe in a God who is present with us in the messes and tragedies of our lives, to support, comfort and lead us through those times.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?
A. I haven't been criticised for my faith, although I may have been criticised for being too dogmatic. That is my failing and my insensitivity, so I learn from the criticism.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
A. I am not ashamed of my own church but as the "People of God", every church and every denomination is made up of fallible, imperfect human beings. To survive and grow, the whole Christian Church must facilitate constant reform. We must accept that the Church is always in need of reform and improvement.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. I'm not afraid to die but I'd rather it didn't hurt too much. As a believer in eternal life I look beyond death to Christ's promise that he will take me to be where he is.
Q. Are you afraid of "hell-fire"?
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection, and if so, what will it be like?
A. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ that has prepared the way for all His children. His promise is that He will be there, which is more than enough. I'm obviously hoping for reunions with my loved ones, but I remember when we asked "what's for pudding?" my mum would say: "Wait and see". Wait and see was always steamed syrup pudding - my favourite! So, a resurrection? Wait and see.
Q. What about people of other denominations and faiths?
A. My father was instrumental in setting up a local council of churches so I was brought up accepting different expressions of Christianity. I met my husband Fergus in Derry and he's a Roman Catholic. It has been an exciting ecumenical journey and we share and live our Christian faith in an inter-church marriage. We have been very involved in the work of The Irish School of Ecumenics, seeking to bring reconciliation, conflict resolution, and unity in diversity between the Christian churches, and a better inter-faith understanding between the great world religions. Fergus and I yearn for a mutual Eucharistic hospitality between our denominations.
Q. Are the churches here fulfilling their mission?
A. Mission is a "work in progress". Our Christian message of hope for the world informs our work in society. Churches strive to witness that following Jesus Christ is exciting, not prescriptive. Our mission is to show that faith in Jesus Christ is liberating.
Q. Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?
A. People don't like to feel they are being "organised". They give many reasons for turning away from religion. Many don't think religion and churches are relevant or they reject the idea that religion tells them what to think and do, and many feel that they can lead a spiritual life outside of organised religion. The churches need to offer the prospect of living spiritually as an integral part of the Church community.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Religion itself is not the problem. Unfortunately, difficulties do arise from the manner in which some individual Christians hold and express their religious convictions and how they live out their denominational faith in relation to those with alternative beliefs. Divisions arise when any religious viewpoint is expressed in an exclusive way. Inclusivity and acceptance of diversity are keys to communal harmony.
Q. Some personal preferences - favourite book and music?
A. When I left Ellesmere Port the choir gave me a copy of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It is now very worn as I still read it every couple of years. I love the theme music from the TV series Dr Who.
Q. The place where you feel closest to God?
A. In church at worship, particularly a celebration of Holy Communion.
Q. The inscription on your gravestone, if any?
A. My name, dates and an appropriate quote from Scripture pointing to Jesus Christ.
Q. Finally, any major regrets?
A. I remember Bishop Richard Henderson preaching at an Institution Service. He said we should use the gifts God gives us and not be envious of one another's gifts. My major regrets probably centre too much on what I cannot do, but I am trying to follow Bishop Richard's advice.