Reverend Dr Allen Sleith is the minister of Hillsborough Presbyterian Church. He is a regular contributor to our Churches page.
Q Tell me about your background.
A I’m 59, married to Deborah, with three children, and three grandchildren. My parents, Albert and Elizabeth, came from the Shankill Road in Belfast but travelled extensively during the early part of my father’s ministry with PCI: five years in Australia, then several years as a Navy and RAF chaplain in the UK. My two younger sisters, Stephanie and Gillian and I travelled throughout Europe and North America during these formative family years. It was educative and enriching.
Q How and when did you come to faith?
A In my late teens I wrestled with the typical existential questions. My coming to faith was an extended process but eventually I reached a conviction that God is known in Jesus Christ. In the muddle and flux, this gave clarity, stability, and assurance. It would be better, though, to say that God took the initiative: generating faith in me, rather than me finding it by my own efforts.
Q Does this play a real part in your life, or is it only for Sundays?
A Yes, and it’s daily. The life of faith that God gives is my vocation. I often fall short of the expectations that God, others, and I have, but faith is the crucial counterpart to the grace that calls, forgives, and sustains me.
Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A No, in that once I was convinced that the Triune God is Ultimate Reality, I’ve never lost that conviction. Any fluctuations of faith are relatively minor in comparison. I’ve had periods where my faith has seemed somewhat dry or stale but thankfully, they’ve been short-lived. God’s faithful love is ultimate and abiding whereas mine is penultimate and relative.
Q Have you ever been angry with God, and if so, why?
A Not really. Puzzled, perplexed, frustrated, impatient at times but I trust that however terrible life has been and can be (especially for those who suffer far more than me) God’s loving wisdom is the sine qua non, however hard to discern in the pits.
Q Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?
A Not as much as the true martyrs, but in small ways, yes. However uninformed or unfair I think the criticism might be, I try to take the time to contemplate what I might learn or how I could change for the better. Once you take the hurt and heat out of criticism, and treat it more objectively as a critique, then it becomes possible to benefit from what initially seemed a threat. I aspire to this, even as I fall short.
Q Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
A The church is a product of both God’s loving faithfulness and human faithlessness where, thankfully, the former wins out. So, yes, there are things to be ashamed of when we fall short. The relative forms of those failures vary with context but lest I sound superior, I recognise that many of the faults in myself that I also see in others trying to bear witness to Christ. Recognition and repentance flow from grace. Nietzsche’s quote is apt: “I could believe in your Redeemer, if you lot looked a bit more redeemed.” Ouch!
Q Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A As a gut instinct, I recoil from death, or, at least, the process of dying if that were painful or distressing. But my trust in God’s promise of eternal life in a new creation through Christ gives me the hope that beyond death is Greater Life.
Q Are you afraid of “hell-fire?”
Q Do you believe in a resurrection, and if so, what will it be like?
A Yes. I believe it will be stranger and more wonderful than we can imagine with plenty of shocks and surprises to contradict our misguided presumptions. I look forward to us becoming what St Paul calls “spiritual bodies”. Grace will become unsullied glory. Infinite joy!
Q What about people of other denominations and faiths?
A Like me, they are God’s beloved but fallen creatures. My relation to each and all is to be no less open and generous than God’s so far as I can discern or attempt. God’s criterion for judging everyone, myself included, is the grace of Jesus Christ.
Q Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn from other people?
A I can’t step out of my own faith without losing the essence of who I am, but I often step out in faith to encounter others who differ from me in numerous ways. The expectation that I will learn or be enriched is borne out time and time again; not always but very often.
Q Are the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A Partially, but our trust, love, courage, and vision are far more constricted than the Holy Spirit makes possible.
Q Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?
A Speaking specifically of Christianity, I think of Nietzsche’s quote again.
Q Has religion helped or hindered in Northern Ireland?
A Religion is too vague a label. The Christian churches have a mixed track- record. We’ve been better at the safely pastoral for individuals and families, than the courageously prophetic in the more public arena. During the Troubles we were mostly chaplains to our own community than servants of Christ on behalf of all.
Q Some personal preferences – favourite film, book, music?
A Film: Life is Beautiful. Books by David Bentley Hart, H Richard Niebuhr, Larry Rasmussen and Robert MacFarland. Music: Led Zeppelin (rock); John Bell (worship).
Q Where do you feel closest to God?
A In Murlough, Co Down.
Q The inscription on your gravestone?
A “Resurrection is a laugh freed forever and ever” by Patrick Kavanagh, poet.
Q Finally, any major regrets?
A When my lack of love and faith have let down God and others. Not learning a musical instrument and at least one more language.