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Lindsay Conway: 'Coronavirus has stretched Churches to the limit, but the endless examples of kindness have been such an encouragement and a lifeline for so many'

In conversation with Lindsay Conway

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Keeping the faith: Lindsay Conway has dedicated his life to God

Keeping the faith: Lindsay Conway has dedicated his life to God

Keeping the faith: Lindsay Conway has dedicated his life to God

Lindsay Conway is secretary to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's Council for Social Witness. He is married to Norma, and they have two grown-up children, Fiona and Darren.

Q. Can you tell us something about your upbringing?

A. I was born in east Belfast, the youngest child of Robert and Elsie Conway, with two sisters, Georgie and Kay, and a brother, Tom. Being by far the youngest in the family - the "wee late one" - I supposedly was spoilt. Family life was a happy one, with fond memories of days away and holidays in caravans and cottages. I'm married to Norma and have two grown-up children, Fiona and Darren. I qualified in social work at the Ulster Polytechnic (the "Poly") in the 1970s. Most of my social work career was spent in Rathgael Training School (latterly the Rathgael Centre for Children and Young People) from 1972, and I left as its last director in 2000.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. I cannot recall a time when I didn't have my Christian faith. Neither did I have that defining moment as a child when I gave my life into God's service and asked Jesus into my life. Church was always there. Prayer and Bible study were part of daily life. With dad being an elder in Megain Memorial Presbyterian on the Newtownards Road, Church was very much a focus of family life - Sunday School, badminton and much more.

Q. Does this faith play a real part in your life, or is it only for Sundays?

A. My Christian faith defines who I am and His call on my life is clear. As secretary to the Presbyterian Council for Social Witness, my faith is demonstrated through the work and witness of the council. I often describe the council's activities as a congregation of 1,000 - the residents, the tenants, the staff, volunteers and relatives.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has a rich heritage of reaching out and following the biblical imperative of caring: "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." I acknowledge that the vast majority of social witness is carried out at a local level in congregations throughout all the Churches. The past couple of weeks have demonstrated how resourceful Churches and our communities can be. The endless examples of kindness have been such an encouragement and a lifeline for so many.

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

A. When there has been that niggle of doubt, there has been that demonstration of God's power and love to affirm my faith in God and to follow His Son more closely.

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

A. Never angry, but I do question and search for explanations, especially in these times we are living through, with coronavirus and its global impact. Similarly, during the years of the Troubles, I was frustrated that all the prayers for peace were going unanswered, but then the prayers were answered in such a dramatic way.

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

A. Not criticised but questioned. Social witness is a ministry to those of all faiths and of none. On a daily basis you are showing the love of Christ, with no strings attached. In conversations with individuals, I have been confronted with those who clearly blame God and are angry with God for their personal circumstances.

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

A. Never ashamed, but at times I question how we communicate our message, especially to those outside our denomination.

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

A. The last few weeks have probably challenged many of us to consider our own mortality as never before. But do I want to die? No. Am I afraid? No.

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

A. I sometimes try and imagine what it would be like to hear the Easter story for the first time: the brutal killing of a good man, the Son of God on a cross and then that celebration that He rose again to give me, a sinner, eternal life and save the world. That same resurrection is promised to all who believe.

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

A. My links with other denominations and other faiths go back over 40 years, during my time with the YMCA, both nationally and internationally. In recent times, the Journey Towards Healing trauma programme, safeguarding and the Flourish suicide prevention programme are some examples that show the Churches are stronger when we work together.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. In sharing and discussing with each other, we can begin to learn and understand other faiths and other viewpoints.

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

A. 'Mission' is one of those words within Churches that has numerous definitions and provokes much discussion. Likewise, social witness is about the outworking of a social gospel, social evangelism, social outreach or, in some people's eyes, a dilution of the Gospel. It was the awakening of a social consciousness that provoked Christians such as Barnardo, Wilberforce, Rowntree, Shaftesbury and Williams. They basically challenged the way society related to the marginalised and were the foundation of modern social work. We must attempt to reclaim that ground. James 2 is that great mantra for faith and action: "Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?"

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

A. A change in lifestyles and a busy family and social life, together with a lack of confidence in the Churches, have resulted in attendance numbers dramatically dropping. The past weeks have stretched the Churches to the limits. How do we do church when the Churches are closed? And the results have been dramatic. The 21st-century lifestyle demands that we explore new ways of doing church. Cafe Church and Messy Church are well established. Now, Virtual Church has been forced upon us and will develop and expand as the weeks of social-distancing go on.

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

A. This is a complex question that I am unable to answer in these few words, although I would recognise that the Churches and particular Church leaders played a significant role in keeping the peace and sustaining a level of normality in our communities. The fact that Churches survived, and in many areas expanded, in the years of the Troubles is proof that we were fulfilling our mission, always remembering that much of the Church's work, and that of individuals within the Church, is still to be told.

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

A. One of my recent film favourites is Lion, the story of an Indian boy being reunited with his family. My favourite book is Tarka the Otter, which introduced me to the great outdoors. My musical taste is wide-ranging, from Elgar's Enigma Variations to Katie Melua's Over the Rainbow.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. My cathedral is the great outdoors, surrounded by the wonders of creation. My early morning walks in Crawfordsburn Country Park, or on the coastal path, with Poppy, our golden retriever, is when I feel at peace and closest to God.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. I will leave that task to others.

Q. Have you any major regrets?

A. I just don't do regrets in my life.

Belfast Telegraph