Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Peter Lynas: He's just overseen the building of a £3m church in Coleraine and has been a vocal supporter of Ashers bakery

We get a fascinating insight into the life of Peter

By Laurence White

Swapping the courtroom for the pulpit may not be everyone's idea of a career path, but for Peter Lynas it was a carefully mapped out route into church ministry which he began to formulate as a teenager.

The Coleraine man, who turns 40 this week, first heard the call of the church when he was 16 and at school in his native Coleraine.

"I came from a committed Christian family and when I was a school I went to my father and told him that I didn't believe the family food services business was for me, even though I was the eldest son," he recalls.

"I knew I wanted to enter the ministry but was not sure what form that should take. A number of people whose opinion I respected advised me to gain some life experience before entering the church and I am glad they did."

Choosing law - an uncle was in the profession - proved to be an inspired choice. It equipped him with the advocacy skills which he now uses in his role as director of the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland. Essentially he voices the opinions of the whole range of evangelical churches in the province on issues such as abortion, human trafficking, same sex marriages, welfare reform, education and reconciliation.

Much of his work is lobbying politicians - he was prominent along with anti-trafficking charity CARE in Lord Morrow's campaign to introduce legislation on the issue at Stormont.

While he brings the passion of the evangelist and the precision of the lawyer to his advocacy work, Peter is by no means a single track-minded religious zealot as might be imagined by his job title.

He loves snowboarding, a skill which he honed during four years he spent completing his Masters in Divinity at Regent College in Vancouver after leaving the Bar. The college was near the ski resort of Whistler which gave him plenty of opportunity to practice.

But the arrival of his two daughters Keren (5) and Lucia (2) has meant less time for trips to the slopes of Europe.

Landscape photography is another passion. He lives in Portstewart, which he regards as one of the most beautiful areas of the province. "My sister-in-law says she hates running on the Strand there as it is always the same, but to me it is an ever-changing land and seascape, perfect for my hobby," he says.

And he is often to be found pounding the beach, too. A keen and able cross-country runner at school, he has kept up the exercise throughout his adult life.

Recently he has even found time to return to the family business. "My skill is in managing business operations and I went back to help in the installation of a new conveyor belt system in our firm in Coleraine. I said I was helping out, but my younger brother Andrew, who is MD of the firm, reminded me that I was working for him. It actually was great fun."

The family firm - it also has an outlet in east Belfast - employs around 300 people in Coleraine with plans for expansion to other areas. "Our family has lived there for a long time and that is why we continue to base our operations there. There are not many big employers in that area and we have great staff and we feel that we are putting something into the community," says Peter.

While committed to the teachings of the Bible - he regards the Sermon on the Mount as one of the greatest political agendas ever formulated - it is the outworkings of the Biblical messages which most interest him.

Born a Baptist, he is now associated with the Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Coleraine. He was involved in building the church from scratch on the site of an old industrial sawmill. It is now one of the largest of the 10 Vineyard churches throughout Ireland with a regular Sunday attendance of 1,000.

It took a herculean effort to establish the church. Purchase of the site alone cost more than £1m, with another £2m going on building costs.

Peter preaches regularly at the Church and is full of praise for its social work.

"Our counselling service is helping people to manage some £1.5m of personal debt. Although the service has only been going a relatively short time we have helped at least 10 people become debt free and are assisting another 50 to 60 work through their financial problems," he says.

As well, the Church is helping 30 to 40 people cope with various addictions.

Another social outreach is the Church's food bank which takes in Limavady and Ballycastle, as well as Coleraine.

"The effects of austerity can be seen in the number of people coming to us in crisis," he says. "In January last year we helped 88 families, this year 253 came to us for assistance."

Those in need of help are given vouchers which enable them to buy three meals a day for three days and also advice on benefits.

The Church also manages 12 apartments which were bought by an English-based charity, Green Pastures, for letting to homeless people. Future plans include a jobs club to help the unemployed get back to work and assistance to those released from prison to prevent them re-offending and enable them to integrate back into their families.

There has been much debate in recent times about dwindling Church attendances in virtually every denomination but Peter is not dismayed by the figures and uses an off-beat analogy to make his point.

"The average attendance at an Irish League football game on a Saturday is 942. In the Protestant Churches about 200,000 people regularly attend and you can probably double that figure if you include the Catholic Church. Yet look at the amount of publicity football gets in the media compared to the work of the Churches.

"Even political parties would bite your hand off for membership like that. None of them can approach those figures.

"That is what I find so exciting about my job. It shows that the Churches can be a powerful force in society. My job is to connect the dots between what the Churches say or do and how they can influence others.

"Much has been made of the decline in Church-going numbers but I feel we have now reached a core membership who are committed to making a difference in society. They don't go to Church now just for the sake of it and I would rather have people who are committed than huge numbers who just attend out of habit."

But he also has criticisms of the Churches in general. "They have bought into this idea of a secular-sacred divide and have given up a little on some of the social work they should be involved in. Yet we must remember how much they still do. For instance 69% of all youth work is carried out by faith-based organisations."

Peter is keen to harness the potential of the Churches and has been helping to organise six hustings in the run up to next month's General Election. The first was in east Belfast where the battle between the DUP's Gavin Robinson and Alliance's Naomi Long is one of the most eagerly anticipated.

About 250 people attended the meeting featuring the candidates. A small group of flag protesters staging a demonstration outside were invited in and stayed for the duration of the event.

Peter recalls a conversation with an English friend who surmised that his organisation, the Evangelical Alliance, was supporting Naomi. "I had to point out to him that we were two very separate Alliances."

Although the Catholic Church is not a member of the Evangelical Alliance, he finds himself in regular contact with influential members of that Church on issues of mutual concern.

He also works right across the political spectrum and is keen to emphasise that the organisation is not simply about reacting to occasional controversial issues but has coherent policies on matter ranging from the environment to equality to human trafficking.

"People might think it strange that Churches should have a view on the environment, for example," he says. "But we have to take it seriously. We believe it is God's creation so we need to look after our consumption of fuels or food or increase the use of cycle lanes in cities and towns."

One issue which really caught his interest was the so-called "gay cake" court case. Ashers Bakery was taken to court by the Equality Commission because it refused to ice a cake with a pro-same sex marriage message.

To Peter this was a case which brought together his interest in law and his views on same sex marriage, which naturally he opposes.

He sat through the court hearing and is awaiting the judge's ruling with great anticipation.

"To me this case involves a much wider issue than simply discrimination against a gay customer. I feel it revolves around discrimination against an idea which is legal, not discrimination against a person, which is illegal.

"I believe it is about political opinion and, if I am right, then the verdict could have an impact on everyone. It is about freedom of conscience and raises questions about what sort of society we want to have going forward."

But he is not an advocate of the DUP proposal to introduce a conscience clause into equality legislation. "I welcome that debate because we need to ask what is the space for conscience in society. But the proposal as presently drafted is too narrow because it only deals with sexual orientation and I believe it might not have protected Ashers if it had been in place already.

"We are not fighting the LGBT community. We have engaged with them and I don't want a law that singles out that community. But I do want a law that protects conscience, because everyone has a conscience and it goes much wider than religion.

"The abortion law in England and Wales allows for doctors or nurses to refuse to perform terminations as a matter of conscience. They don't have to base their refusal on religion or any single ground but simply on conscience.

"However I don't want to legalise discrimination against anyone. That would be a bad thing. But some ideas are bad and I, or anyone else, should be able to say so. We should be able to discriminate against ideas."

It is evident listening to him that he enjoys his work immensely. So has he found the ideal ministry that he longed for as a teenager?

"Yes and no. I didn't know this organisation existed when I first thought of entering a church ministry. My work has been a developing thing and I love what I do. I also love the Bible as I think it has answers to our questions and gives us directions for our lives," he says.

Given all the work he is involved in how does he make time for family life, which he regards as the most important aspect of life.

"I have a staff of three plus three interns here at the Evangelical Alliance," he says. "They do all the real work. I just do a lot of the advocacy. My skills are in bringing things together, for example, in the recent project at the family business. I didn't have to install the machinery. In the same way the real work at the Vineyard Church is done by the people who work there every day."

A previous occupation was with the Relationship Foundation, a think-tank based in Cambridge, where his wife Rose also worked. It tried to apply Biblical principles to public policy and his role was as a researcher examining issues such as marriage tax breaks, the working time directives and Sunday trading (he was a spokesman for the Keep Sunday Special campaign).

"The family is the core unit of society," he argues. "If people are constantly working when their children are off school I believe that is going to create some problems down the line."

His family practice what he preaches. Rose, who trained as a clinical pharmacist, has taken a career break to mind their two young children. She has also postponed taking a PhD at Cambridge until the children are older.

"We should protect family time together," he says. "That is in everyone's interest. When I was campaigning on Sunday opening I realised that some people were opposed to it on religious grounds, but it goes wider than that. We realise that not everyone is a Christian, so that is why we try to argue cases that we think are good for everyone."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph