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Rev Carmen Hayes: 'I was angry at God when my grandson died aged just 12 days. I said then, if the God I knew and loved wasn't big enough to take my anger, then He wasn't the God that I believed He was'

In conversation with Rev Carmen Hayes

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Living her beliefs: Rev Carmen Hayes

Living her beliefs: Rev Carmen Hayes

Living her beliefs: Rev Carmen Hayes

Rev Carmen Hayes is rector of the Church of Ireland parishes of Errigal and Desertoghill in Garvagh, Co Londonderry. She has been married to Alwyn for 39 years and the couple have two sons, Alan and Colin, and five grandchildren.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. The first 25 years of my working life were spent within the civil service in different departments: motor tax, dole office, agriculture, job market and in an RUC station, where for 18 years I worked as a civilian communications assistant.

In 2002, I took a career break and went to Belfast Bible College. Having graduated, I resigned from the civil service to take up a temporary post with Barnardo's and subsequently began training for the ordained ministry.

My first post was as curate assistant in St Mark's, Portadown. In 2011, I was instituted as rector of the parishes of Kilcronaghan and St Columba's in the Tobermore and Draperstown areas. Then, last September, I took up my current post. Alwyn, my long-suffering husband of almost 39 years, has been my very faithful and supportive husband on this journey, along with our two, now grown-up, sons, Alan and Colin, and our five grandchildren.

Q. What about your early family life?

A. I am the third of seven surviving children, whose parents were Sydney and Gwen Teacy. My mother was fond of the Brazilian actress and singer Carmen Miranda, so I was christened Carmen Miranda Teacy. My mother had her own sense of humour. We grew up in The Heights in Coleraine, a council estate on the west bank of the Bann. I was a tomboy and by choice an avid Liverpool supporter.

My dad worked for a number of local firms and he also had a window-cleaning round. The kids on the estate used to wind me up by saying, "When your windows, they are greasy, then you send for Sydney Teacy."

I, like every other child in our street, was brought up to go to church, Sunday School, Sunshine Corner (afternoon Sunday School) and church again in the evening, although I've no recollection of my parents attending, except when the younger members of the family were being baptised.

I attended the DH Christie Memorial Primary School, Coleraine Girls' Secondary and, after my GCSE/CSEs, I went to the Dominican Convent to study for my A-levels.

I used to tell my friends I was training to be a nun, but they threw me out because I had too many bad habits.

The truth was that I'd got engaged at 17, so I left and then, just two years later, on June 20, 1981, I became Mrs Alwyn Hayes, so the maths would suggest I'm 58.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. At 14, three girls in my class invited me to go with them to a Billy Graham revival rally in Coleraine. At that event, I had a conversion experience similar to that of the great Wesley, for I, too, felt my heart being "strangely warmed".

But that's where the comparison ends, for Wesley kept going in the faith, whereas I found myself sliding backward. It was 20 years later that a crisis in health and conscience brought me back to the Lord and into the community of faith.

I'd like to believe that my faith influences who I am and what my faith calls me to be. I was once asked to consider what I would want people to say about me at my death. I'd like them to say that she lived what she believed, whether in the church or on the golf course.

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

A. I have, on many occasions, doubted, or questioned, my faith, especially when things have happened in my life, or in the lives those whom I love.

Things that just don't make any sense, for it's hard to see anything of God in them.

That said, none of these, as difficult as some have been, have ever triggered a crisis of faith. So, things that I don't understand, or can't find theological answers to, I park on the "Why?" in my study, while I wait for that day, when in Heaven, both I and my understanding will be perfected.

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

A. Yes is the honest answer. The time that comes instantly to mind was when my first little grandson, Kain, was born prematurely, but died aged just 12 days. God, for reasons best known to Himself, chose to take my grandson. At the time, a clergyman said that he hoped I was not angry with God. I replied: "If the God that I knew and loved was not big enough to take my anger, then He was not the God that I believed He was."

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

A. I wholeheartedly believe that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for me and that He will come back and take me to be where He is. So, death itself holds no fear for me. I suppose it's the nature of that event that I might think about on occasion.

I've no personal worries about hell. However, I do worry about it for others and it breaks my heart to think of the many folk that I pass by on a daily basis who could end up there.

Q. Do you believe in the resurrection?

A. No resurrection means no faith. A correct understanding of the resurrection is actually the Christian hope and the basis for this new life experienced in the here and now. I'm very much looking forward to the day when, in Heaven, I receive that what I could never quite attain while here on Earth, the perfect body!

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

A. I have been fortunate enough to meet folks from all walks of life, across the globe. I've found that, no matter what differences we may have, there's always common ground - if we are willing to enter into dialogue. I remember a lady from Uzbekistan, whom I met in a refugee camp in Russia. Having received a little bit of aid from me and my team, she simply touched her heart and then mine. I'll never forget the humbling feeling that action invoked.

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

A. This depends on how one evaluates success. Is it about having more bottoms on seats, or lots of church events? Is it believers growing and maturing in their faith and passing it on? Or is it having nice buildings? I wonder would Tertullian be able to say of us, "See how the Christians love one another". For, when we're not able to do that, we've nothing to take out into the world.

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

A. A clue to the answer is the word "religion". When I read the Gospels, the groups of people whom Jesus seemed to constantly criticise were the "religious" ones. That reminds me of the lyrics of a song written by Brian Houston: "We don't need religion, but we could use the love of God."

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

A. The Church has been the voice of hope, as well as offering help, support and comfort to many people, who've been caught up in both sides of the Troubles. Religion itself has become incredibly sectarian, politicised and, in some cases, destructive because what was once a faith issue has been hijacked by the extremists bringing division to communities who once lived and worked very happily together.

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

A. My favourite film is One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. It made me laugh a lot. My favourite book is Redeeming Love - a beautiful depiction of the Grace of God in a broken woman's life. My favourite music has to be Alison Krauss, the bluegrass and country singer. She sings some of our traditional hymns beautifully.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. Walking on the beach.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. My friends tell me I say "but, anyway" an awful lot. So, I think: "She died, but anyway!"

Q. Have you any major regrets?

A. Only that I haven't seen Liverpool lift the Premier League trophy.

Belfast Telegraph