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Rev Elizabeth Hanna: 'Growing up, the word hate wasn't allowed in our vocabulary. I am saddened by bitterness, anger and intolerance'

In conversation with Rev Elizabeth Hanna

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No regrets: Rev Elizabeth Hanna celebrates her 70th birthday today

No regrets: Rev Elizabeth Hanna celebrates her 70th birthday today

No regrets: Rev Elizabeth Hanna celebrates her 70th birthday today

Rev Elizabeth Hanna is a retired Church of Ireland minister, who celebrates her 70th birthday today.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. My home has always been in Kilkeel, although I moved for study and work. Now retired, I'm back living in the family home. Both my parents were from the local district, too, and there are many cousins all living within a fairly small radius. I have two sisters and one niece and one nephew. I went to the local primary school and then the high school. I failed the 11-plus examination, but, with the comprehensive system here, some of us were able to move into the grammar stream and so I went on to A-level. That was followed by a BA (Hons) in geography at Queen's University, Belfast.

After three years of teaching, I returned to study, this time at the London School of Theology, where I obtained another BA (Hons), in theology. After two decades back teaching in Kilkeel High, I studied for the ordained ministry. Part of that time was spent in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in Dublin and part was studying for an MA (Hons) in spirituality at The Milltown Institute. I was ordained deacon in 2001 and spent three years as a curate in Bangor Abbey. From there, I became rector of Magherally and Annaclone. My last incumbency was in Saint Nicholas' on the Lisburn Road in Belfast until I retired in 2018.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. My parents were involved in the Church, so it was a very natural thing for me to absorb the Christian faith. When I was 12, I remember making a definite choice to follow Jesus, but that was only confirming what was already my way of life. Faith is central to everything I am and do. During this lockdown, it is a sustaining and steadying influence. It is helped tremendously with tuning in to online worship. Each morning, I join a group who read morning prayer led by the Rev Canon Katherine Poulton. And each evening, a number of us worship with my own rector, the Rt Rev Darren McCartney, as he leads the service of Compline.

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

A. My faith has been fairly steady, though, as an older teenager, I went through the usual questioning and reaffirming of my beliefs. This is healthy and it enables young people to be certain of their beliefs, rather than just accepting what they have been spoon-fed.

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

A. I have moved in circles where my faith was respected and, even if folk disagreed with me, there wasn't criticism. On one occasion, not long after I was ordained, I was confronted by a very angry man, who had several serious grievances against the Church. He felt that he could offload in a loud and threatening way on someone, a woman, who was wearing a clerical collar. That frightened me and I didn't know how to respond. I would probably handle it very differently now.

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

A. Don't we all wish that our denomination was perfect? But they are made up of ordinary people on faith journeys. Yes, there are policies and decisions about which I am not happy, but that doesn't stop me from loving my fellow believers, or supporting the Church of Ireland. I think almost everyone wishes that some things were different, but they aren't, and we need to be able to live with one another in the tension of disagreement.

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

A. No, I'm not afraid of death and I believe in, "the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting". I am sure that what comes after this life will be so much more wonderful than we could ever imagine. Can the caterpillar picture what it will be like to be a butterfly, or the tadpole a frog? The transformation is way beyond any imagination. So, I think that what comes after death will be incredible.

Q. Are you afraid of hell?

A. Can I answer with just one word? No.

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

A. We were taught by our parents to respect everyone, even if we disagreed with them. The word "hate" was not allowed in our vocabulary and I have always accepted other people without regard to where, or how, they worship, or even if they don't have any faith at all. Many of the differences are to do with our preferred style of worship and, when you look at the fundamental truths, the differences are pretty superficial.

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

A. Of course. I have always enjoyed learning from others and part of what makes us whole is to embrace difference. I'm secure in what I believe, so I never feel threatened when finding out about any other pattern of belief.

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

A. Sadly, our mission is sometimes confused and we become tangled in peripheral issues, forgetting that we are called to be like Christ and to live out our faith both in what we do and in what we say.

I'm saddened when I see anger and bitterness, hatred of other people and intolerance. This isn't what Jesus called us to be and to do. His call to love God, to love our neighbour as ourselves, is clear. And it saddens me when I see the people of God displaying attitudes that are not Christ-like. And, since the Churches are made up of people, then, at times, we are falling short.

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

A. I'm reminded of the story Jesus told about the seed falling on different kinds of ground. I think many have abandoned the Church because the "cares of this world" have choked out the desire for God.

We have only so many hours in a week and people make choices, but it comes back to what they think is of chief importance. In an age when people feel self-sufficient, it is harder to realise that there are things of greater importance than wealth and fame.

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

A. Many people have been helped and their faith in God has seen them through some of the most awful times. Many have been helped through the work done by Churches - from toddler and parent groups to hot meals, youth activities and care of the elderly. So, yes, religion has done - and continues to do - much good.

But others have found rejection and exclusion and feel abandoned by the Churches. It can appear that the Church is inward-looking and unaware of life in the 21st century.

Some who claim to belong to a Church show nothing but anger and hatred. All of this works against the formation of a society where love, tolerance, respect and mutual understanding are honoured.

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

A. I prefer historical dramas, like Henry V, or something as daft as the Harry Potter films. My preference on TV is for either cooking programmes - I'm a big fan of MasterChef - or else murder mysteries. I like detective books and I have a number of religious books on my desk. I'm currently reading John Mark Comer's The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and Pete Greig's How to Pray. Both of these are down-to-earth guides for developing one's spiritual life.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. I'm not sure that there is a place where I feel more close to God than any other. As I've got older (can you believe I'm 70?), I find that I am aware of God just about everywhere. Sometimes, when I'm out walking with my new dog, Rock, there are moments, as I gaze out to sea, when the vastness of God's love comes to mind.

And just recently, when preparing a Thought for the Day, I noticed that the mountains were shrouded in mist. I was struck by the thought that, even if there are times when we are anxious and the mist has come down, the reality is that God is still with us.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. "Loved".

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. I have no regrets.

Belfast Telegraph