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Rev Ernie Rea on faith - 'My roots are in Irish Presbyterianism, but I'm ashamed of its direction'

In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith

Reaching out: Rev Ernie Rea believes that talking to people of other faiths can enrich our lives
Reaching out: Rev Ernie Rea believes that talking to people of other faiths can enrich our lives
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

The Rev Ernie Rea (73) graduated with degrees in modern history and politics and theology from Queen's University Belfast and was assistant minister at Woodvale Presbyterian Church from 1970 to 1972.

He was then minister of Bannside Presbyterian Church in Banbridge from 1972 to 1979, and later joined the BBC in Belfast, where he was religious broadcasting producer from 1979 to 1984.

Ernie then followed a broadcasting career in England as senior producer of religious broadcasting for BBC South and West of England (1984 to 1987), head of network radio for BBC South and West of England (1987 to 1989) and BBC head of religious broadcasting (1989 to 2001).

He has been the presenter of the popular Beyond Belief programme on BBC Radio 4 since 2002 and continues to broadcast and lecture widely.

The Rev Rea is married to Gaynor. He has two sons, Stephen and Jonathan, from his first marriage. He lives in England and attends an Anglican church.

Q How and when did you come to faith?

A I have always been a believer, but it became real towards the end of my time at university. I was on a hockey tour in Berlin and suffering from a dreadful hangover when I determined to find my path in life. I knew the Christian faith would be at the heart of it. My faith determines the way I think and live. It becomes more important to me with the passing of the years.

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

A There has not been one single crisis, but I struggle all the time with doubt. I can't understand how any thinking person can go through life without facing big questions. The opposite of faith isn't doubt, but certainty.

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

A I do get angry at many of the injustices of life, but I don't blame God for them. The mess of the world is, ultimately, down to us. For me, God is total love.

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

A All the time. When I was the BBC's head of religious broadcasting, never a week went by without someone writing to tell me I was on the road to Hell. I remember one letter, written in green ink, in which the writer expressed his anticipation of seeing me roasting on a spit while he enjoyed the joys of heaven. To his credit, he signed it, prefacing it with the remark, "Yours in the love of the Lord Jesus". I was sensitive to such things, but nowadays criticism runs off me like water off a duck's back. I am comfortable with what I believe. It's part of who I am.

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

A I worship in an Anglican church which accommodates many views. I wish the churches in England were more forthright in offering arguments against secularism, which is so prevalent. My roots are in Irish Presbyterianism, and I am deeply ashamed of the direction it has taken. The decision to cut links with the Church of Scotland and to refuse to baptise the children of people in gay relationships reduces the Church to the level of a sect. Whatever happened to "Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not?"

Q Are you afraid to die or can you look beyond it?

A I'm not afraid to die. I have had a wonderful, fulfilled life. If I died tomorrow, I would feel I had been greatly blessed, although there are things I still want to do. Death is more tragic when it happens to young people whose lives are unfulfilled.

Q And what about Hell? Do you worry about it?

A If Hell exists, it is empty. A loving God could not condemn one of his children to everlasting fire. I once asked an orthodox rabbi if he believed God would forgive a repentant Hitler. The question troubled him greatly. He had lost family members in the Holocaust. There was a long, painful silence before he replied: "A repentant Hitler, yes."

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

A Yes, I do. I believe that "nothing in life, or death, can separate me from the love of God". However, I am completely agnostic about what that life will be like. It must involve challenges, triumphs and failures. I've never fancied sitting on a cloud playing a harp. An eternity spent worshipping God sounds intolerable.

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

A Presenting Beyond Belief has brought me into contact with large numbers of people of other faiths and traditions. I am sure we are all searching for the same God, but by different ways. If I had been born in Saudi Arabia, I would be a Muslim; in Delhi, I would probably be a Hindu. I am struck by the similarities in our beliefs, rather than the differences. The idea that there will only be Christians in Heaven strikes me as an absurdity.

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

A I do it all the time and believe that I am enriched by it.

Do you think churches here fulfil their mission?

A Churches provided support for their members during the difficult time of the Troubles. I believe the consequences would have been much worse without the work of churches. However, two years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I presented a Beyond Belief programme from Belfast on what churches have done since 1997. All my guests agreed that while the mission of the churches was to exercise the ministry of reconciliation, they had failed to do it. The old divisions still exist and the old suspicions are still there.

Q Why are many people turning their backs on religion?

A The impact of secularism has been hitting the churches in England since the Second World War and is now affecting Northern Ireland. We have to provide cogent arguments to counter the impact of secularism.

Q Has religion helped or hindered people here?

A It has mostly helped, but there is still work to be done.

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

A My favourite film is Slumdog Millionaire. At times it is deeply depressing about the condition of the poor in India, but it is also uplifting. It is, ultimately, a tribute to the human spirit, which has an infinite capacity to triumph over adversity.

My favourite book is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, part of a trilogy centred on the American Civil War. Robinson is unashamedly Christian and writes about redemption and forgiveness in a very profound way.

My favourite music is the Second (Resurrection) Symphony by Gustav Mahler. The last movement always moves me to tears.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A At home, because it is a place of joy, peace and happiness.

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A I don't intend to have an inscription on my gravestone.

Q What about regrets? Have you any major ones?

A When I was head of religious broadcasting, I was summoned to a meeting in London on the day of a friend's funeral in Wales. I went to the meeting, but it was the wrong call. I find that I don't regret the things I did; I regret the things I didn't do.

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