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Rev Mark Harvey: 'My mum died from cancer aged 52. I was 19 and angry... I couldn't understand why God would allow someone who loved Him so evidently to suffer so much'

In conversation with Rev Mark Harvey

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Staying strong: Rev Mark Harvey

Staying strong: Rev Mark Harvey

Staying strong: Rev Mark Harvey

Rev Mark Harvey has been rector of Shankill Church of Ireland Parish in Lurgan since 2017. He is married to Joanne and they have a daughter, Lydia.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I'm 55 years old, I was born in the Woodvale area of Belfast, I've been married to Joanne for nearly 26 years and we have a 16-year-old daughter, Lydia. I have two older sisters, Carolyn and Pauline.

I was ordained in 1993 in St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh and I have served in Portadown, Monaghan, Dundonald and Lurgan, where I've been rector of Shankill parish since June 2017. I also spent four years on the staff of the Church Mission Society (Ireland), an overseas agency of the Church of Ireland.

I was educated at Lurgan College and Stranmillis College, where I trained as a primary school teacher.

I taught in Bangor for three years before being accepted for ordination training at the Church of Ireland Theological College in September 1993.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. My late father was a Church of Ireland rector, so my faith was woven into our family life. I made a personal commitment to Christ at the age of 15 through the work of Scripture Union in Lurgan College.

My faith in Jesus shapes how I live my life every day and, by the nature of my vocation, how I do my job.

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

A. I would have to say "no", but I have doubted my own worthiness to serve God on occasion. I've come back to the fact that my calling is founded on the grace of God and not my innate goodness, or otherwise.

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

A. Yes. My mum died from cancer at the age of 52. I was 19 and angry. I couldn't understand why God would allow someone who loved Him so evidently to suffer so much.

Also, in the early years of our marriage, Joanne and I suffered recurrent miscarriages. I was angry with God - why was this happening to us when we were serving Him?

Sometimes, we believe that it's not right to be angry with God. However, even a cursory reading of the Psalms assures us that this isn't true, but rather a natural part of the struggle of growing in faith.

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

A. Not often, but when it has happened, I've examined myself to see if the criticism is warranted. If it is, then I make the necessary amendments. If not, I just live with it. Criticism is part of life, part of following Christ and it is also a very real part of Christian ministry.

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

A. Ashamed? I don't think so, no. Frustrated? Yes. I think that too often we are acquiescing to the cultural voices of our generation and allowing them to shape who we are as the Church, rather than the other way around.

We then find ourselves unable to speak out clearly on issues that have moral and social implications.

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

A. I'm not afraid to die, because my faith is in Jesus, who has overcome death. That said, however, I don't relish the process of dying and parting from my loved ones.

Q. Are you afraid of hell?

A. If my standing on the Day of Judgement depended on me, then yes. However, Jesus is my confidence and my hope is built on what He has done for me.

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

A. My faith is founded on the fact that Christ is risen. Scripture tells us that, post-resurrection, we will all be changed.

Our physical bodies will be sown in their weakness. Our resurrection bodies will be raised in power. That's as much as we can know, I think.

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

A. I love to work with the other Churches and denominations in Lurgan and beyond. Unity in Christ is such a powerful witness. I respect those of other faiths, but when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except thought me", I believe Him.

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

A. There are things that we can learn from each other, but, as I've already stated, I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to a true relationship with God.

That may sound exclusivist, but I think that Christianity is an exclusive faith.

I don't think Jesus, or the Bible, leave any room for another conclusion.

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

A. If Matthew 28 is our commission, then we are called to "make disciples". We in the Church of Ireland aren't intentional enough about this. This current crisis we're living through is a wonderful opportunity for the Church to really take its mission seriously.

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

A. There are several reasons, I think. First, we aren't adaptable enough to deal with the changes that are occurring around us.

We're having to re-imagine Church at present and, in Shankill, we've certainly discovered a whole new world in reaching out to people through social media.

Second, we are too backward-looking and not sufficiently concerned about passing on the faith to the next generation.

Thirdly, we are too inward-looking and concerned about the needs of those within our Churches being met, becoming distracted and unable to look beyond ourselves.

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

A. I think that it has done both. There are great Churches in every community that are proclaiming Christ effectively through words and actions.

Historically, though, the Church hasn't been prophetic enough in calling people to a discipleship that has the potential to transform our lives, our homes and families, our places of work, our communities and, ultimately, our nation.

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

A. The film is The Shawshank Redemption, the book is the Bible and a good autobiography. I have an eclectic taste in music: I love choral music (listening to it and also singing), but also Queen, U2, the Eagles and many contemporary Christian artists.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. In the quietness of my own heart. But, for a physical place, in an empty church building.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. The same as that on my mum's - simply "Redeemed".

Q. Finally, do you have any major regrets?

A. There are many things I could have done better, but, honestly, there is nothing that keeps me awake at night.

Belfast Telegraph