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Reverend William Henry: 'We utterly reject homophobia and we don't want to exclude: there is a place for everyone inside our Church'

The Presbyterian Church's youngest moderator in living memory talks same-sex relationships, healing rifts and why a woman could succeed him

By Claire McNeilly

The new head of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) believes it won't be long before there's a woman moderator. Rev William Henry, at 50 years of age, will be the youngest incumbent in living memory when he is formally elected to the prestigious post in four months.

The Maze minister, whose competitors for the top job this time round included a female candidate, said that in his view it's only "a matter of time" before the glass ceiling in his church is finally shattered.

He also said that while he supports the PCI's opposition to same-sex marriage, he would "accept" it - albeit "with a degree of sadness" - if it were legalised in Northern Ireland.

And he revealed his hope that the ongoing rift between Union Theological College (UTC) and Queen's University Belfast (QUB) - he's an alumnus of both - can be repaired.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph at Assembly Buildings in Belfast yesterday, Rev Henry (below) said he was aware the PCI is perceived as being stuffy and dominated by older men, and he revealed that he thought his relative youth would hinder his chances of being elected.

"To be honest, I thought being younger would go against me," he said.

"But I think it's important that we have leaders in the Church who are young enough to give a sense of drive and change and an impetus to get the Church prepared for the 21st century.

"Certainly, I'm passionate about doing that and I'm always being prepared to be used by God in that.

"It's vital we have that mindset because we have closed too many churches and there are too many churches where the profile is very aged, and so every reminder, perhaps if it is a younger moderator, is a helpful thing."

In total, 19 presbyteries across the island of Ireland met independently two days ago to cast their votes for the next moderator.

Rev Henry received 11 votes, more than three other nominees - Rev David Bruce, secretary to PCI's Council for Mission in Ireland (four votes); Rev Albin Rankin, of Stormont Presbyterian (one vote) and Rev Mairisine Stanfield of First Presbyterian Church, Bangor (three votes).

The father-of-three, who was in the running last year for the top job but was unsuccessful, said he believed a woman would assume the role in the not-too-distant future.

"This year I'm the youngest moderator and maybe next year it will be the first female moderator," he said.

"Lady ministers have acted in all capacities in our Church.

"They've been moderators of presbytery and we have many, many minsters who are women.

"Mairisine is well respected and I imagine it's a matter of time [before she becomes moderator] and there's every possibility she could be there."

Mr Henry confirmed that he supports the Church's opposition to same-sex marriage, but he added that the PCI "abhors" homophobia and is "open and welcome to anyone".

Asked what he says to gay people and their families who believe their church is telling them they are not worthy or acceptable, he said he wants his Church "to embrace everyone".

"We need to stress that the Church is for you and that as a Church we are constantly reminding everyone, and we remind ourselves, that everyone is valued, everyone is cherished by God," he said.

"We reject homophobia and all the negative aspects of that and we don't want to polarise and we don't want to exclude.

"We do want to welcome, so there is a place for everyone as part of our Church, whether that's at worship, or as part of our organisations."

Rev Henry, the minister of Maze Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim for the past two decades, will replace Rev Charles McMullen (below) as moderator and will be officially installed at the start of the Church's General Assembly on June 3.

He said he wants to focus on the theme of 'enjoying God' during his year-long tenure as moderator, and he stressed that he hopes his Church can stay relevant to young people in an increasingly secular society.

"In our congregation we have leaders and young people who are deeply committed to God," he said.

"They want to hear God speaking in a way that makes connections to their lives.

"That is a passion that we have. We have a passion for family ministry, so that's a big driver.

"I know what I want my congregation to look like and we work towards that. And with that vision we've strived to get there."

He also voiced concern over the "explosion of social media" and its potentially dangerous effects on children's mental health.

"Social media can have tremendous positives, which even we as a Church use, but there are many negatives associated with that," he said.

"As part of our youth ministry ,that would be a topic that would be raised on occasions with our young people."

Last June the PCI, which has more than 200,000 members north and south of the border, voted to sever its ties with the Church of Scotland because of the latter's more liberal attitude to same-sex relationships.

The unprecedented move meant that the moderator of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly would no longer be invited to the annual meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast.

At last year's meeting, the severance vote was passed by 255 votes to 171.

When asked if he would be making any attempts to heal the division between the PCI and the Scottish Presbyterians over same-sex marriage, Rev Henry described the rift as being a "disagreement".

"It's regrettable when those things happen," he said, "but we've recalibrated the relationship that we have with the Church of Scotland in that we're no longer sending moderators to each other's General Assembly but practical working relationships are still ongoing."

The moderator designate said people of all ages, particularly younger ones, had voiced their concerns to him over Brexit and the uncertainty that surrounds the UK's departure from the EU on March 29, although he declined to reveal his stance on the subject.

When asked repeatedly how he voted in the 2016 referendum, he refused to answer and said his focus was on praying for workable solutions to the ongoing problems.

"I did vote - I expressed my right as an individual," he said. "Which way I voted really is immaterial.

"My youngest son is going on hockey tour with his school and that tour leaves for Holland on March 29, so that's an interesting day!"

Referring to the potential role of church leaders as regards the ongoing Stormont crisis, he said he would "certainly make myself available" to politicians.

"What we're concerned about with the impasse at Stormont is that real people's lives are impacted," he added. "It's the vulnerable who are impacted and we want to be concerned about them and something does need to be done."

In light of QUB's decision not to admit any new undergraduate theology students to the Presbyterian-run UTC in 2019, following a university review that was critical of aspects of teaching and staffing at the college, Rev Henry said he hoped the relationship between the institutions could be mended.

"I personally benefited hugely from my time at Union and I found it a rewarding and enriching experience and I loved my time there," he said.

"I would love there to be some way forward in the situation because I believe that the relationship between Queen's and Union has been - and could still be - mutually beneficial.

"It's disappointing that it's got to this stage, but we would love to have some conversations and I'm sure those conversations are continuing because I hope there is a positive role for Union in the future."

Rev Henry, who was born in Antrim and grew up in Mallusk, attended Mallusk Primary School followed by Antrim Grammar School.

He now lives in Lisburn with his wife, Nora (50), a chemistry teacher, and their three children, Bethany (21), Megan (18) and Connor (14).

His oldest daughter is studying medicine at Queen's, while their son and youngest daughter are both at Wallace High School in Lisburn.

Revealing how he first encountered Nora, he said: "We met in the chemical labs of Queen's University. All her apparatus fell on the floor and I just walked away, so it wasn't the most auspicious of starts."

After graduating from QUB in 1990 as a Bachelor of Science in chemistry, he began training to be a minister at 22 despite being offered a sponsored PhD in chemistry or a career in finance.

"I've always had this very clear sense of the call of God upon my life," he said.

"I was offered a PhD that would have involved going to Germany, and in my mind back then everybody in Germany drove big red BMWs.

"Every day, as I was going to Queen's, I had to walk past the BMW garage, so that was where I thought I was definitely headed, until I heard a sermon in my home church entitled 'What is man's chief end, which is not simply to get a BMW but to put God first in your life' - and that is the thing that most definitively changed the direction of my life."

So now, with 12 whole months to make his mark as moderator of the PCI, what is his big plan?

"I've highlighted the value and the role of young people in the Church and what our young people are able to contribute to the Church - and they're not simply the Church of the future, they're the Church of today."

He also referenced his "favourite quotation" from Francis Schaeffer, an American Evangelical Christian theologian, philosopher and Presbyterian pastor.

"[Schaeffer] said that if the Church is going to be what the Church should be then young people will be there," said Mr Henry.

"But Schaeffer adds they'll not simply be there ... there will be honking of horns, clashing of symbols and they will come with dancing and with flowers in their hair.

"It's a very graphic image but a vital one for our Church and we want to harness the many positive aspects of our young people, who can be passionate disciples and followers of Jesus and want to impact their world."

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