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'There have been some misunderstandings as to how we treat people who are gay ... nobody is barred from taking Communion or going to services, the Lord's table is open to all'

In his first major interview since becoming the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Rt. Rev Charles McMullen (57) talks about family, faith - and the fallout from his Church's controversial rift with the Church of Scotland. And why he believes that the theme for his moderatorial year, building relationships, is now all the more relevant

By Lindy McDowell

Q. You come from Omagh originally?

A. Yes. I was born and grew up in Omagh. My mother Rita was a housewife and my father Jim worked all his life for BT, about 44 years altogether. He was an incredibly loyal worker. I have no brothers or sisters - I'm a one and only.

I went to Omagh County Primary School and from there on to Omagh Academy (he was head boy). I had the pleasure of being back at my old school just a few weeks ago as the guest of honour at speech day. That was the first time I'd been in that building for 40 years. And it was one of the loveliest days of my life, it really was.

I went to Trinity College, Dublin, and studied French and German for four years. I have very happy memories of Dublin. My German professor, a lady called Eda Sagarra, took a personal interest in me and we have maintained a lifelong friendship. She came to the opening night of the General Assembly in June. It was great to see her. She competed in the Dublin Marathon when she was 75. The combined age of her legs at that stage was 150! A remarkable lady full of life and energy and it meant the world to me that I had her as a personal tutor. She encouraged me to apply to Oxford which I did. I was accepted to read Modern European History at St Antony's College. I enjoyed Oxford very much - the opportunity to study, making friends. I even did ballroom dancing at one stage.

At Oxford, spiritually speaking, I was feeling a call in my life. I felt like a boat that was being tossed around at sea. But when I surrendered totally to the Lord at that stage I felt a sense of peace. And that has never left me.

Q. Before you felt the call to the church, what did you envisage as a career?

A. There has always been a calling in my life going right back to when I was a child. When my home minister, Rev Harry Pinkerton, visited us once and asked me what I'd like to be when I grew up, I meant to say "Minister" but it came out as "Prime Minister". "There's no harm in aiming high," he said.

My second minister, the minister I grew up under as a teenager, was Rev Bill Clarke. He got me involved in services. I remember my heart absolutely pounding as I led a Children's Day and also as I read a lesson during a Radio Ulster broadcast.

Q. When did you meet your wife, Barbara?

A. In 1990 at the General Assembly. It was, in many ways, eyes across a crowded room. Barbara had trained as a teacher, then had gone to China for two years with the Presbyterian Church to teach English. When she came back she started working for Tear Fund and was attending the Assembly in that capacity.

Meanwhile, I had come back to do my Divinity at Union Theological College in Belfast and then had gone on to my assistantship which was at Harmony Hill, Lambeg. Barbara and I have a mutual friend called Lindsey Malcolm. She and Barbara shared a house. They were trying to set up a dinner party. I'd been invited to make up numbers. When Barbara was in the Assembly, she worked out who I was, looked across and smiled...

We started going out in September 1990, were engaged within five weeks and got married the following May. And I'm normally a cautious person. We have three adult children, Lydia who's 24; she's training at Queen's to be a midwife. Samuel, our middle one, is 22 and he qualified in Law from Dundee, and David, our youngest who is 21, is studying at Union College for a Divinity degree.

Q. Where did you go after Harmony Hill?

A. I felt called - call is always a very important word in the Presbyterian Church - to Legacurry on the other side of Lisburn. And that call was a bit like a falling in love experience. I began my ministry there in March 1991. Barbara and I were married eight weeks later. It's such a special place and it will always hold a special place in our hearts. The church grew dramatically in those eight years by about 100 families. It was a place of commitment and energy. Wonderful families and wonderful people. And a real wrench to leave.

We came to West Church in Bangor in 1999. And that sense of call was very different because we'd been so happy in Legacurry. It felt as though I was being brought this time kicking and screaming to the altar. On the night of my installation some of the people from Legacurry 'kidnapped' me at the door and tried to put me back on the bus to take me home with them.

I would have given anything to go back at that stage. But, of course, I now feel the same about West Church as I felt about Legacurry. This is my 20th year here. There are about 1,100 families altogether. I would always say about West Church there is a deep spirituality as well as a joy of life and a real love in the place.

It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But it feels as if I'm in a lovely, deep river. There's just so much encouragement and a sense of togetherness. I very much thrive on encouragement and affirmation and I get all of that in abundance.

Q. Was it difficult to put yourself forward for Moderator?

A. Yes. Friends had suggested to me over a number of years that I ought to let my name go forward. But, again, I mention that sense of call... in 2016 I just felt something inside me. I felt the Lord calling me to be obedient. It didn't go anywhere at that stage.

Last year I was runner-up. I had no real excuse then to pull out the second time and I found myself elected in February.

Quite often we are described as reluctant Moderators - people don't want it but it comes their way. That sounds very negative and I don't want it to sound negative. It is also a tremendous honour and privilege.

My parents are both dead now. The day after I was elected Moderator I was thinking of them. I'd suddenly felt sad, just wishing they'd been around to tell them. Out of the blue the phone rang and I took a call from a priest in Derry. He said that his dad had worked with my dad in Omagh and used to talk about how proud the two dads were of their two sons. To hear that at that precise moment was wonderful.

Q. The theme of your year has been "building relationships". Yet with what has been happening within the Church itself, with Stormont and Brexit, it seems as if everything's pulling apart.

A. Well then, I believe that my theme is all the more relevant and valid. It's who I am. And relationships would be very much at the heart of who I am as a person in relation to God and to others.

I always thought that building relationships would have many hitches, setbacks and collisions along the way. That it was very much a theme for the long haul.

Q. So it must have been a very difficult day for you when the General Assembly voted to stop inviting Scottish Moderators to the Irish General Assembly...

A. It was. It was absolutely heartbreaking for everybody on every side of the debate and I would want to stress that. Because I am such a consensual person - I don't do confrontation - when the vote was taken I found it incredibly difficult.

The position in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is that we hold with the historic and Christian understanding that marriage is between one man and one woman. And we felt that the Scottish Church's trajectory in recent years had been somewhat different. I suppose we wanted to put a marker down and say that to the Church of Scotland.

I'm very much relieved, on the other hand, that we are maintaining good day-to-day working relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland. The decision taken in the Assembly this year really only had to do with the ceremonial links and ties.

I know they're important but families have their ups and downs along the way and, again, when we talk about building relationships who knows what the relationship will be in a couple of years' time or so.

Q. The Scottish Moderator, the Rt Rev Susan Brown left in tears, didn't she?

A. Yes. I've been in touch with her and I was able to meet up with her in Edinburgh when I was over there in July. She and I have been maintaining personal contact. We're in touch with each other. And that will continue.

Q.  From the viewpoint of an outsider what perhaps shocked people most was the decision that baptism would be withheld from the children of same-sex couples. Isn't that very harsh, cruel even?

A. I think there have been some misunderstandings as to what was agreed because nobody is being prevented from coming into Sunday services or taking Communion as the Lord's table is open to all.

In our Reformed tradition, baptism has nothing to do with denying children anything. But there are promises parents must be able to make on their behalf and, as I said in my address to the Assembly, when we deal with so many complex issues in today's world, we need to somehow combine unconditional love with the absolute truth of God's word.

If we err on the side of truth we become harsh and judgemental and can easily forget that we're dealing with individuals, families and friends.

But at the other end of the spectrum we can run the risk of diluting the high standards of Christian teaching and behaviour to the extent that it becomes meaningless.

Jesus had the amazing ability to show grace but also the ability to bring strong, challenging messages. To the woman caught in adultery, for example, he showed compassion but also instructed her to sin no more.

But I do want to acknowledge the hurt that has been caused and what I want to do during my year as Moderator is to set a gentle tone and to listen to others and to see how we move forward in all of this. It's about combining grace and truth. But in a world where issues are so complex... yeah, it's difficult from time to time.

Q. What do you say to gay people and their families who feel that their Church is telling them they are not worthy or acceptable?

A. I would want to say that as a Church we affirm that all people are valued and cherished by God. People matter to God so they matter to us and we will continue as a Church to reject homophobia in all its forms. And all of our churches need to be welcoming places where no one is excluded from coming forward to worship or to receive pastoral care or to take Communion together.

I feel there is an all-pervading view today that to love someone, to respect someone, you have to agree with them. For me you don't have to agree with someone's position or someone's lifestyle to be welcoming and to love them in Christ. And all people are valued and cherished by God and all people matter to God. Right at the heart of the Gospel message is that we are loved unconditionally by Jesus Christ who accepts the way we are. This applies to everybody. He accepts us the way we are but changes us to become more and more like Him.

Q. Do you personally believe that someone who is a practising homosexual is committing sin?

A. I would pivot that question and say that all of us, everyone, has fallen short of the great glory of God and that we all receive the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. I'm not going to answer that question specifically here.

People matter to God and it's important to me to sit down and talk to people one-to-one. I'm not going to identify one kind of sin and not another here. People matter to God and there's the importance of sitting down and talking through all of this with them on that one-to-one pastoral level.

Q. You went to Dublin to meet Pope Francis. Was that a difficult decision?

A. It was agreed by the General Council of our Church that I should go and, again, it was on the basis of good neighbourly relations.

In my own life I go back to Belleek in Co Fermanagh where my paternal grandparents lived. My granda, Sam McMullen, was a very devout Anglican. In Belleek the majority of people would have been from a Catholic background. But when he died the entire village closed down and everybody came into the local Church of Ireland church for his service. That, in the early 1980s, was a life-changing moment for me because it brought me across the sectarian fault line.

In terms of meeting Pope Francis, I'm confident of who I am in Jesus Christ so therefore I can reach out the hand to others. And I think on the whole, my presence in Dublin was appreciated.

Q. In an increasingly secular society, how does the church stay relevant, particularly to young people?

A. The Church is very much part of society and local communities across Ireland. We engage around issues of public concern and as a Church we give a voice to many people, both within and outside our denomination.

In our Church vocabulary we have words such as grace and truth and mercy and forgiveness and healing and peace and reconciliation. These are concepts and ideas that are very central to the Christian message. And if we take all of that out of contemporary debate I think as a society we would be much the poorer.

In terms of our congregations we are there at the heart of the community. I have many colleagues - there are 537 congregations - ministers who are alongside people at their time of need. They are there when children are being born, when people are getting married, when people are dying, when they go through the crisis times of life, when they need pastoral care.

I think again in terms of what our church is contributing to youth work, uniformed organisations giving young people hope for the future, teaching about what's right and what's wrong and, again, reminding them that they are unconditionally loved by Jesus Christ.

I think too of our Church overseas. I recently spent 10 days in Jordan. And I think of what is being done by the Council for Social Witness in our Church in terms of providing residential homes for the elderly, drug rehabilitation, rehabilitation for prison offenders, care for all sections of society, all the good that the Church is doing in society all around.

Q. Just over a week ago you attended the last service in Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian in north Belfast. How emotional was that?

A. You've mentioned the ups and downs of my moderatorial year, I found that to be, by far, the most emotional morning to date. I came away from the service feeling drained. My heart was breaking for the members of that congregation.

We know that, at the end of the day, the church isn't the building. But buildings provide a sanctuary. They really are sacred space for people; they are places that build community. There has been a long history of witness in that particular congregation going back over 130 years.

Yes, that whole area of the city is changing. People have moved elsewhere to places like Bangor to my congregation here. We're working as a denomination to see how we can become more effective in inner city areas.

Q. Along with other church leaders you recently met political leaders. With the continuing impasse at Stormont, do you think the churches could do more?

A. Well, again tone is a very important point to make. I do believe in the importance of setting that tone. The five church leaders, when we met in June, decided that it would be important to issue an invitation to party political leaders. As you know we managed to have them all together recently in Assembly Buildings. They said this themselves, that was the first time they had been all together in the same room since February.

It wasn't a morning for recrimination. We felt it was important to stress the common good and the importance of politics. Schools, our health service, our business community, Brexit, all those issues are so important. And we wanted to stress to them the importance too of recognising the legitimacy of each other and the importance of pulling back from red lines.

It was good as the morning went on to hear them talking together. That conversation continued over lunch. Later that day I went on to Arlene Foster's and Michelle O'Neill's Twitter feeds (they'd put up tweets about how good the meeting had been) and I have to say, reading some of the comments [in response to their tweets], I felt sullied by the intensity of the language - the sheer ugliness of the language. It made me realise that we live in such an aggressive, confrontational society. Social media has a very definite edge and not everything that is said is for the greater good.

As church leaders we can't become involved in the actual politics. But we can set the tone. I actually felt sympathy for our politicians. It's important for us to pray for them and encourage them.

In terms of further meetings we're open to suggestions. We're planning further meetings in the months ahead with other politicians and members of the business community and we'll maybe try and have the leaders together again at some point in the future.

Q. There is great uncertainty over Brexit. Do you find that is something people are troubled by?

A. Absolutely. As a denomination we don't have a position on Brexit. We're an all-Ireland Church and we are aware that we have members on both sides of the debate. All of us I am sure would want to avoid a hard border. We're very conscious of those living in border areas. And the Good Friday Agreement was very important in that it helped to sort out the different relationships within these islands, between Northern Ireland and the Republic and east/west. The whole question of identity was somewhat diluted within the European context.

When you look at Brexit and the political impasse at Stormont, it's quite a toxic mix at the moment and there is a risk of polarisation and of us drifting back to the past. I'm maybe being a bit pessimistic when I say that but we need to bear in mind that opponents could easily become enemies again is this part of the world. But be much more positive - and this is something we were stressing to the politicians - it's amazing how far we've come over the last 20 years. We are though in a very difficult place all round at the moment.

Q. We've concentrated a bit on the downs of your year so far but there must have been many ups as well?

A. I've just completed a tour of the Templepatrick Presbytery which takes in Antrim. Barbara and I were very encouraged by the life we experienced in various congregations and in the community. It actually made me think that if I had the opportunity to write as a journalist or record a programme for TV, I could easily fill it with good news stories.

I think we have such an emphasis on negative or bad news in our Press - those endless black, banner headlines. But there's also so much good happening in the community and so much good happening in our churches. To go back to our General Assembly, we had over 100 resolutions passed at that Assembly that were totally ignored by the Press. Issues to do with chaplaincy in our universities and our hospitals, issues to do with climate change, issues to do with our youth work - all of that ignored.

The support I get from Barbara is invaluable. Barbara retired from teaching in June - she always stresses that she took early retirement - and initially I wondered how the two of us would get on together in each other's company continuously. But it has been so enriching for the two of us in our togetherness.

One incredible experience so far was our trip to Jordan seeing what the local church is doing to help refugees who've been left destitute. The local church is coming alongside to provide accommodation and a school for refugee children. The Boys' Brigade in Northern Ireland, over this winter, is raising funds to provide an outdoor playground for that school. Having been to Jordan it put into perspective so many of the issues we are facing here.

Q. And how do you relax?

A. Barbara and I enjoy walking and living in Bangor is ideal because we've the coastal walk right beside us. My son David and I had season tickets to watch Ulster play rugby. But he's got a job now on a Friday night and a Saturday.

In terms of football, we've divided loyalties in this house between Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea which I support. I do try and get to the gym a couple of times a week although that hasn't been happening a lot lately. I seem to be eating my way around Ireland at the moment - which is lovely but will have long term implications.

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