'With confidence in our own Christianity it is good to explore, listen and learn from those people whose faiths are different'
In our continuing new series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
Dean Stephen Forde (56) was born in Rathfriland, Co Down, and later graduated in Architecture from Edinburgh University before entering the Church of Ireland ministry. He served in Belfast and Dublin and his charges included the Church of Ireland chaplaincies at Queen's University, Belfast and University College Dublin. He was Rector of Larne, Glynn and Raloo prior to his installation earlier this year as the 14th Dean of Belfast. Dean Forde is married to Fiona and the couple has three grown-up children, Rachel, Amy and Michael, and a baby grand-daughter, Eloise.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. Around the age of 14, I realised that either the resurrection of Jesus was a fact of history, the only explanation for the existence of Christianity 2,000 years after his crucifixion, or it was a fabrication. History demonstrated to me that the resurrection could not have been fabricated and had, therefore, to be taken as historical fact.
Q. Does this faith play a real part in your daily life, or is it just for Sundays?
A. My personal faith is the ground of who I try to be, as well as what I try to do as a minister.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. There are things which allow me to doubt God's power, or presence, or victory: the cruel devastation of a tsunami, or a chemical weapons attack on a school, or a child killed in a car crash, or a young mother with cancer. But faith is believing that God is not absent from the places of greatest human suffering. That is what the Cross is all about. One of my most challenging times was when my father, the Rev Bernard Forde, died suddenly from a heart attack when I was 16. I was doing A-levels and it was a very, very difficult time for the whole family. I asked myself: "Is God part of this?" The answer came to me that God would carry me and my family through. So, I wasn't going to give up on God, because we had to depend on him to bring us through those difficult days.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God and, if so, why?
A. Sometimes, I'm puzzled by God's silence, when the answer to prayer is not "Yes", but "No", and when good people suffer and cruel people prosper. But while our perspective is limited by time and human death, God's perspective is eternal. What angers me more is when Churches and Christian people deny the reality of God's mercy, or forgiveness, to ourselves by rejecting the humanity of those who are different from us and by holding unforgiving grievance, whether personal, or as a community.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith and are you able to live with that criticism?
A. Whatever validity is given to Christianity has to be earned through lives and a Church which is authentic to the person and teachings of Jesus.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. While the Church and the Church of Ireland often falls short of the ideals we proclaim, nevertheless our Church, at its best, can combine both a thoughtful Christianity and a passionate faith in Jesus; both a respect for Christian tradition and an excitement at the relevance of Christianity for today's world and lives.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. The unknown aspect of death - and any physical pain that dying might involve - are things that could make you worried and no one wants to die too soon. However, the promise of Christianity is that physical death is our gateway into Jesus' risen presence and God's eternal mercy and love.
Q. Are you worried about hell-fire?
A. If Hell is the absence of God and good and the absence of all love and mercy, this is not a place I would want to spend eternity for myself, or anyone else. We have enough evidence of what such a place looks like on earth to avoid its reality beyond the boundaries of time and space.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection and, if so, what will it be like?
A. I do believe in the resurrection of Jesus, as the one who has defeated death and opened the gift of resurrection life for all of humanity. What is it like? It is what is good, caring, honest and loving in us that survives death and lives eternally in God's near presence.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. Those of other Christian denominations are our sisters and brothers. Different denominations emphasise different aspects of Christian faith and practice and all have something to teach about a God who is greater than all our human understandings. There are many other faiths which can be a mirror to help us explore our own Christian understandings. Every human is created in God's image and that must be the starting point of our encounter with those who are different to us.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. With a confidence in our own Christianity, it is good to explore and listen and learn from those people whose faiths are different.
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. It is easy for Church people and the Churches as institutions to be self-absorbed, or to focus only on survival. When we live by a faith that reflects the teaching and person of Jesus into our world, and we share that person by who we are and how we live, then we are beginning to fulfil Jesus' mission for his Church.
Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. For some, the Churches have no relevance to everyday lives. We can fill our lives with so much else that we think we have no need for God, faith, or eternity - until we find ourselves facing them. For others, the failures of the Church, particularly abuse in the Church, or religion as a justification for violence, is reason enough to reject traditional religion. At the same time, there is a huge hunger to explore 'the spiritual' and dissatisfaction that material consumption of the world's finite resources is the way to personal satisfaction, or happiness.
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. The best of religion in godly people of faith have shown this society the very best that we can be, that is made in God's image. The worst of religion in this land is a stain on the history of Christianity and the cause for many to reject God altogether.
Q. Some personal tastes: what is your favourite music, book and film?
A. Bach's St Matthew Passion, which I sang with the Edinburgh University Choir; Philip Yancey's book What Is So Amazing About Grace, because Grace is what it is all about; the film ET, because that's the first movie I ever took my wife, Fiona, to.
Q. Any regrets?
A. There are things I wish I had done better and there are things I could do better, but I take a positive view of life. I embrace life and I don't want to be weighed down by regrets.