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'I get angry with God most weeks. The gap between a good world and the real world seems to widen, so as I pray, I vent my frustrations on Him... I find He can manage my anger pretty well, though'

What I Believe: In conversation with Rev Tony Davidson

Spiritual mission: Rev Tony Davidson
Spiritual mission: Rev Tony Davidson
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Rev Tony Davidson is minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church. He also served for two years as the president of the Irish Council of Churches. He is married to Christine and the couple have three grown-up children, Mark, Gemma and Ruth.

Q: Can you tell us something about yourself?

A: I was born in 1957, so I am 62-years-old. My father, Dan Davidson, was a well-known businessman in the Dungannon area. He owned a local garage, then diversified into property development and hotel proprietorship. My mother, Dorothy (nee Graham), grew up in Upper Clonaneese Church. My father, while not always a good church attender, taught me how to relate well to people from different backgrounds. My mother grounded me in faith, church and community life.

Q: What about your family?

A: I am the oldest in the family. I have three sisters, Anne Barrett, Christine McMullan and Lila Steele, and one brother, Richard. I am married to Christine (nee Taggart), who is also from Dungannon. She works part-time as a volunteer counsellor with Links in Lurgan and with social services. We have three children, Mark, who is a maths teacher in Dalkeith, outside Edinburgh, Gemma, who is an occupational therapist in Cardiff, and Ruth, who works in human resources in London.

Mark is married to Samantha, a midwife, and they are expecting their first child in May. Gemma is married to Pete, who works for the Environment Agency. They have two children, Isaac (4) and Esme (2). Our family together represents England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I attended Howard Primary School, Moygashel, and the Royal School Dungannon, before completing a degree in modern and ancient history at Queen's University, Belfast and another degree in theology from Aberdeen University.

I was ordained as an assistant minister in Stormont Presbyterian, before serving for eight years in Christ Church, Limerick, a united Presbyterian and Methodist Congregation. I have been Minister in First Armagh since 1994.

Q: How and when did you come to faith?

A: When I was about eight years old, my mother brought us to Portrush CSSM. As young people shared their faith in an exciting and creative manner, I wanted to participate in that faith. About the same time, Andrew Rodgers became our minister in Dungannon Presbyterian Church. The message from CSSM was reinforced Sunday by Sunday in Dungannon with Sunday School, church, and Crusader Class.

Andrew Rodgers played a huge role in bringing me to faith and then in Christian growth, my call to the ministry and in mentoring me even to this day.

When I was a teenager, I realised that the Christian life needed to be lived out day by day.

I became aware of needing help from God to live and witness well in school. Since then, as a pastor and preacher, I realise that my task is to equip Christians not just to come to church on a Sunday, but live for Him skillfully and faithfully for the rest of the week.

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

A: I have avoided a major crisis of faith by having daily doubts, but expressing those doubts regularly to God. I have expressed some of those doubts in a poetry book, published in 2012, called Hanging in There.

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

A: Most weeks, I get angry with God. The gap between a good world and the real world seems to widen weekly, so in the tradition of the psalmists as I pray, I do vent my frustrations on God. I find He can manage my anger pretty well.

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

A: Most criticism of my faith has probably emanated from within, rather than without, religious circles. While I confess to dreading criticism, it is not good if everyone speaks well of you.

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

A Frequently. I think it is a challenge for Presbyterians to hold the truth in love. We tend to be obsessed with holding the right doctrine and ethics, but struggle in how we relate to those with whom we may disagree.

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

A: As I get older, I do think more about life beyond death. I don't fear death, but I do fear getting older and creaking a bit more.

Q: Are you worried about Hell?

A: No.

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

A: Each Sunday, I celebrate resurrection as I lead worship in First Armagh. Without resurrection, there would be no faith. I believe passionately in a better day, when terrorising lions frolic with innocent lambs; when my body does not creak and I am reunited with all those who have gone before me. Whatever I imagine resurrection will be like, I know it will be better again.

Q: What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths? And would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A: While I believe that Jesus is Lord of all, I also believe all people are created in the image of God and that God uses all people, so I am intently curious about other faiths.

I was, for a two-year period, the president of the Irish Council of Churches and I have enjoyed working in Armagh with Christians from other denominations. I think it is incumbent upon Church leaders to show that the Holy Spirit works beyond their own denominations by visibly witnessing and worshipping with other Christians.

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

A: God calls us to witness at particular times and places. I have been called to witness at a time and place marked by division and violence.

It has saddened me to find that Churches have become so obsessed with maintaining numbers and incomes that we have lost touch with God's difficult mission of encouraging understanding and peacemaking between communities.

For more than three years, I have chaired the project How Presbyterians Responded to the Troubles, which led to Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis' book Considering Grace. Some 122 people have been interviewed about their experiences of the Troubles. We have not been afraid to allow people to critique the denomination. My involvement brought together my interest in history, peacemaking, reading, creative writing, pastoring and theology.

Q: Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?

A: Many young people are turning away from anything that is organised and institutional, but they do not necessarily turn away from Jesus. So, the challenge for the Church is to lift up Jesus. We need to be able to show to young people that Christianity works in this time and place.

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

A: We do tend to lapse into a type of Phariseeism, where we encourage Church people to be boundary-watchers, rather than creative, faithful followers of Jesus.

There is a tendency to seek out the latest popular sin and then make efforts to exclude all who differ from our point of view.

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

A: I love reading, so usually my favourite book is one of the last ones I read. My favourite novel might be Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, since it gives dignity to the quiet work of pastoring. Chariots of Fire is a movie that appealed to both my faith and my love of sport.

Les Miserables combines stirring and soulful music, a great storyline and a spectacular set, as well as supplying preachers with countless illustrations and quotes.

Q: Where do you feel closest to God?

A: We have a holiday apartment in Carlingford, Co Louth. So, my favourite place is the top of Slieve Foye after a long, arduous walk up there with my family.

Q: What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A: I think I would follow what my dad told me: "No aul' palaver; keep it simple."

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