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Lord Eames: Too much religion and not enough Christianity in Northern Ireland

In conversation with Lord Eames

Building bridges: Lord Eames
Building bridges: Lord Eames
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Lord Eames is a former Church of Ireland Primate and is currently a cross-bencher in the House of Lords. In 2007, he received the Order of Merit from the Queen for his efforts to build bridges in Northern Ireland. The Order of Merit is the most senior honour to be conferred, beyond inherited status. There are only 24 members of the Order of Merit at any one time. He has been married to Christine for 53 years and the couple have two grown-up sons, Niall and Michael, and seven grandchildren.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I was born in 1937 and spent my early years in Larne, where my father was the Methodist minister. He later became a member of the Church of Ireland. I was ordained in 1963 and served as a curate in Bangor before becoming rector of St Dorothea's, Gilnahirk and St Mark's, Dundela.

In 1975, I was elected Bishop of Derry and Raphoe and, five years later, I returned to Belfast as Bishop of Down and Dromore. I was elected Archbishop of Armagh in 1986 and served there until my retirement in 2006.

Before ordination, I studied law at Queen's University, Belfast and then theology at Trinity College Dublin.

My wife, Christine, is a former world president of the Mothers' Union. We have been happily married since 1966 and her support in my life and work has been immense.

We have two sons, Niall and Michael, who are both surgeons in Belfast, and seven grandchildren.

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Q. How did you come to faith?

A. Christianity was a part of my life from my earliest days. The Church was the dominant influence in my home life. My sister, Marion, and I were brought up in a wonderful family home and I hope that the principles of care for others I experienced from my parents, William and Meta, have found a place in my adult life.

The Christian faith was lived out in my home, rather than preached. My father died while I was a student at Queen's, but he left me with a deep impression of service and dedicated ministry to all sorts and conditions of people.

Life is complicated and contradictory, but I find in the lives of real people so much evidence of a God of love.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

A. There have been times when questions of my faith have been difficult to answer. Growing up in a home where my parents exemplified Christian principles was a daily experience. However, when much later in life, I felt called to offer myself for ordination, the questions flooded in. Why me? Did God really want me to leave an academic life I was enjoying to serve the Church full-time? And, above all: could I be certain of a call?

In later years, supporting men and woman responding to a call to ordination in the Church of Ireland, I could see the same struggles being played out in their own lives.

I have always had a questioning mind, never accepting ideas at first-hand. My faith has always convinced me that, despite any difficulties in relating belief to the problems of life, there is always a reason, or an answer.

The task is to find that answer through prayer and patient thought.

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

A. Yes. My understanding of biblical truth and the teaching of my Church leaves me in no doubt that this life is only the beginning of God's love in its fullest sense. To repeat that belief in the creeds of the Church is one thing, but to see life as a preparation for what Christ promised makes complete sense to me.

I cannot explain what life beyond the grave will be like, but I trust and believe in the Easter promise.

To me, what is described as "the communion of saints" speaks of the mystery of a love which goes far beyond the grave.

Q. Have you ever been criticised for your faith?

A. In my years of ministry, I have experienced vast changes in the way society has regarded the Church. No longer can the pulpit assume that people accept what it says. Church leaders are criticised for being "too political", or told they are "out of touch" when they stay silent. As a former Church leader, I was convinced that close contact with people was the real basis for speaking of a God of love and understanding. That was particularly true in the dark days of the Troubles.

Q. Have you ever been ashamed of your Church?

A. No, but I have been concerned when it has failed to exhibit the real characteristics of Anglicanism. As a Reformed and Catholic Church, it has so much to offer in understanding to both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. The Church of Ireland contributes most to ecumenical encounter when it is true to its roots.

Q. Are you comfortable in trying to learn something from people of other faiths?

A. Most certainly. I always tried to reach out to others who belonged to traditions other than my own. Inevitably, I found in other faiths the truths and practices to increase my understanding of my own. The ecumenical movement has grown so much in my lifetime and bridges between our denominations must grow in an age of secularism and materialism.

As the Anglican Primate, I greatly valued the fellowship I enjoyed with Cardinals O'Fiaich, Daly and Brady and with successive Presbyterian moderators and Methodist presidents. I hope that our joint witness had some influence in the face of the divisions in our community.

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

A. The Church fulfils its mission when it demonstrates in word and action the presence of a living Christ. Many parishes and congregations now contain a majority of older people and ways need to be found of attracting a new generation.

However, that attraction must be one of teaching the faith in worship as much as purely entertaining. If young people are not given a faith that will grow with them into adult life, the Church will have failed them.

In the wider sense, the voice of the Church must be that of a dimension to a life of love, compassion and hope in the frustrations and suffering of today. It is by empowering people of faith to be witnesses to Christ in the market-place that the Christian Church fulfils its mission to be the servant Church.

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

A. It is not that people have lost belief in a creator, but that many do not see an importance in Church attendance. Sundays have become an opportunity for recreational and leisure activities in the midst of busy weeks. So, for many people, Church attendance is viewed as an optional extra. Traditional Sunday observance is a thing of the past, but does that necessarily mean that we are no longer a Christian society? We now live in a multi-cultural community, with various traditions holding different religious and political outlooks. The Christian Church has to recognise the changing picture of what matters to people.

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

A. Religion has played its own role in dividing communities when it has emphasised difference and encouraged sectarianism. Too often, the traditions have become associated with party politics. True religion is about reconciliation, healing and forgiveness. In our past, there has been too much religion and not enough Christianity.

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

A. My favourite film is War Horse, which is a moving condemnation of war. My favourite book is Cry The Beloved Country, about the suffering in South Africa. Handel's Messiah is a spiritual masterpiece.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. At a service of Holy Communion, or in a place of natural beauty, where it is easy to pray and believe.

Q. Do you have any regrets?

A. Yes, many.

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