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Rev David Latimer: 'My relationship with Martin McGuinness was punctuated by both adulation and disapproval...'

In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith

Reaching out: Rev David Latimer formed a close relationship with Martin McGuinness
Reaching out: Rev David Latimer formed a close relationship with Martin McGuinness
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Rev Dr David Latimer (68) is minister of First Derry Presbyterian Church and Monreagh in Co Donegal.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I was born in Dromore, Co Down, 68 years ago. My father, Cyril, was a coachbuilder with the Belfast Corporation Transport Department. My mother Margaret died only last year, aged 96. They introduced me to the Christian faith and encouraged me to take school seriously. My mother's constant advice was. "A little science is easily carried."

I attended Dromore Primary School and Banbridge Technical College and, after O-levels, I worked for the Northern Ireland Electricity Board. Later, I graduated with an economics degree from Queen's University Belfast and, in 1983, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. My first charge was in Glascar and Donaghmore in Co Down, before moving to Derry in 1988.

Soon after ordination, I became part-time chaplain with 204 (North Irish) Field Hospital RAMC and served until 2015. In the second half of 2008, I served with the unit in Afghanistan, where I was also a hospital chaplain in Camp Bastion.

My wife, Margaret, is a former primary school teacher and we have three daughters, Joanne and Susannah, who live in London, and Jessica, who is in Aberdeenshire. Our five grandchildren are Sean, Eve, Grace, Seth and Lily. My married sister, Catherine, lives in Portadown.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

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A. It was in a mission hall in Dromore, on the Sunday night before Christmas in 1960. There were no lights flashing, or voices speaking. In fact, nothing sensational happened, which maybe suggests the whole thing was a great big anti-climax. The reality is I invited Christ into my life.

Since their arrival into Ulster, Presbyterians have prioritised meeting together weekly to sing psalms, say prayers and listen to sermons. Worshipping on Sundays helps clear my head, recalibrate my thinking and equip me for another week. My faith, however, is not restricted to putting a hat on at 11.30am on Sundays and removing it an hour later. To be effective, faith has to run through my life like writing in a stick of rock, defining who I am and informing what I do.

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

A. I cannot pinpoint a period of crisis, but I have not been immune from bouts of doubts. Choosing to publicly acknowledge these with my congregations has been well-received. Martin Luther King once said: "We may have arrived in different ships, but we're in the same boat now." Being a Christian minister provides me with no special protection, nor does it prevent me from having more questions than answers.

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

A. Sitting alongside one of my congregation, who'd just been told he had cancer, I felt as if I'd been struck dumb. This guy, who had just turned 60, had never missed a day from his work. An inoperable cancer diagnosis seemed so unfair. I struggled to understand what God was about. I left that family home with a heavy heart and none too pleased with God.

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

A. My decision to reach out to Martin McGuinness attracted considerable criticism. Letters, emails and phone calls, which did not disguise people's dislike for my friendship with him. Some even suggested I should quit the ministry. As far as I can ascertain from the Bible, our mission, as followers of Jesus Christ, is to let the walls that divide us crumble and the barriers that separate us fall.

Jesus excluded no one and He held nothing back. He built bridges among people, which is precisely what I did reaching out to Martin. My relationship with Martin, from the outset, was punctuated by both adulation and disapproval. The comments that wound, however, are those from people claiming to be Christian. Harsh, hurtful, judgmental and unforgiving emails, letters, telephone calls and text messages, from people professing to love God, never cease to shock and sadden me.

Notwithstanding that, the lovely lesson flowing from Calvary powerfully reassures me that only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate. This supplies wind for my sail to keep on going on.

Very soon into my relationship with Martin, I noticed that he never took notes, but never forgot to deliver on his promises. No matter how trivial the issue, there was always an answer transmitted by him, or one of his staff. I found this remarkable and sufficient to persuade me that Martin was a man whose word was good and who could be trusted completely. Our relationship and other aspects of my life were mentioned in my book, A Leap of Faith, which was published last year.

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

A. I am disappointed by decisions taken by my Church at last June's General Assembly. Deciding to break ceremonial links with the Church of Scotland and deny full Church membership to gay and lesbian Presbyterians and baptism for their children, I found disturbing.

"In Christ, there is no east or west, in Him, no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole, wide world."

The General Assembly's debate last year on same-sex couples and the Sacrament was the ugliest thing in the world. My pastoral heart wants to embrace the LGBT community.

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

A. As an ordained minister, every funeral I attend is a stark reminder that I will not be around forever. While I shrink from thinking about how my exit from Planet Earth might come about, I am not frightened by the inescapable fact that, one day, I will die and that's because I believe life continues on the far side of the grave. As for hell, my emphasis in preaching is to highlight how no one should ever conclude they are beyond the pale, "for the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind".

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?

A. While I believe in resurrection, a topic that has long mystified people, I find it helpful to visualise my eyes finally closing on this side of the grave and opening instantly on the other side, where life will continue in the nearer presence of Christ. The English cleric Charles Kingsley helpfully says: "It is not darkness you are going to, for God is light; it is not lonely, for Christ is with you; it is not unknown country, for Christ is there."

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations, or faiths?

A. I have the u tmost respect for people of different denominations and other faiths. Stepping into the sacred space of "the other", as I have often done, has invariably been an enriching experience.

Regardless of who we are, where we live, or how we pray, we are all members of the same human family, more alike than different. In our badly divided society, I believe it is time for us to stand together, to work and pray together and to hold only love, only peace in our hearts for one another.

Q. Do you think the Churches in Northern Ireland are fulfilling their mission?

A. The number of people sitting in church pews is falling and none of us has a mix-and-stir formula to reverse this trend. Maybe it's to do with most people affording holidays in the sun, owning their home and driving their own car. It seems like the Church has lost its appeal and I believe it has, until something happens and suddenly people's assessment of the Church alters.

Clearly, there's something about churches that society finds comforting whenever life bends and buckles.

As for religion in Northern Ireland helping, or hindering, perhaps Jonathan Swift's perceptive commentary is appropriate when he said: "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."

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

A. A favourite film would have to be Schindler's List, favourite book would be Across That Bridge by Congressman John Lewis and favourite music Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

Q. Have you any major regrets?

A. My main regret is not reaching out sooner to Martin McGuinness.

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