Rt Rev David Bruce (62) was installed this week as the new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He has been married to Zoe for 35 years and they have four grown-up children, James, Anna, Harry and Ellen; a granddaughter, Marlow (21 months); and a new grandson, Malek (born May 26).
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I am 62 and I was born in Banbridge, Co Down, where my parents were both medical doctors. I'm the youngest of three children and the only member of the family not to have pursued some kind of medical career. I have been married for 35 years to Zoe, who was a school teacher. We have four adult children, all living in Northern Ireland, James, Anna, Harry and Ellen. We have one granddaughter, Marlow, aged 21 months, and a new grandson, Malek, who was born on May 26 and is a brother for Marlow. His birth was a great joy for all of us.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I went to Campbell College as a boarder. My connection with Church and faith was largely formal through childhood - Presbyterian pupils at the school attended Knock or Belmont Presbyterian Church and Sunday morning worship was expected for boarders. Faith became real for me when it was pointed out that you can't be neutral about Jesus. He either was who He said He was, or He was a deluded fraud.
Reading the Gospels for myself showed me that Jesus was neither delusional nor fraudulent, but an integrated, impressive teacher whose claims needed to be taken seriously. It was a short step from that to trusting Him with my life. I don't think of myself as defined by the things I believe about God, but as someone whom God has loved, chosen, rescued and redeemed through Jesus's sacrifice on the cross. Everything flows from this, so faith in Jesus is the 24/7 beating heart of my life.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
A. No. Every person will have hard moments to face - and I have had some of those - but through it all, I have never felt myself alone without a sense of God at the heart of the darkness. As the famous 23rd Psalm explains: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me." That has been my experience.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? If so, why?
A. No. I am often perplexed at the desperate things which happen in the world and may sometimes wonder how God's purposes are being worked out in the midst of tragedy, but it is precisely at these moments that my vocation as a pastor is discovered. The world is a broken and bruising place and can be brutal, too. The pastor's task is to draw alongside the wounded and let them see the love of God in the midst of the mess.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?
A. Of course. Jesus warned His followers that life for them would be dangerous. The early Christians were vilified and sometimes killed because of their allegiance to Jesus and, by extension, their rejection of the alternatives. Most Christians in the world live in poverty and under the threat of persecution. That this has not been our experience in this country is merely an accident of history and geography.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church?
A. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is my spiritual home. I see within it a group of people determined to follow Jesus Christ and carefully heed His teaching and example. Many of these people are hugely courageous and impressive. It's not perfect - no Church is - but it's my Church and I love it.
Q. And what about death? Are you afraid to die?
A. The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead after three days in the grave is the centre-point of the Christian faith and the most important truth the Church can tell the world. Death is not the end. Without this, there is nothing to the Christian faith - it is empty rhetoric. With this, however, the Church of Jesus Christ is the world's only hope. I am not afraid to die, even if the process may be trying for me or, more importantly, for those I love.
Q. And what about hell? Are you afraid of that?
A. Purely on the basis that Jesus has absorbed the worst that hell can throw at him and that my trust is in Him, then no, I am not afraid of hell. I am, however, desperately afraid that hell may await many who have chosen to ignore what God has done for them through Christ. But it isn't too late accept the gift of salvation that he offers.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. I consider all of us to be part of the same human family, with the same inherent need for a relationship with God. I believe God calls us as Christians to be a blessing to all people, irrespective of their attitude to the Christian faith, and that Christians ought to invest intentionally to promote human flourishing and the common good. Christ's love compels us to do this. If a person of another faith tradition asks me what I believe, we'll talk about it.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith?
A. Let me give you an example of this. Throughout the 1990s, I spent significant time in the former Soviet republics, working with the churches and other agencies in the aftermath of communism's collapse. The Reformation in Europe largely did not happen in Russia, and my experience of learning from, and fellowship with, believers of traditions different from my own was rich and enduring. I thank God for them.
Q. Do you think that the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. 'Fulfilling' suggests 'completing', and my answer to that is no. But I am certain the churches in Ireland have recognised the end of the era when people came to them out of culture or habit. Many churches are increasingly effective in making connections with people who would not normally come to them, and a number of recent studies are showing that religious faith, far from fading away, is rapidly growing across the world.
Q. Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?
A. I don't believe they are. It is well-known that there has been decline in numbers affiliated with the historic denominations in Ireland since the 1960s, but the assumption that this will continue is not borne out by the evidence.
Recent global projections show that, by 2060, Christianity will still be the world's largest belief system, while the number of people identifying as atheists, humanists or none will have declined from 16% to 13%. It is interesting for the Presbyterian Church to note the statistical growth in its own membership in the Irish Republic in recent years.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Both. Religion as the cement of the tribe has probably made sectarian tension and division worse, heightened social dislocation and deepened suspicion and promoted hatred. Religion as the liberating expression of a loving relationship with God in Christ can be the means to draw the poison of sectarian division, heal many social ills, ease suspicion and turn hatred into respectful human regard. I have seen examples of both.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. Favourite film, if I have to chose just one, would be Schindler's List. There are some episodes of human history we must never be allowed to forget. Not only is this an important tract, it is also a visual masterpiece. Favourite book would be The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a brilliant observation of a world which the West was prevented from knowing yet which speaks into our experience. Favourite music is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2. For listening to, loudly, while driving home from Dublin.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. At my study desk with a morning stretching before me and the opportunity to read, pray, think and write.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone, if any?
A. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. No regrets.