What I believe: Alf McCreary talks to Rev Roy Simpson
'Gordon Wilson shone a bright light through awful personal tragedy, but in general religion here is too linked to political parties and is inevitably divisive'
Rev Roy Simpson is a former Presbyterian minister and former management and training consultant. He is married to Suzan and they have two daughters, six grandchildren, and a stepdaughter and stepson.
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I am 75 and I was born in Portadown. My father, Robert James Simpson, was a policeman and my mother, Gwendoline, who was from Co Wicklow, was a housewife. They were very tolerant with Catholic friends and colleagues. They were anti-Paisley and good, decent Presbyterians. I am grateful that I was taught to respect other people.
My siblings were much older and all emigrated to Canada. They are all dead, as are my parents, so I am an orphan. It’s a strange feeling. I was educated at Rainey Endowed School in Magherafelt, where some of the staff and pupils were Catholics. I was very fortunate. I finished my secondary education at Ballyclare High School and later graduated from Queen’s University, Belfast.
Q. What about your early career?
A. After Queen’s, I went to Assembly College in Belfast and, later, was awarded an MSc from the University of Leicester. I have a diploma in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy — a fun thing to do, I thought.
As a Presbyterian minister, I was an assistant in Belmont and Cregagh Presbyterian churches and then minister of Ballyarnett (Derry) and Knowhead (Muff, Co Donegal) from 1973 to 1980. I was director of the Northern Ireland Marriage Guidance Council from 1980 to 1984 and then a management and training consultant with the International Training Service until 1996, then SRS Management and Training Consultancy from 1996 to 2015, which was my own company.
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I worked abroad for over 25 years in Eastern and Central Europe, Kosovo, the Baltic States, Russia and Sweden, the Netherlands, Serbia, Croatia, Moldova, Lebanon, Jordan, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and South America. I spent the last five years of my career working mostly in Bangladesh with their civil service.
Q. How did you come to faith?
A. I am thankful for a Christian upbringing and for meeting some very fine people. Ray Davey, who founded Corrymeela, had a profound influence on me at university. He gave us a wonderful example of humility, love and reconciliation. So, no conversion date, or Damascus Road experience, just an ongoing process.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Catholic priest, also inspired me greatly. He said we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Living with, making sense of and restoring our broken humanity requires faith. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That is what I cling to.
My life is a continual quest to answer the questions, “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, “What is the purpose of my life?” and to examine my failings in the light of what I think are the ideals in the teaching of Jesus.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God?
A. No, not really. I don’t think God is some kind of being, who sits up in the sky controlling things. If it were so, then I think I might just blame this being for allowing six million Jews to be exterminated and be a tad angry. In fact, we should not think of God as a being at all, for this is simply our creation and a bit idolatrous.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. Generally only by fundamentalists, who smell heresy in every sentence I utter. Also by non-Christians, who appear to blame the Christian Church for everything bad that has happened in the world. Others, who have read Richard Dawkins, appear to think that anyone with a religious perspective has a serious deficiency in their brain. I can live with this criticism and sleep soundly.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church?
A. I was very proud to have been a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and my memories are very happy ones. I am loath to criticise the Church, but unfortunately the PCI is now dominated by a rather austere form of fundamentalism that makes the Church a very cold and unwelcoming place for those who do not share their interpretation of scripture. Their anti-women clergy position and their intolerant attitude towards homosexuals is embarrassing and shameful.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. No, but I would like death to be quick and painless. I had a cardiac bypass a year ago and, while now a routine operation, I did just wonder if I would come through it. So, I made my peace with those I love, just in case; a very enriching experience.
Q. Can you look beyond death?
A. Parmenides said long ago, “Nothing ever dies”. We are learning more and more about our mysterious world and quantum mechanics is revealing a reality that is totally different to what we are consciously aware of. I think our earthly existence is a brief prelude for something else.
Q. Do you worry about hell?
A. Not in the least. But there are some people who think I deserve it and should make the trip as soon as possible.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?
A. The Easter experience that caused the disciples to say that Jesus is risen — that changed their lives and is central to being Christian. To proclaim that Jesus is risen is, however, not quite the same thing as saying there was a physical resurrection. The miracle of Easter is that hope was resurrected where hope had vanished, joy resurrected where there had been sorrow and a resurrected sense of purpose and direction centred on Jesus, who was very much alive in them.
Q. What do you think about people of other faiths?
A. I have worked extensively in Islamic countries and with Eastern Orthodox and Confucianists. All our religions are attempts to make sense of who we are and deal with our human lives in some meaningful ways and to cope with suffering and death. Each brings interesting insights and often commendable moral behaviour. But each is imprisoned in its own culture, as we are, too.
Q. Why are people turning their backs on organised religion?
A. A lot of people blame the Church, or religion, for just about everything — forgetting that Stalin and Hitler, who were responsible for millions of deaths, were not religious. Unfortunately, however, the Christian Church does not have a pretty history, which is off-putting to people nowadays.
Perhaps the Church has forgotten how to teach people how to be religious, to teach them the language of faith and to lead them through that experience to a life of service. Religion is not like instant coffee. It is hard work.
Q. Has religion helped the people of Northern Ireland?
A. At a personal level and especially during the Troubles, people found comfort and solace and hope in the midst of despair and, at times, for many, of great suffering. Gordon Wilson shone a bright light through terrible personal tragedy. In general, however, religion or denominational religion is too linked to political parties and is inevitably terribly divisive.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. By the sea, in the mountains, listening to great music, in the lives of my wife and family and in being touched by the lives of others.
Q. What is your favourite book, film and music, and why?
A. The book would have to be Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. To have survived Auschwitz and found meaning in life makes him a phenomenal person. The film Dances With Wolves leaves one with a profound sense of sadness and shame for what was done to the Native Americans by so-called “civilised” Christian people.
The music would be The Armed Man, composed by Karl Jenkins. I worked in the Balkans, so this Mass for peace is very meaningful. It creates a sense of resurrected new life from the horror of war. I also love the great hymns of the Church.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. “Work in progress”.
Q. Have you any major regrets?
A. Of course, for those people that I hurt, either through weakness, anger, stupidity, carelessness, or thoughtlessness. I hope they have forgiven me.