'When I was about 19, I saw the bodies of the victims of the Kingsmill massacre being taken by hearse to hospital... I have never forgotten the horror of that attack'
In conversation with Very Rev William Morton
Northern Ireland-born Very Rev William Morton is Dean of St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Dublin and a successor to Dean Jonathan Swift. He is also an accomplished church organist.
Q. Can you tell us about your background?
A. I was born on July 23, 1956 in Banbridge Hospital and grew up a short distance from Poyntzpass. My grandparents, William and Annie Morton, had a small family farm and my mother, also called Annie, reared me mostly on her own with the help of an aunt. She was a most dedicated member of Acton Parish Church. I was one of 11 pupils in Drumbanagher Primary School and later one of 1,100 pupils in Newry High School. I studied physiology for a few years at Queen's University Belfast, but on the death of my mother, aged 62, I discovered that I could not live without money. I became a trainee reporter on the Ulster Gazette in Armagh. It was through my work and also through an organ scholarship to St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh that I met my wife, Rosemary, who had been awarded a similar scholarship. We were married in Grange Parish Church, Armagh in 1988 and have three sons: Patrick (27), Nicholas (24) and Connor (20).
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I was nurtured in the Christian faith from my earliest years. I had been playing the organ in Acton Parish Church from a young age, progressing to Christ Church, Bessbrook. One Sunday evening, when I was about 26, the rector asked me: "Have you ever thought of being ordained?" The words stopped me in my tracks. Later, I talked to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and I was delighted to embark on each stage of what was a most interesting process, which enabled me to begin training in Dublin in 1985. Three years later, I was ordained deacon for the Parish of Drumachose, Limavady.
I became Rector of Conwal Union (Letterkenny) with Gartan, Co Donegal, in 1991, and in 1997 I was instituted as Rector of Templemore and Dean of St Columb's Cathedral, Londonderry. Having been appointed as the Canon for Derry & Raphoe on the Chapter of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, in 2013, I was elected to the Office of Dean & Ordinary in 2016.
Faith is central to my daily life. I consider myself so fortunate here in St Patrick's. The services are spiritually refreshing and provide such a magnificent focus in the day. Our choir school, dating from 1453, is the oldest, and only, choir school in Ireland.
Q. Is there any major difference in ministering north or south of the border?
A. There are many similarities in worship and tradition. I am very privileged to have served in Londonderry and to continue to serve in Dublin. People are people, wherever one ministers, and one does one's best to minister to a whole spectrum of pastoral necessities, amid the joys and the sorrows. There is certainly a lot more administration required in my present office. Dean Jonathan Swift, my most illustrious predecessor, was a colourful character, greatly to be admired in standing up so valiantly for the rights of those among whom he ministered, especially the poor, through his wonderful sense of social justice. His use of satire was startling.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. There is not a person who, at one time or another, has not asked, "Why does God allow such suffering?" I have always striven to hold firmly to the Christian belief, but we are not given to us to understand why bad things happen to good people. When I was about 19, I was cycling home about midnight on a very dark and eerie part of the main Newry-Portadown road and, suddenly, five hearses drove past me, with two coffins in each hearse. These were the bodies of those who had been shot dead in the Kingsmill massacre being taken to Craigavon Area Hospital for post-mortem examinations. I have never forgotten the horror of that attack and of countless others, too, and also the sad and tragic circumstances of families bereaved by fatal road traffic accidents and the deaths of those so long before their time due to cancer and other conditions.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. No, although I can understand those who are, given the tragedy of their circumstances. It is easy to become frustrated when, from this world, it seems prayers remain unanswered.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. I have not been criticised for my faith, although with the world becoming more secular, a clerical collar can lead to people shouting obscenities through frustration of their own perspective, perhaps in relation to historic cases of child sex abuse and other issues in the Church and other institutions.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or denomination?
A. I have never been ashamed of my own Church and denomination. Its liturgy and what it teaches and believes have shaped my faith and given me the vehicle, in addition to my own private devotions, by which I can worship, love and serve God.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. No, it's an event beyond which I can look with a strong element of trust in God.
Q. Are you worried about hell?
A. There will be a judgement, of that I have not the slightest doubt. But I do believe that, in that judgement, God, who knows absolutely everything about each one of us, will judge us with mercy and love as One who is loving and forgiving. I pray that he will understand my faults and inadequacies.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?
A. Yes, but it will be totally incomprehensible in terms of our finite minds. It will be an experience of great joy and happiness, without partings, sadness, or sorrow.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. It is vital to keep an open mind, especially in terms of the Church and of faith-related issues. Others may very well have much to impart - even if it has to be refined and re-shaped for the needs of one's own denomination. My three sons, Patrick, Nicholas and Connor, certainly keep me grounded and challenge me regularly, reminding me to "Catch yourself on, Da!"
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. The Churches in our own country can often be selective, lifting out of the Gospel only what they want to hear. It is not that they are not exploring their mission, but they need, constantly, to be assessing, re-evaluating and taking stock of the effectiveness of their mission.
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. In Northern Ireland, the Churches must be careful not to "chaplain division", but, instead, to help people develop an openness to people of other denominations and to learn of different traditions and cultures.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. The film is The Quiet Man. A wonderful book, My Lady of the Chimney Corner, by Dr Alexander Irvine, gives great insights into the Christian life. I am very interested in classical organ music and my favourite piece is the Toccata from Charles-Marie Widor's Organ Symphony No 5.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. I feel closest to God in the worship of the Church, amid the love of family and friends and in the beauty of the world around us.
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. I do not have any major regrets in the ordained ministry. I was 31 years ordained on June 29 and I have become much more challenging of people in terms of their commitment, or more often lack of it, to the Church.