Belfast Telegraph

My runaway dad left us homeless and penniless, I've battled depression... but telling my kids I have cancer was the hardest thing I've ever had to do

In his new book The Jewel In The Mess, Church of Ireland bishop Alan Abernethy discusses his own life, and the figure of Jesus at the heart of the Bible

Alan at home in Belfast
Alan at home in Belfast
Bishop Alan Abernethy
Bishop Alan Abernethy preparing for holy communion beside the Sea of Galilee
Alan with wife Liz at grandson Patrick’s baptism in Hampshire
Alan with wife Liz
At daughter Ruth’s wedding in 2015 are (from left) Rosanna, Peter, the bride, groom Matthew, Liz and Bishop Abernethy
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Alan Abernethy (62) is the Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor. He's served in ministry in Ireland since 1981 and he recently finished his third book The Jewel In The Mess, published by Columbia.

Q. You and wife Liz (60), a doctor, will be 36 years married this month. Love at first sight?

A. I was a student at Trinity and Liz was at University College Dublin (UCD). I proposed within six months and we married on June 30, 1983, in St Ronan's Church, Colebrooke, Co Fermanagh. We honeymooned for a few days in Dublin and then flew to Soll, Austria, for two weeks because we love mountains and walking. We then spent a week in Donegal. We're very happy.

Q. Your brother Colin (65), a retired bus driver and now a Canadian citizen having emigrated when he was 22, and you were brought up by your mother. Tell us about her.

A. Mum's name was Margaret but she was always known as Madge. She died in January 2000 aged 84. She'd been with us over Christmas and New Year for the millennium and then she rang about 11pm one Sunday night. For my mum to ring so late there was something wrong, so I handed the phone to Liz and left immediately. Liz kept talking to her but was very conscious that she was slurring her speech. When I got to her house she was lying on the ground and the phone had gone dead. Liz had called an ambulance, which arrived at the same time I did. She'd had a stroke. By Wednesday she was beginning to show signs of recovery, but the following weekend she took another massive stroke and she died within a couple of weeks. I was with her when she died. It was a very holy moment. I sat with her and prayed with her and annointed her with oil. There was a real sense of calm and peace. My mum would have hated being left in a vegetative state, so I really believe death came as a friend and it made it very easy for me to be with her.

Q. When your father Walter, who had a gambling problem, exited your life, he left your family homeless and penniless. How traumatic was that?

A. Literally one morning, when I was six years old, we went to school and that was the last we heard of him. My grandfather collected us after school and we went home with him. We never went back to our house in Onslow Gardens in east Belfast. The baliffs had arrived that morning and taken the house off my mum. She lost everything. The three of us lived with my grandparents (Frank and Margaret Sloan) for years.

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Q. Your dad was a major in the Army and he'd also worked as a manager in Cyril Lord's carpet factory in Donaghadee. What kind of gambling problem was it: horses, slot machines?

A. Things went wrong when both of his parents died and left him a lot of money. He just seemed to gamble his inheritance away. I don't know if it was card school gambling. My brother tells an interesting story, that he did come back once to see us and we went out in the car and apparently we went into a pub and he was running into the bookies next door. I've no recollection of that at all. I've nothing but good memories of my dad. Gambling is an awful disease because there are no signs of it at all.

Q. What happened to him?

A. When I became a father in 1987 I starting thinking about him. With my mum it was just unmentionable. She never bad-mouthed him, but you didn't talk about him. The pain was so deep. I found it difficult to trace him here so I went to the General Registry Office in London. I can't quite describe the emotion I felt when I saw his death record... I'm not sure whether I was relieved, happy or sad. He died after my son was born, so I'm left with so many questions that I can't answer. Did he know? It was one of those sad moments in life when you think of what might have been. I never told my mum I did it because I couldn't hurt her.

Q. You now live in south Belfast but you're from east Belfast. You went to Dundonald Primary School, Harding Memorial PS and then Grosvenor High (now Grammar) School. What was childhood like?

A. My mother was incredible. I don't know how she brought the two of us up without that support while also paying off some of my father's debts. She had to go back to work as a bookkeeper. Looking back it was probably more lonely than I realised. In the school playground there was some name-calling because I didn't have a dad. My mum's sister Auntie Dora, who's 93, and Uncle Ivor were amazing. They were always there. They took us on holidays when my mum had to work. There was huge family support.

Q. You went to Queen's University in Belfast and graduated with a history and politics degree before heading to Trinity to study theology. You joined the Church 38 years ago and were ordained Bishop of Connor in 2007. What made you choose the Church?

A. It was a very gradual journey. I was very friendly with the three sons of the rector at Willowfield, so from a young age I observed what it was like to be a minister. Deep down there was a tension in my heart and soul which was this increasing sense of "this is what I'm meant to do with my life", but it's the last thing I wanted to do. It's an overwhelming privilege to be ordained, but it comes with huge frustrations.

Q. You took a sabattical from May to September last year purely to write your latest book The Jewel In The Mess. Within a month of your return to work you got a shock prostate cancer diagnosis and you've been receiving treatment for it ever since. You look well. How's it all going?

A. When a blood test revealed I had prostate cancer I was red-flagged to the City Hospital. I had various tests and biopsies to see how bad it was and how far it had spread. It had spread beyond my prostate into the pelvic area, which wasn't good news, but the tumour wasn't as bad as it might be. From November to March I had six sessions of chemotherapy. I am now on 37 sessions of radiotherapy, which started on May 8. Alongside that I'm on a new clinical trial called ADRAD, which is six four-weekly proton injections. But I feel very positive. I've a fantastic family. I feel very supported. The staff in the Bridgewater Street and the Cancer Care Unit are absolutely amazing.

Q. You've previously struggled with depression, which was diagnosed in 2010. What treatment did you seek and how have people reacted to your mental health issues?

A I found cognitive therapy life-changing. You begin to understand why you behave the way you do and what you can do about it. The overwhelming response has been: "Well done, thanks for admitting it."

Q. Tell us about your children and grandson.

A. Our son Peter (31), a trainee radiologist, lives in St Agnes, Cornwall, with his wife Rosanna (33), a trainee GP, and their one-year-old son Patrick. Our daughter Ruth (25) is a biology teacher who lives in Edinburgh with husband Matthew (29), an engineer. Peter and Ruth were married three years ago this summer within two weeks of each other. I took both weddings: one was here, the other in England. I also baptised Patrick last December, which was lovely.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've been given?

A. Imagine yourself standing at your funeral. In one sentence, what would you want them to say about you?

Q. And what did you say?

A. A good husband and a good father, because if I get that right then I think that I have also probably been a good bishop.

Q. Obviously you possess a strong Christian faith, religion is your job. Is it hard for you to be pleasant to everyone all of the time? Give us an example of you being cantankerous.

A. Yes it is! I am probably at my worst when I am watching football.

I'm a Manchester United fanatic. It has been a difficult few years...

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No, but I don't want to die yet. I've watched too often the death of a loved one cause such pain in families. Grief is an awful, cruel thing and I don't want to do that to my family just yet.

Q. Is there any situation you've come across that's made you question whether you could do your job anymore?

A. The death of any child is a grief too great. A few years ago a 16-year-old girl died in a road accident which took place outside church. The suddeness and the awfulness of her life being wiped out was so cruel.

Q. How do you relax? I know you've written two other books - Fulfilment And Frustration (2000) and Shadows On A Journey (2011).

A. Cooking, cycling, reading and holidays with Liz.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.

A. My wedding and the births of my children.

Q. And what's the most difficult thing you've been through?

A. Telling my children that I have cancer.

Q. What's your greatest achievement to date?

A. Being a father.

Q. Do you think there is a place you go to when you die, like Heaven?

A. No idea - because all we're left with in Scripture is this incredible poetic language which describes the most amazing place. If it's no more suffering, no more pain, no more crime, it must be pretty good.

Q. What do you say to someone who says: "I just don't believe there's a God."?

A. Tell me what kind of God you don't believe in, because I'll probably agree with you.

I grew up with an image of God that was probably a bit harsh, whereas the God I've come to know is this amazing guy, Jesus, who just seems to make people feel better about themselves.

He didn't take away the difficulties in their lives but, somehow, by his presence he helped them live better in that context.

I think God is trying to help us in the mess and that's why Jesus came into the mess.

Q. You said you've never lost your faith, but you had to refocus it, hence the new book. What's the difference?

A. My role is very public and, as an introvert, I find that very draining. So, for me, there was a growing sense of being tired of the public element of always being in demand and I needed some time for the inner part of me to recover and write.

This is the book I've always wanted to write. I really do love Jesus so I wanted to write about Him. He's the reason I was ordained and it was that sense of refocusing on what really matters.

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