Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: 'To non-churchgoers, I would say: try it. Find a church where you feel at home and you will never, ever regret it... and there's plenty of choice in Northern Ireland'

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

Open mind: Canon Ian Ellis says he’s happy to learn from other traditions
Open mind: Canon Ian Ellis says he’s happy to learn from other traditions
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Canon Ian Ellis is Rector of St John's Parish Church, Newcastle, and is a former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I grew up with my two brothers, Billy and Noel, in Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh.

My father, Tom Ellis, was head teacher in Lisnaskea High School and my mother, Iris, taught art and music there.

From Lisnaskea's Moat Primary School, I went to Portora Royal School, as it was then called, and studied theology at Queen's University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin.

I was ordained in the Church of Ireland in 1977 and have served in parishes in counties Armagh and Down.

I have been in Newcastle since 1993.

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My wife, Coralie, is from Galway and our son, Andrew, is married to Tami from the city of Shijiazhuang in China. Anna is our granddaughter, a very welcome new arrival earlier this year. They live in Belfast.

I'm not a natural city person, although I enjoying visiting cities, I love the countryside and the natural environment.

Newcastle has so much of this - the sea, the mountains, the forests, the surrounding countryside.

Also, I feel fortunate indeed to be the rector of a very happy parish.

Q. You also write from time to time?

A. I edited the Church of Ireland Gazette from 2001 to 2017, when it was a weekly newspaper. There were controversial aspects of that role, but I believe the Church must be open to scrutiny.

If it demands that of government, it must practice the same itself. I am grateful to the Church of Ireland for putting up with me in that role.

I would say that a hugely rewarding aspect of my work as editor was to enjoy the confidence and, indeed, the friendship of people right across the theological spectrum, from liberal to conservative.

I now write an occasional column for the News Letter, which I consider a great opportunity to follow my journalistic interest and to reach so many people with what I hope are judged as considered opinions.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. I grew up in the Christian faith, so I would say that I do not recall a particular point at which I became a believer. I did not have a "Damascus Road" experience, but can definitely say that I grew steadily in the faith. That is thanks, in particular, to my parents, the parish of Lisnaskea and my schooling at Portora.

My mother had been a Methodist before she was married and I remember her taking my brothers and me, as smaller children, aside on Sunday afternoons for devotional reading.

My father, on occasions, brought us all together for prayers. It was a properly devout home, not overbearingly so, or in any way oppressive. On the contrary, we always had lively conversations and debates.

My mother frequently intervened as peacemaker.

My father became a lay reader in the Diocese of Clogher and I have many happy memories of accompanying him in my youth when he took services in the Fermanagh/Monaghan/Cavan area when clergy were on holiday, or ill, or when there were parish vacancies.

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

A. Yes. Shortly after ordination, I went through a short period when I felt I had lost my faith. It was very difficult. There was a terrible feeling of spiritual emptiness. I spoke to a friend, who was ordained, and he told me that, having left college and become a curate, I had stopped reading theology and should return to that. I did. And my faith returned.

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

A. Not really. I realise there's no point.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? Can you live with that criticism?

A. I don't particularly recall that ever happening. People have certainly questioned me about my faith and I'm always more than happy to discuss it.

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

A. Never. I know the Church of Ireland is not perfect, but I have never felt ashamed of it.

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

A. I can't say I look forward to dying. I know it will happen and, when it does, I hope that I will do it well.

Q. Are you worried about Hell?

A. No, because I trust in God's redemption and mercy. I should add that I don't see the image of fire as a literal description of what separation, or distance from God, would be like in eternity.

Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?

A. Of course, I believe that Christ is risen, so yes is the answer. Naturally, I don't know the exact detail of the form of life beyond this life, but St Paul, referring to the risen Christ, gives a clear indication that we will take a form "like unto his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21).

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

A. I respect genuine religious believers of all shades and have given much time to trying to build up good relationships, communication and dialogue.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other religions?

A. I'd not find it comfortable to leave my faith for another, even temporarily, but I am happy to learn from other traditions.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. I believe that the Churches are trying their best, but are not always successful and certainly make mistakes.

Although quite "dyed-in-the-wool" Church of Ireland, and although I have been deeply involved in Church structures, I am wary of institutionalism. I suppose that could be seen as a bit of a paradox, because the Church of Ireland undoubtedly is an institution, but I regard the institution as incidental and very much secondary to what the Church at heart is - the simple gathering of the faithful - as is intimated in Article 19 of Anglicanism's Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?

A. I suppose there are different reasons, but no doubt the general changes of lifestyle in recent decades have had their impact on churchgoing.

On Sunday mornings, churchgoing is nowadays only one of a multitude of things that people can do.

However, to non-churchgoing readers I would say: try it. Search for a church where you feel at home and you will never, ever regret finding it.

It may take some persistence, but there is plenty of choice in Northern Ireland.

Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?

A. Good religion, which promotes spiritual well-being, a healthy relationship with God, compassion, openness and kindness, can only help people. Bad religion, which promotes the opposite, is a hindrance. We've had both here, but I am not going to "cast the first stone" at anyone.

Q. Your favourite film, book and music, and why?

A. My favourite film is The Day of the Jackal, perhaps because it is so evocative of France in the 1960s and is a thriller that moves at a good pace.

As far as books and music are concerned, I enjoy different types of both.

I'm currently reading Europe - A History by Norman Davies, for perhaps obvious reasons, but for pure relaxation I would always choose Michael Connelly's Detective Bosch novels. On the musical side, Sir Hubert Parry's I Was Glad is a favourite of mine, but I also enjoy Walter Love's Jazz Club programme on Radio Ulster. I think Walter (above) is one of Northern Ireland's really great broadcasters.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. In church.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. I will leave that to others.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. I regret to say that I am far from perfect.

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