Belfast Telegraph

‘I was ashamed as a child to be Brethren. I hoped friends wouldn’t see me attend open-air meetings’

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

No regrets: Michael Beattie tries to learn from mistakes
No regrets: Michael Beattie tries to learn from mistakes

Michael Beattie (66) has worked for almost 50 years as a journalist, and for 40 years he has been making current affairs programmes and documentaries.

He has won awards in the UK, Ireland and America, including a Royal Television Society award for the Best Documentary. His most recent TV documentary was the BBC's Robert Campbell: Mountain Man.

For the past four years, he has been producing, directing and presenting online films on holistic health - is approaching two million views and he has just launched a nine-part series, Live Longer Feel Better (

Earlier in his career, Mr Beattie worked for the Portadown News, Ulster Star, Downtown Radio, BBC Northern Ireland and Ulster Television. In 2000, he started his own company, Michael Beattie Media, which specialises in documentaries.

Last year he interviewed Mel Gibson in Panama, and he has also worked with Van Morrison on his personal documentary, which has yet to be broadcast.

He is "still passionate" about storytelling, cycling, canoeing, kayaking and playing blues harmonica.

His wife, Jackie, is a retired primary school teacher. His eldest son, Chris, and daughter-in-law Kate moved to Australia five years ago.

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His second son, Rick, and wife Alena live in Belfast, and his daughter, Rachel, son-in-law Mark and grandchildren Beth (6), Phoebe (5) and Toby (3) also moved to Perth last year.

Q How and when did you come to faith?

A My earliest memories are of my mother getting us to kneel down and say a simple prayer most evenings, though neither she nor my father were church attenders.

One grandfather was Christadelphian and the other was Brethren. We - older sister Susan, younger brother Laurence and I - were raised until around 15 in a Brethren assembly, so we heard plenty about hellfire and damnation, and it put my brother right off organised religion.

However, my late sister, who died in 2007, became the first female deacon in the Baptist Church in Ireland.

I did have an early 'born again' experience under the Brethren influence, and faith has never let me go. I've wrestled with it, rejected it, or ignored it at times, but the question of what the point and purpose of life is has never let me go.

Q Does faith play a real part in your daily life, or is it just for Sundays?

A Faith has to be an everyday thing, or it's pointless. For me, it's always been about finding the best way to live while we're here, not thinking too much about the hereafter. It's the first thing I think about every morning, and the last thing every evening.

Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A Not so much a crisis, but lots of doubts over the years, though fewer as I get older. For years, I felt that I was this terrible person, trying to be faithful, but never good enough. A great revelation was to eventually realise that I'm actually a person of faith struggling with the complexities of life.

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

A Angry with what the Church has done in God's name, but never blaming God for what people have done.

Q Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that criticism?

A My biggest critic has always been myself. I would love to be able to explain it all intellectually, logically and rationally and 'prove' my beliefs. I analyse myself constantly.

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

A I was ashamed as a child to be Brethren because that was different to all my peers. Occasionally, clerics would come to my primary school and, because I wasn't Presbyterian, or Church of Ireland, I was left in the class alone. I was embarrassed to attend the obligatory street-corner, open-air Brethren meetings and always hoped no friends or acquaintances would recognise me. I see myself as non-denominational, and I don't regularly attend church.

Q Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?

A I've never been afraid of death. I look forward to it as the next stage in the adventure. I even made a film about it with William Crawley for the BBC, called Sorry For Your Trouble, to try and help those who fear it. It was enlightening and I hope it helped someone.

Q And what about Hell? Do you worry about it?

A Maybe if I ever retire I'll have time to study more about Heaven and Hell. Neither of them occupies much of my thinking now. My quest has always been to find the best way to live while I'm on Earth. I'm hoping that there will be a resurrection.

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

A My father, Joe, was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, and I was raised in a non-sectarian home. I have always had friends across the denominations.

In my teens, I made a study of all the major world religions, to see if I was missing anything.

I've been fortunate enough to make many television programmes about faith. I examined the so-called 'secret' Catholic organisation Opus Dei and found some of the finest, most faithful people I've met. I made The Clonard Novena, about Ireland's biggest annual Christian gathering, and I took the writer Glenn Patterson on a journey to discover what being 'born again' meant to a family from a Brethren, Baptist and Elim background. I have seen deep faith in each of those experiences.

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

A I've learned from other faiths and hope I'll always be open to truths, from whatever quarter. I recently interviewed the Catholic theologian and writer Richard Rohr, and found him immensely uplifting. I'm fortunate to have a job that's led me to meet many inspirational people.

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

A There are great people of faith across all the Churches, but I still see Churches generally as inward-looking and trying to maintain what they have, rather than reaching out to all the needs on our doorsteps.

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

A They see the Churches as irrelevant, because many Churches are out of step with their wider communities.

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

A Religion, as a cultural system of designated behaviours and practices, has been very damaging. Religion - as opposed to personal faith - has been so divisive. When I was at UTV, I remember Protestants talking about Catholicism as the "opposite" religion and vice versa. I found it appalling that two sets of Christians could see each other like that.

The Churches are still driving away people of faith who are gay, and that really makes me angry. Jesus talked about greed and injustice, but I haven't found him say anything that would close any door to a Christian who's gay.

Q What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?

A I have a handful of special books, including Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Dharma Bums; a life of Ghandi; and two books by Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen To Good People and When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, among others.

I was never a Beatles fan, but I greatly admire the late George Harrison. His Living in the Material World is my favourite, and it brought me back to faith at a time when I'd given up on God. George may have been coming from a Hindu perspective, but his music has always spoken to me and uplifted me.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A The God I know today is very different from the version I grew up with, but I still find Him in a lot of Christianity. God is everywhere and it's impossible for me not to be in His presence. I'm more aware of it in solitude.

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A I doubt I'll have one, but it might just be my name and dates, or I might just choose 'As happy as a wee dead bird', because all wee dead birds go to heaven, don't they?

Q Have you any major regrets?

A Life's an adventure. My explorations have taken me down rabbit holes, but I'm a firm believer that every mistake can be a learning experience. I've made plenty of mistakes and I trust I've learned from all of them. So, no, no major regrets.

Belfast Telegraph


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