Belfast Telegraph

'I'm ashamed of the Presbyterian Church... we have adopted a model of clerical control, while professing ourselves democratic, we've veered into an overly simplistic evangelicalism that doesn't resonate with ordinary people'

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

Complex faith: Rev Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick
Complex faith: Rev Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

The Rev Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick (62) was appointed Professor of Church History at Union Theological College in Belfast in 1996. He taught within the Institute of Theology at Queen's University, which recently announced that it is severing its links with the college.

In 2018, he was suspended by the college for remarks he made on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme. Earlier this year, he was dismissed by the college for what it claimed was "gross misconduct" after the findings of a disciplinary panel. He is appealing the decision and the result should be announced shortly. He is also pursuing a claim of discrimination at an employment tribunal.

Q. Tell us about your early life.

A. I was born on September 10, 1956 and I am an only child, though an older sister, Rosemary, died in infancy before I was born.

My father, Sam Kirkpatrick, was a shipwright with Harland and Wolff, as was his father. My mother, Olive, is still alive. My parents taught me honesty, uprightness and the merits of hard work.

I was brought up in Carrickfergus, attending the Model School there. I then progressed to Methody, entirely due to the personal endorsement of the improbably named Model headmaster Theodore Beggs. The travel was nightmarish for a 10-year-old; a 7.30am bus from Carrick to Smithfield, a 'red bus' up to Methody, repeated in the afternoon to arrive back in Carrick at 5pm.

However, I loved my time at Methody. My favourite subjects were geography and chemistry, but biology and physics were incomprehensible to me. I did not excel in any academic sense, but I captained the boys' hockey team in each year and played for the First XI for four years, which was difficult enough in a school more famous for its rugby prowess.

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Q. Tell us a bit about your adult life.

A. I was married in 1978, separated in 2009 and divorced in 2017 and have three grown-up children; two boys and a girl. I studied ancient history and then theology at Queen's University. I was ordained in 1982 and was assistant minister, with Rev Martin Smyth, in Alexandra Congregation on the Shore Road in Belfast, before serving as minister of Muckamore Presbyterian Church from 1984 to 1996. This was a very happy time, as the congregation grew significantly.

I gained a PhD in church history at the University of Glasgow during these years. In 1996, I joined Union Theological College as Professor of Church History and taught within the Institute of Theology. I loved my job and classes grew to over 100 students before changes resulted in a later decline in numbers.

It is incredibly stimulating to tutor talented young people and see them progress to graduation and beyond. I also worked as a chaplin in Muckamore Abbey Hospital from 1985 until 2018. This episode in my life ended abruptly in March 2019 when I was dismissed.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. In 1971, I rejected everything about my religious upbringing and, much to the upset of my parents, I stopped attending church altogether.

In October 1972, I was challenged about faith in conversations with some Christians running a coffee bar in the local town hall. On the evening of Monday, November 6, alone in my bedroom, I prayed for God to make Himself real to me and, with encouragement of others, I reconnected with my Church and later decided to apply to train and work as a Presbyterian minister.

My faith has become much more private and complex and is certainly a daily part of my life. My ultimate questions concern the meaning of life and personal existence and the trite, easy answers of my youth no longer nourish my heart and mind.

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

A. The claims of Christianity are so enormous; we humans can have a personal relationship with God, He listens to our prayers and always answers, He is in control of this world He has made, we can trust Him for this life and the next. Certainly, I cannot assume constant certainty without encountering doubt or crisis.

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

A. Yes. Why is there so much innocent pain and suffering in this world?

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?

A. Not really. I readily admit to many Christian faults in history - to do otherwise is naive and would invite fair criticism.

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

A. The denomination, certainly. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has tended to be insular in this island, not spreading beyond original plantation settlements. We have adopted a model of clerical control, while professing ourselves democratic and we have veered into an overly simplistic evangelicalism that is not resonating with ordinary people.

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

A. Time seems to speed up as I get older and, coward that I am, I hope for a peaceful and relatively rapid passing. I hope I can die with a knowledge that I made a contribution and a positive difference for others.

Q. Are you worried about hell?

A. No.

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

A. As I have many unanswerable questions about this and cannot influence it in any way, I'm happy to leave this to God.

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

A. We are all members of the same human family. I believe in equality and diversity.

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

A. Of course. It would be a wonderfully enriching experience to constructively and systematically engage with such people.

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

A. Organised religion in the main Churches is shrinking. So many local congregations appear to be struggling to find a balance between catering for those members who are content and those who want to change in order to attract new members. Our society is changing rapidly and the Churches seem to be losing their traditional position.

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

A. I once read a definition of a clergyman as "someone who is answering incomprehensibly the questions that no one is asking" - pretty damning, but perhaps containing a germ of truth. Most organised religion appears to have lost the life-changing and attention-grabbing awe of claims to know God Himself.

Christians appear no different than others, except for attending church on Sunday.

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

A. I'm sure religion has been, and still is, a comfort and inspiration to many, but for many others it is seen as one of the curses upon this land; a cause of seemingly endless cycles of hatred and strife and pain.

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

A. My favourite film is The Quiet Man - I'm a sucker for the blarney and John Wayne was a hero in my youth. My favourite book is still Reach for the Sky, as I'm constantly inspired by the exploits of legless RAF pilot Douglas Bader. I prefer easy listening in my music tastes. Simon and Garfunkel will always do nicely.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. Definitely in an isolated place, like a mountainside. Rarely in any church building.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. My wish is to be cremated and my ashes scattered. There are too many unkempt headstones around.

Q. Finally, do you have any major regrets?

A. I wish I had paid more attention to teachers in school - especially in learning French.

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