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In conversation with the Very Reverend Dr Stafford Carson: 'My father lived a Christian life and died as the result of an accident at home six weeks after he retired. I asked the question, why Lord?'

What I believe: In conversation with the Very Reverend Dr Stafford Carson

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Lifelong belief: the Very Rev Stafford Carson

Lifelong belief: the Very Rev Stafford Carson

Lifelong belief: the Very Rev Stafford Carson

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

Q Can you tell us something about your background?

A I am 68 and I was born and raised in Larne. After a degree in biology, I taught at Ballymena Technical College for five years. I studied theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and at Queen's University in Belfast. I've been minister of Kells and Eskylane Presbyterian churches, Carnmoney Presbyterian Church and First Presbyterian Church, Portadown. From 2000 to 2005 I was executive vice-president at Westminster Seminary and Moderator of the General Assembly in 2009.

I have been married to Patricia (nee Harris) for 42 years and we have three grown-up children, Sara, Luke and Ruth, and a granddaughter, Bonnie.

Q What about your parents and early education?

A I am an only child. My parents, Willie and Jean Carson, were members of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Larne. I was nurtured in the Christian faith by them and in that fellowship. They were a devout and godly couple whose faith was real and infectious. My father was the parks superintendent in Larne Borough Council. My granny McClean lived at Larne Harbour and as a boy I spent many happy days on the putting green and tennis courts in Larne Park and playing football and cricket at Sandy Bay. I attended Moyle Primary School and Larne Grammar School. In 1969 I went to the then New University of Ulster in its second year of operation. It's hard to believe that 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of my beginning in higher education.

Q How and when did you come to faith?

A I can never remember a time when I would not have professed to have loved Jesus. Adolescent years and early adulthood brought their own spiritual challenges. I can recall times when my Christian commitment became deeper and significant. As a teenager, books by Francis Schaeffer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones had a big impact on my life. I never had a dramatic conversion, but I have always had a real awareness that through faith in Christ I belonged to God's family.

Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

A I've had many questions about spiritual matters and about Christian beliefs, but none of them has triggered a crisis of faith. The spiritual and theological questions have driven me to read more widely, to think more deeply and to try and understand better how God has revealed himself to us. I still have much to learn and a long list of books I want to read.

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

A My father lived a consistent Christian life for many years and died as the result of an accident at home six weeks after his retirement. To me, it was an untimely and premature death. I asked the question that everyone who experiences trauma or loss asks: "Why, Lord?". In the course of pastoral ministry I've been with many people who've faced heartbreaking loss and I've shared in their experience of asking that question. Then I remember that it was the same question which was on the lips of our Lord in his hour of suffering and death. I believe that ultimately the answers will be revealed, but now I'm called to walk by faith, not by sight.

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

A The Presbyterian Church has provided me with many opportunities to serve Jesus Christ and for that I am very grateful. I am proud of its historic stand as a Reformed denomination and the positive contribution it has made to our community, but I am disappointed that we have not done a better job at teaching people within our denomination what we believe as a Church and what Christian discipleship involves. So much of the criticism of the denomination fails to appreciate the Biblical and theological foundations which define the Church and which underpin its statements and commitments.

Q Do you ever get criticised for your faith?

A I have had my share of criticism and I have tried to listen to what has been said and to learn from it. Being criticised for a commitment to Christian values or Biblical standards does not really upset me. As our society moves away from its Christian roots I expect that such criticism will not diminish. Many Christians across the world face persecution of a much more potent and lethal kind. It actually serves to strengthen them in their faith.

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

A I am not afraid to die, but I am aware that the circumstances surrounding death are often characterised by pain and weakness. I believe that death is the final enemy that will be defeated and that beyond death there is glory and joy.

Q Are you worried about hellfire?

A By faith I am united to Jesus Christ. He has endured God's judgement in my place and because of him I will not face condemnation.

Q Do you believe in a resurrection?

A I believe that our bodies will be raised, God's presence will fill and renew creation and all our human abilities will be perfected. All that is good and wholesome in this life will be enjoyed in a rich and full way, beyond anything we have ever known in this broken world.

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

A I have been enriched by the insights of Christians in other denominations. The religious practices of other faiths are an indication of the desire in every human heart to know God.

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

A I am open to receiving light from any quarter and I genuinely desire to learn and grow in my understanding of God. But I believe that knowing more about God must begin with his revelation of himself, not with autonomous human reason.

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

A Many churches are effective in their mission and many are not. There seem to be human as well as divine reasons why some churches flourish and grow and others stagnate and decline.

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

A Religious activity, without the life-transforming power of Christ and his spirit, is dead and depressing. In some cases, people are opting for a less formal approach to faith and worship. In other cases, the values of the culture have replaced Christian values as the culture wars are played out in our schools, universities, workplaces and homes. In a post-Christendom age, I am confident that authentic Biblical Christianity will continue to flourish.

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

A In some cases religion has created and nurtured a sectarian mindset and has fostered a contemporary Phariseeism based on salvation by works and religious performance. In other cases, lives have been changed and transformed by the gospel of grace and vibrant Christian faith has sustained many people who have had to face unspeakably difficult circumstances in their lives.

Q Some personal preferences - your favourite film, book, music and why?

A My favourite film is It's a Wonderful Life, which shows that any assessment we make of our own lives is often skewed and always provisional.

As regards books, I have just read The Guardians by John Grisham. It is a good illustration of how real social issues can be addressed in a practical, Christian way. In terms of theology, I love Truth in All its Glory by my friend William Edgar. It is a great digest of reformed theology.

My favourite piece of music is Handel's Messiah, and not just at Christmas. It is so God-honouring and Christ-exalting. A bit of Bruce Springsteen is also energising.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A Around the Lord's Table when we celebrate the Lord's Supper.

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A "When I awake I shall be satisfied with your likeness (Psalm 17:15)."

Q Finally, have you any major regrets?

A I regret that Ulster Rugby hasn't won any silverware in recent years!

  • The Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson has been principal of Union Theological College since 2013.
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