June Butler: 'Having endured Right-wing Presbyterian sermons after the Anglo-Irish agreement, I decided I could no longer remain in the fold... the Anglican community has been my spiritual home ever since'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
June Butler was recently elected all-Ireland president of the Mothers' Union. Before that, she was, for nine years, assistant chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland. She was married to Kevin for almost 40 years until his death in 2017.
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I am aged 68, an only child, and was brought up on a farm outside Donaghadee.
After my post-primary education at Regent House, I obtained a degree in English at the then new University of Ulster in Coleraine. Those pioneering years at that institution were an education in themselves.
Subsequently, for 37 years, I held various full-time posts in the public sector, in agriculture, housing, training, educational research and elections, eventually leaving in 2009 after nine years as assistant chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland.
I was then appointed the diocesan secretary of the two Church of Ireland dioceses of Connor and Down and Dromore, and served in that role until I retired at the end of 2016.
I was married to Kevin for almost 40 years. He sadly passed away in 2017. I continue to live in our family home in Saintfield, and feel blessed that our three lovely daughters and my two stepsons live with their families (my seven grandsons, one granddaughter and several grand-dogs) in the greater Belfast area.
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In 2016, I was elected Mothers' Union president for the Diocese of Down and Dromore, having held various positions in the charity over the previous 20 years. In 2018, after much prayerful consideration, I decided to let my name go forward for election as the next all-Ireland president. I was successful both in that and in the process to elect a representative from Ireland on the Mothers' Union worldwide trustee board. Since I began both these roles in January 2019, it feels as if I have returned to full-time employment.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. My father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. My upbringing centred around that community - Sunday school, Girls' Brigade, youth ministry - and that continued through faith groups (and their many social activities) at university.
There was no blinding Damascus moment. My faith has always been an inherent part of who I am, founded on the example from my childhood, where my father and grandmother read their Bibles daily. Granny lived with us and daily in her eighties she sang hymns (sometimes in tune) at full volume. My faith surrounds every part of my life, and I hope it shines through in everything I do and say.
Working with the clergy and other lovely folk within the context of the Church of Ireland increased my biblical knowledge immensely in recent years and deepened my faith.
The Mothers' Union has given me many opportunities to live out my faith, through our projects at home and worldwide, our work with the disadvantaged and through prayer and worship with my colleagues. I now sometimes speak at Church services, which a few years ago would have been outside my comfort zone.
I have twice represented the Mothers' Union at the UN Commission on the Status of Women and tried to promote my Christian beliefs as I advocate for an improvement in living conditions for women.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. I don't think faith can ever be worked out unless we deal with our doubts.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? If so, why?
A. At times, I cannot understand why there is so much pain and suffering in our world. I have felt short-term anger when my father, my husband and one of my closest friends all died suddenly, without an opportunity to say all the things I might or should have said. On reflection, that anger was probably driven by grief.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? And are you able to live with that criticism?
A. I am not aware of ever being criticised for my faith.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. In the mid-1980s, I had a denominational crisis. Having endured some very Right-wing Presbyterian sermons after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, I decided I could no longer remain in the fold and started attending Church of Ireland services.
In my electoral working life, I was dealing with politicians, organisations and voters from every community.
I believe strongly that every person is entitled to their own views on matters of religion and politics. The Anglican community has been my spiritual home ever since.
All I ask is that my Church extends the hand of fellowship to every human being, whatever their belief, or gender.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond it?
A. I only hope that my death will be peaceful and not prolonged. My faith enables me to trust fully in God's love thereafter.
Q. Are you worried about hell?
A. No, I am not worried about hell.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? If so, what will it be like?
A. I do and I have no idea what it will be like. I love the Martin Luther quote, "Our Lord has written the promise of the resurrection... in every leaf in springtime". I simply trust in God that I will be brought close to Him.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. We are all equal in the eyes of God. I believe every Christian should choose the denomination and method of worship which best suits him or her. I have great respect for people of other faiths who want to promote peace and harmony in our divided world.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from others?
A. Yes. I do this whenever and wherever possible. Every day is a learning opportunity which we should grasp.
Q. Do you think that the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. I feel that churches are losing out in the swell of change occurring in the 21st century. In our society, which has become accustomed to instant gratification, people do not want to make long-term commitments. That often applies to regular church attendance.
Churches need to reach out in mission to those with a particular need, a marginalised group, the lonely, through a food bank, the list is endless. When such a light is shown in the name of Christ, people will want to be part of that action, that mission.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered people here?
A. Religious fervour, rather than Christian faith, has, I feel, hindered the people of Northern Ireland, especially where there has been intransigence and an inability to see others' viewpoints. However, it is faith which has carried us through the difficult times. The significant progress made by the integrated education sector gives me hope that, in the future, young people will lead our communities with a more open perspective.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. I love music of all genres - classical, jazz, blues, hymns, some pop, country and western, but maybe not rap. Music has always played an important part in my life. My favourite actress is Meryl Streep and the two combine in Music of the Heart.
I love poetry and literature and I read widely, but I always come back to Jane Austen, usually Pride and Prejudice.
My music preference is light classical. I love the compositions of Grieg and Mozart.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Somewhere where there is crashing waves and a wide view to the horizon. My favourites are Whitepark Bay and Runkerry Beach. The enormity of the seascape and the noise always puts my issues into perspective.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. The inscription on my husband's gravestone will also stand for me. It ends with Psalm 100 verse 2: "Serve the Lord with gladness, come before Him in a song."
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. I regret that I never learned to play a musical instrument. They say it's never too late, but I'm not convinced.