Belfast Telegraph

Norman Hamilton: We obsess on a few issues but almost totally ignore sectarianism, homelessness, poverty and paramilitarism which affect thousands

What I believe: In conversation with Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton

Planting ideas: the Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton at home in Ballymena
Planting ideas: the Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton at home in Ballymena
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

The Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian Moderator, who stepped down at last week's General Assembly from the position of Convenor of the Church's Council for Public Affairs

Q: Can you tell us about your background?

A: I was born in Magheralin in 1946. My dad, Lewis, worked in the shipyard on the administration side and my mum, Florrie, was at home all the time. I had no siblings. It was a happy, ordinary, working-class home, where Christian faith was quiet, but diligent. I am married to Evelyn, whom I met at Trinity College Dublin. We have one daughter, Julie, who is a maths teacher in Newcastle-on-Tyne.

My primary schools were in Magheralin and Lurgan and then Portadown College, before going to Trinity, where my main subject was economics.

Q: What about your early career?

A: After graduation, I was a career civil servant for seven years, before moving to be a staff worker with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in England. Four years later, I came back to Belfast to study theology at Union College, before becoming assistant minister in Lowe Memorial Presbyterian Church for six years. I migrated from there to Ballysillan Presbyterian in north Belfast, where I was minister for 26 years prior to retirement in 2014.

I have just stepped down at the end of May as a member of the Community Relations Council and I was hugely privileged to be honoured with an OBE in 2007 for services to community relations.

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Q: How and when did you come to faith?

A: This happened shortly before I went to Trinity, but while at college my faith was gently taken apart and rebuilt on a much more satisfying base. My involvement there in the Christian Union opened up a thinking, structured and rational basis for being a follower of Christ - something I had really never encountered at all when attending church at home.

I try to allow my faith to shape everything I do every day, but, of course, not always living up to my own expectations.

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

A: Not really, but I have been perplexed at times as to why some things happen in God's world. Brutal dictatorships, evil political alliances and some disasters can be very difficult to explain in the context of Christ's love for all people and God's sovereignty over the nations. Yet, these ever-present problems of suffering are not confined to those who have a Christian perspective. They are universally hard to handle, especially if you start with the premise that people are essentially good.

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

A: I am rarely criticised, but often directly challenged by others. I greatly welcome a good challenge, as it helps me think things through more rigorously. The probing questions of journalists, or the interrogation of a Stormont committee, to say nothing of the questions posed by many friends, these all help - a lot.

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

A: I am never ashamed, for all of us and all institutions are flawed by the fall of humankind, as the Book of Genesis makes clear. I am on public record recently as saying that we come over as rather obsessed by a few issues of morality - and we almost totally ignore other major moral and ethical issues, which affect tens of thousands of people right across Ireland, north and south, and on which scripture has much guidance to give, such as the modern version of slavery through debt, the shame of failing to address homelessness, or the degrading curse of poverty.

Add to these issues such as sectarianism, paramilitarism and immigration policy. We are much too quiet. As I said in my speech to the Presbyterian General Assembly last week, we seem obsessed by a few issues.

Q: Are you afraid to die? Can you look beyond death?

A: I have no fear so far and those hymns that speak of the glory of sharing eternity with the risen Lord are so important to me. I love the songs of Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.

Q: Are you worried about hell?

A: No, because of the resurrection. And while I can't guess the detail of it, the prospect of it happening and entering eternity to be with the Lord is very energising.

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

A: Every person is made in the image of God, so it is hugely important to me that nothing I say or do in any way demeans, or devalues, them. I recognise, however, that it is all too easy to stereotype others, especially in a society such as ours that has the doing of this down to a fine art.

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

A: Absolutely.

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

A: "Mission" is a word that has little substantive meaning today. If we use it in a wide and full-bodied biblical sense of helping people come to faith in Christ, alongside caring for them in whatever situations they are in, irrespective of their response, then there is a good deal to be celebrated.

Yet, there is still what might be called a real "deficit" of evangelism in so many of our churches. Too often, we seem unable to explain what we believe and why we believe it and in a straightforward, gracious and coherent way.

Our ability to connect biblical truth with the real-life, day-to-day experience and aspirations of people, especially those under 30, is often very weak.

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

A: Organised anything is no longer in vogue. People rarely "join" anything today, other than a club or group that provides a service to them for which they are willing to pay a fee. For example, less than a quarter of employees are members of a trade union and signed-up membership of the three major parties in the UK is a mere 1.6% of the electorate.

On the Church scene, I would also return to my comments to the question immediately above.

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

A: I would draw a very clear distinction between religion and active Christian faith. One coffee chain even uses the slogan, 'We're religious about coffee'.

Yet, politically, in Ireland, north and south, God has historically been invoked as being on our side, whether in the phrase, 'For God and Ulster', or in the last paragraph of the republican proclamation in 1916, which declared: "We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God, whose blessing we invoke upon our arms."

It is extraordinarily hard to see just how the message of salvation through Jesus Christ has been advanced by such rhetoric.

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

A: I love the Paddington films, because I identify so readily with the world's favourite bear trying to do the right thing, but often unable to make it work properly. The most influential book in recent years has been Professor Joan Williams' White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. It could readily have been written on this side of the Atlantic. On the musical scene, I love happy music, whether classical or traditional jazz.

Q: Where do you feel closest to God?

A: Probably in places of isolated grandeur and beauty, such as Glenariff Forest in Co Antrim or Skomer Island in Wales, where thousands of puffins breed. And I hope to be there and see them again towards the end of this month.

Q: Have you any major regrets?

A: No major ones, except, perhaps, not taking up the offer to be taught to play the flute when I was visiting a specialist music college during my time with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship.

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