'Over the years, I have had all sorts of criticism for being a woman in ordained ministry ... mostly from colleagues, sadly'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
The Rev Dr Elizabeth Hughes (66), who has retired as minister of Whitehouse Presbyterian Church in Newtownabbey, is living back in Portadown where she spent part of her childhood and teenage years. Born in Dunfermline, she spent her early years in Norfolk and Suffolk. Her husband, Brian, is also a retired Presbyterian minister. They have two grown-up daughters, Sarah and Bethan.
She attended Portadown College and was later awarded an English degree from Queen's University, Belfast. She trained as a nurse in Edinburgh before following a call to be a minister and missionary. She served as an associate minister in First Bangor before accepting a call in 2000 to Whitehouse Presbyterian Church where she had a distinguished ministry for some 17 years.
She stood twice for the Presbyterian Moderatorship - in 2014, when she was joint runner-up, and in 2015, when she again allowed her name to go forward, but was not elected. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Presbyterian Church in 2016.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. My parents, Walter and Rachel (nee Stevenson), belonged to an organisation called the Faith Mission, which took them to various parts of the UK and Ireland, working mainly in rural areas, so I grew up with nearly too many Christian meetings and a fairly strict understanding of 'Christian' behaviour - lots of do's and don'ts.
It seemed to me that God was against anything remotely enjoyable and I spent most of my time wishing He didn't exist.
Then, along with friends at school, I started exploring faith issues for myself. I reached the point where I felt that the person of Jesus and the words He said carried so much authenticity that I had to respond to His call to follow. The words of an old-time cricketer/missionary, C T Studd, resonated with me: "If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then nothing is too great for me to give to Him." I remember kneeling down and saying to God: "If You are there, here I am - please accept all of me".
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Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith? Or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. We have been given minds to search and question, as well as hearts to trust and love. I recall reading once that, as you grow older, you believe more and more about less and less. I find that I am less interested in theological niceties and much more concerned about the wideness of God's mercy and the spaciousness of God's love.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. I get angry about injustice and suffering, but have never felt the need to blame God for it. Tragically, bad things happen and they happen to good people in a flawed creation. I look forward to the day when we have both a new Heaven and a new Earth and I reckon God expects us to get stuck in and work for it here and now. That's why I value my present roles both in PCI Global mission and in Christian Aid Ireland.
Q. Do you get criticised for your faith? Can you live with that?
A. Over the years, I have had all sorts of criticism for being a woman in ordained ministry, mostly from colleagues, sadly, but, as the Bible puts it better than I could: "God says, I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message."
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. I don't know if ashamed is the right word, but to give one example, throughout my 40 years serving, first as a deaconess and later as a minister, I have also felt deeply discouraged when I see some Churches denying the opportunity for women to lead and minister on equal terms with men. I feel they are limping along on half their potential.
Q. Are you afraid to die? Or can you look beyond death?
A. I am not looking forward to the process of dying and leaving loved ones and, to be honest, I have a very vague idea of what Heaven will be physically like. I find the wonderful pictures of gold and precious stones in scripture hard to relate to, although I love the idea that we will be worshipping Jesus alongside people of every country, race and language.
I have been with many people approaching death and there is often such a sense of relief and peace at the end, particularly after a long illness. I visualise being held in God's love in the next life even more surely than we are held in the arms of those who love us here and now.
Q. Are you worried about Hell?
A. No. I realise that this is just as much picture language as the 'golden streets' are, but I take seriously that Jesus Himself, the epitome of love, spoke most in the Bible about the reality of the existence of Hell. C S Lewis compared Hell to an English city on a wet day, a place where only those who could not, or would not, grasp the joys of Heaven chose to feel at home.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And if so, what will it be like?
A. I do. And I take my cue from the Bible accounts of Jesus's own resurrection and how he appeared to his friends recognisable, but very different. I have no idea how that all happens for everyone in every generation scientifically, but if all of this universe came from some kind of Big Bang, I reckon God's a great deal bigger and powerful than we can even faintly imagine.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. We can learn a lot from people of other Christian denominations. I have learnt a great deal about silent prayer and retreat times from those within the Catholic faith. I don't believe any one of us has the whole truth.
Q. Would you be comfortable stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. I would like to see us all taking more time to understand and respect other faiths, while not feeling in any way that we need to compromise on our own. I know, in Whitehouse, we valued our visits both to the Jewish synagogue and also the Islamic Centre. We were received warmly at both.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. I believe our misunderstanding of what is important in our Christian faith, our deliberate divisiveness and our tendency to sectarianism has definitely hindered genuine reconciliation.
Our own church in Whitehouse was privileged to be part of a Moving Beyond Sectarianism project, which started in the 1990s and made a huge difference to the way we reached out to our surrounding community and the way the community reached out to us, especially the arson attacks which culminated in the destruction of the church building in 2002. Visiting Rwanda, in recent years, reminded me that peacebuilding is not an option for the Christian, it is a Gospel imperative.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. I really enjoyed Paddington 2. I like reading detective novels that are not too dark, but travel and holidays of any kind are both my hobby and my passion. I also like the music of the Sixties.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. In our wee summer house in the garden, drinking coffee and taking time to listen for God in the stillness.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. I haven't a clue. I think I would have to take a risk and leave that to the family.
Q. Have you any major regrets in life?
A. Not major regrets, but there have been times when I allowed my ministry to crowd out everything else. I am enjoying retirement right now, but I look back and wish I had taken more time out when I was working, time out for my family and friends and even just to be.