Rev Alex Wimberly: 'I wonder if people are turning away from organised religion because organised religion is turning away from the problems that most people experience'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
Rev Alex Wimberly is the recently appointed leader of the Corrymeela Community in Ballycastle.
Q Can you tell us something about your background?
A I am 42 and was born and raised in Indiana in America. I was ordained in September 2003 in the Presbyterian Church USA. I am the son, grandson and great-grandson of Presbyterian ministers and I am married to Kiran, who is a Presbyterian minister too. We have three children, Eva (11), Amos (9) and Phoebe (7).
Q What about your education and career up to now?
A I received my bachelor of arts in history and religion from Wabash College in Indiana in 1999, my master's in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2003, my MA from the University of Notre Dame in 2015 and my PhD in history from Notre Dame last year.
I was minister of the Honey Brook Presbyterian Church in Amish country in Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2007. Then I came to Northern Ireland, where I was minister of the McCracken Memorial Presbyterian Church in Belfast from 2007 to 2013.
After that I was a doctoral student and teaching assistant at the University of Notre Dame (2013 to 2017) and chaplain at the Corrymeela Centre in Ballycastle from 2018 to 2019. In August this year I became leader at Corrymeela.
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Q What did your parents teach you?
A My parents are Bill and Tracy Wimberly and I have an older brother named Ware. My father taught me that Church was where we could bring our whole selves, particularly our brains, into worship and that the Bible should be used to start conversations, rather than end them.
My mother taught me to love people as if they were characters in the greatest novel you will ever read. She is also a great theologian. She once sat through an interminably dumb sermon (not my father's, maybe mine) and realised that if the Christian Church could survive 2,000 years of this drivel, there must be something to it.
Q How and when did you come to faith?
A I came to faith gradually, naturally and uneventfully. If people ask me when I was saved, I answer: 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross. At some point, it dawned on me that I too am dependent on God for salvation and that my life is best lived in gratitude for the grace I have received.
But I never felt that this loving God demanded something of me to be saved. Indeed, I have a hard time recognising a God that demands worship from us, or demands that we feel guilty, or demands me to be anything other than the person I've been created to be.
Yet, it is God's selfless love that prompts me to change my ways, take responsibility for my sins and try to be the best version of myself I can be.
Q Does faith play a part in your daily life?
A It is an essential part of my life and work. It is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we see who God is and what humanity should be.
It's in the self-giving love of Christ that we experience what is most powerful, what is eternal and what is divine.
My work is about reconciliation and I am convinced that reconciliation begins with ourselves, with accepting the love that transforms our lives and allows us to become ministers of God's reconciliation.
I am interested in helping our 170 Corrymeela members and the hundreds more who are associated with us to become centres of peace and reconciliation wherever we live, work and worship.
Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A I believe that faith assumes uncertainty. We don't know; that's why we call it 'faith'. But, at the same time, faith assumes assurance.
For whatever reason, I can't shake the idea that what I've experienced in Christ through scripture is true and that it speaks to something that will be true, even if I doubt it or can intellectually dismiss it.
So, yes, I doubt, because if I didn't doubt, it wouldn't be faith; it would be certainty. That's the realm of science, not faith.
Q Have you ever been angry at God?
AI am angry at God when I see people suffer. I have been confused when it seems that either God is powerless to help or that God is unwilling to make things better. It's at times like these that doubt is strongest, and at times like these I get struck by the tenacity of faith.
Q Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A I have certainly been ashamed of my own Church and denomination, particularly when we love our dogma more than our neighbour.
I've never understood why Christians should be afraid of change. If what we espouse is eternal truth, we should have faith that it will live on (resurrect), even if everything we hold dear should die.
Q Are you afraid of death? Do you believe in resurrection?
A No, I don't fear death. I trust that whatever is good in me will live on in some way and all that is broken in me will either be healed or tossed aside.
Q Are you worried about Hell?
A I don't worry about Hell as much as some may want me to. Meaning, I don't worry about it at all.
Q What do you think about people of other faiths or denominations? Do you feel comfortable stepping out of your own faith?
A I believe that God loves all people as they are and that I can learn about God through the image of the divine found in other people. I therefore welcome the insights and wisdom of other denominations and faiths. If what I believe is true, it will hold up to the encounter. If what they believe is true, I want to hear it.
Q Do you think the churches are fulfilling their mission?
A If they were, then more people would associate the churches with good news, freedom of conscience, unconditional love and undeniable joy.
Q Why are people turning away from organised religion?
A I wonder if people are turning away from organised religion because organised religion is turning away from the problems that most people experience.
Q Has religion hindered or helped the people of Northern Ireland?
A When religion is wrapped up in a desire to maintain or gain, power, it hinders the people of Northern Ireland. When religion leads people to love unconditionally, to seek and grant forgiveness and to challenge unjust power structures, it helps the people of Northern Ireland.
Q What is your favourite movie, music and book, and why?
A I'm a sucker for Indiana Jones movies, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Bond films, especially From Russia With Love. My daughter, Eva, has convinced me that Taylor Swift is a first-rate songwriter, but I'm more comfortable with Bob Dylan.
I'm currently hooked on Raymond Chandler novels, especially The Long Goodbye. They remind me how much I enjoy murder mysteries.
Q Where do you feel closest to God?
A I feel closest to God at my family's rustic cabin on an island in Lake of the Woods in Canada. But since I can't get there very often, I'm glad to feel close to God in the Croi, our worshipping space at Corrymeela.
Q What inscription might you have on your gravestone?
A I might put on my gravestone what my father said to me every day as I headed to school: "Have fun. Be good. Learn lots."
Q Have you any major regrets?
A My wife and I really should have applied for permanent residency for the UK (and Ireland) when we lived here from 2007 to 2013. That would have made returning to Northern Ireland so much easier.
I have repeatedly felt a call to ministry in Northern Ireland. My sense of humour fits in well here and I love the fact that people here are genuinely curious about others. Although the influence of the clergy is waning in Northern Ireland, they still have a recognised role.
I find that my voice, perhaps as an outsider, brings something to the conversation that may not already have been there.