Rev Dr Heather Morris: 'After our son Peter was born, I had two miscarriages. I wrestled with why a loving God would allow that to happen'
In conversation with Rev Dr Heather Morris
Rev Dr Heather Morris was appointed the first female president of the Methodist Church in Ireland in 2013. She is currently secretary of the Methodist Church.
She trained and worked as a speech therapist in Dublin before deciding to join the Methodist ministry in 1987. She served at Belfast Central Mission and at Dundonald and, in 2004, she was appointed to develop the new role of director of ministry at Edgehill Theological College in Belfast, where she had a particular interest in practical care and pastoral theology. She holds a PhD in practical theology from the University of Edinburgh. She is married to Neil and the couple have two grown-up sons, Peter and David, and a one-year-old granddaughter, Junia.
Q. Can you tell us something about yourself?
A. I was born in 1964 in Nigeria. My father, the Rev Paul Kingston, is a Methodist minister and he and my mother, Audrey, served as mission partners with the Methodist Church in Nigeria for eight years, during which my brother Kevin and I were born.
The Biafran war broke out during this time and my parents tell the story of a plane flying overhead, trailing a banner instructing anyone who did not have to stay to go home for their own safety.
However, my father stayed for a further six months in order to finish his term as a missionary, but my mother brought Kevin and I home to Belfast.
That sense of duty is but one example of my parents' commitment to God and they consistently show me what it is to selflessly and willingly put God and others first. That is one of the greatest lessons they have given me.
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Q. What about your early education?
A. My dad being a Methodist minister meant that our family moved from time to time to live in different places. So, I went to Lisnasharragh Primary School in east Belfast, then to Wesley College in Dublin and from there to Trinity College Dublin, where I trained to be a speech therapist. I had a very happy childhood and was nurtured by my family and by the churches who loved and cared for us.
My husband, Neil, who is a chartered accountant, and I met in Dublin, where his family were members of Dublin Central Mission.
We have two adult sons, Peter, who is married to Faith, and David, who has a lovely girlfriend, Jess. Peter and Faith have a daughter who has just turned one. Her name is Junia.
Q. Can you tell us the significance of her name?
A. There is a story there, in that Junia is mentioned in the Bible, in Romans 16:7, where the writer greets "Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me.
"They are outstanding among the apostles and they were in Christ before I was."
For many years, and indeed still in some translations, Junia is made masculine - Junias - because some members in the early Church struggled with a woman being "outstanding among the apostles".
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I can't remember a time when I didn't love and want to follow God.
As a teenager, I struggled with the fact that I didn't have a dramatic story of conversion; rather, my story is one of growing into faith. Faith in God, creator, saviour and spirit is at the core of who I am. Even when I mess up - as I often do - God is the one who graciously meets me, who loves first, takes the initiative and forgives. However, that doesn't mean that I don't have questions.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. In Genesis 32, we are told part of Jacob's story. Jacob is on a journey, heading back to meet his brother, Esau, whom he had harmed and hurt in the past.
Jacob is going back because God had told him to do that, but he doesn't know what Esau will do when he meets him; whether he would be angry with him, or welcome him.
The night before he meets Esau, Jacob camps by a ford called Jabbok and that night a "man" wrestles with him. That picture of God who wrestles with human beings is an important one for me. Its amazes me that God would bother to wrestle and struggle with us.
For me, that is a sign that God cares about us and the things that bother us.
I think that God can take our questions, our wondering and our wrestling.
I believe that God wants us to bring that to him. God's invitation is to a real relationship with us. In the context of that relationship, why would we hide away and pretend that we don't have questions?
After our son Peter was born, I had two miscarriages and I wrestled with why a loving God would allow that to happen. I still wrestle with God when friends get ill.
I love having conversations about God around the kitchen table, asking questions and sharing experiences.
I think that God meets us there, taking our questions and inviting us to trust him, even when we don't have the answers.
Q. What is your idea of what the Church should be?
A. I long for the Church to be the sort of place where people help each other to be more like Jesus, in the whole of their life - at work, with neighbours, at school.
My heart breaks when the Church is only inward-looking, when we only care for "us and ours". However, there are so many examples of Churches who are good news in their communities.
Q. What about the role of the Church in the community?
A. I love the stories of churches who do community tidy-ups, who serve coffee, who quietly care for people going through tough times.
The Churches are full of unsung heroes and heroines who serve God through youth organisations, who run clubs where older people can find and build community, who are committed to breaking down the barriers which still mar this community, who are advocates for justice and mercy, who quietly raise money to enable others around the world and here.
There are a lot of good people who quietly get on with helping other people.
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. I am sure that God is at work in the world, in ways that are far beyond my understanding and in all sorts of people and places.
A foundational view of Methodism is that God loves everyone, that Jesus died so that "whosoever believes" can know the life in all its fullness that God wants us to know, that everyone is invited to follow.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. For me, Jesus is at the core of what I believe, but I enjoy learning from and getting to know people whose experience and understanding is different to mine.
So, for example, I have been blessed by the graciousness and kindness of many in the Muslim community here in Belfast.
With many others, I was invited to the Eid celebration in Belfast City Hall last year and it was wonderful to be part of that.
Q. Are you afraid of death?
A. I am not afraid of death, although I am sad at the thought of missing more of my family's life.
However, I trust God in this bit of life that I get to live now and after I die.
Q. How do you switch off?
A. My favourite thing is to spend time with my family.
My husband Neil and I enjoy walking, holidays and going to the cinema.
Q. What inscription, if any, would you like on your gravestone?
A. My first superintendent (in other words my boss) was the Rev David Kerr.
He told me a story about a gravestone which he had come across, perhaps on Iona, though I am not sure about that. The epitaph was, 'Died on pilgrimage'. If I have a headstone, I think that is what I would like my epitaph to be; that I died still on this adventure of a journey with God.