Rev Mervyn Gibson: 'When I left the RUC, my colleagues commissioned a cartoon of an officer at the stake with arrows striking him... it represents a police force with its hands tied behind its back in the fight against terrorism'
What I Believe
Rev Mervyn Gibson (61) served in the RUC for 18 years and has been minister of Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church in east Belfast for the past 19. He is a lifelong member of the Orange Order and is currently Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
A: I was born in east Belfast, although I'm proud of my father Campbell Gibson's Donegal roots, near Letterkenny. His father was the stationmaster at Pluck and had been a member of the Donegal UVF and the 11th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the First World War.
My father moved to Northern Ireland to find work, and was a bicycle mechanic with Joseph H Gass in King Street in Belfast. My mother was Ella Gibson (nee Johnston), and her father served with the 36th (Ulster) Division in the Great War. I have an older sister, Irene.
I have been happily married for over 40 years to Lynda, a retired deaconess in the Presbyterian Church who served as chaplain in Maghaberry Prison and director of the VINE Community Centre in Belfast. We have two daughters, Debbie and Jennie, of whom we are very proud. Both are married and living in England, and we have five grandchildren - three boys and two girls.
I served in the RUC for over 18 years, including 16 in Special Branch, resigning as a detective sergeant to enter the ministry.
On resigning, my colleagues, at my request, commissioned a Rowel Friers cartoon depicting a police officer tied to a stake with numerous arrows striking him, in the style of a St Sebastian painting.
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For me it represents a police force which had its hands tied behind its back in the fight against terrorism, being attacked from many sides, suffering without redress.
Q: How and when did you come to faith?
A: I've been a regular church attender since Sunday School days. I received a birthday card for my 30th birthday that put me under conviction and, at the age of 33 years, during the singing of the hymn Just As I Am, while attending morning service in Ballygowan Presbyterian Church, I gave my life to Christ.
I try to ensure faith plays a real part in all aspects of my daily life, not just the "job" bit. I seek to measure what I do against God's Word and Jesus' example. A maxim I seek to apply emanates, I believe, from the Moravian Church - 'In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.'
Q: Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A: No. Sometimes apathy or complacency emerge, but it never progresses to a crisis.
Q: Have you ever been angry with God? And if so, why?
A: "Angry" is probably too strong. I get frustrated for the usual reasons - when those who do evil prosper, or a person dies too young. However, I have come to accept and draw comfort from the fact that God is in control and has won the victory over sin.
Q: Is it necessary for people to parade with regalia to show they are Protestants?
A: Not really, and the Orange Order would never claim that it was. It is natural that many of our parades are connected to events relating to Protestantism. However, we claim no exclusivity on how Protestants display, exercise or proclaim their faith. To do so would be to deny the liberty and freedom which the Reformation championed.
Q: Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A: It is easy to be disappointed when a body or organisation such as the Church makes a decision or acts in a way I disagree with. But providing it is not a core principle relating to my membership, I live with it or express my dissent. I am a great believer in democracy. I am sometimes ashamed of individuals in the Church but not the God-ordained institution that is His Church.
Q: Do you ever get criticised for your faith, and are you able to live with that?
A: Frequently. People, when criticising or complaining about something I said or my actions, add the tagline, "and he claims to be a Christian". Does it hurt? Yes, it does, because the criticism usually comes from anonymous keyboard warriors who haven't a clue who I am, or what I think.
If the criticism is from a credible source, I assess it to see if there is any truth in what they allege. Often the criticism is about my legitimate political or societal views and the side-swipe about my faith is just an add-on.
Q: Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond it?
A: I'm not afraid of death, but there are two issues that cause me concern as I get older - when and how I will die. I once preached a sermon on the theme of "ready to go, but wanting to stay". I look forward to being in God's presence for eternity but, like everyone, I want to stay as long as possible with my family and pass away quietly in my sleep.
Q: Are you worried about Hell?
A: No, not for myself. Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I trust God's eternal promise to those who follow Jesus. I leave theological debates about resurrection to others. I believe it will happen, but the mechanics of it are a matter for God.
Q: What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A: We are all made in God's image. However, the Bible clearly teaches there is only one way to Heaven. Again, I find it quite simple: you are either a follower of Jesus, or you are not. Ultimately, the only judge of that will be God himself.
Q: Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your faith and trying to learn something from others?
A: It's important we learn about others' belief systems. However, for me, it's for the purpose of how we evangelise, rather than appropriating some of their belief system into Christianity. I believe that God, if he chooses, can use anything to teach us His truth.
Q: Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A: Some are, some aren't. I believe the Church is becoming less of a social club and fulfilling God's purpose. A phrase that influenced my thinking when beginning my ministry was "a Church without walls", the point being that we had a job to do in the wider community beyond our fellowships and buildings. A Church without walls also made us transparent and this, too, should influence our witness.
A progression from this thinking has been to equip members to live out the Gospel seven days a week in the world, rather than getting burnout running Church activities six nights a week.
Q: Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A: The simple answer is the Devil's influence. However, we need to understand what tactics he is using: secularism, consumerism, relativism and other things. We live in a constantly changing world and the Church is not good at adapting to how we share an unchanging Gospel. People want a pick-and-mix religion that suits the lifestyle they have chosen.
Q: Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A: Religion hasn't served the people of Northern Ireland well, but faith has been the source of strength for thousands who suffered during the Troubles. It also provides believers with hope for whatever challenges we face.
Q: What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A: My favourite film is The Deer Hunter - a story of community, family, friendships, life, love, loyalty and death.
I own about 2,000 books but have difficulty picking one. John Stott had a great influence on me, and my Christian hero was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For local history, I would choose The Ulster Crisis by ATQ Stewart.
As for music, Abide With Me has so many connotations and evokes many memories, not least remembrance, which is something I am interested in.
Q: Where do you feel closest to God?
A: Church Buildings in Belfast - there is a calmness, a sense of reverence and a tradition of following in the footsteps of the faithful down through the generations. My favourite place in Northern Ireland is Slieve Bearnagh in the Mournes. I often say I'll have my ashes scattered there; the only issue is I haven't decided on cremation or burial.
Q: What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A: The RUC crest, with details of police and ministry service. Then, hopefully, still witnessing in death the following:
There is a green hill far away,
Without a city wall
Where our dear Lord was crucified;
Who died to save us all.
Q: What about regrets? Do you have any major ones?
A: I'm tempted to give the Frank Sinatra answer: too few to mention. Some things I would do differently, but no major regrets. I have a great wife, family, friends, have lived a good life and, hopefully, kept the faith along the way.