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Right Rev John McDowell: 'My mother was a housewife, but with a very able mind. She'd a profound influence on me'

In conversation with Right Rev John McDowell

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Unity in faith: The Right Rev John McDowell feels relationships between the churches have never been better

Unity in faith: The Right Rev John McDowell feels relationships between the churches have never been better

Unity in faith: The Right Rev John McDowell feels relationships between the churches have never been better

The Right Rev John McDowell is Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher.

Q Can you tell us something about your background?

A I am 64 and I was educated at Annadale Grammar School in Belfast. I studied medieval history at Queen's University Belfast, followed by business studies at the London School of Economics. This was followed by theology and biblical studies at the University of Dublin, Trinity College. Before my ordination, I worked on the commercial side of Shorts' missile systems division and then as assistant director of the CBI in Northern Ireland.

Q What about your family background?

A Both of my parents are dead. My mother was a housewife, but with a very able mind. She was born in 1920 and hadn't the opportunity for a good education. She had a profound influence on my life. She said the Office daily at home and was fully and happily committed to God and His Church. There was a strong devotion to the Sacrament of the Altar and she had a tremendous joie de vivre. She enjoyed travelling, ballroom dancing and reading, with a particular fondness for Dickens.

My father served his time in Harland & Wolff and worked there during the Second World War. After the war, he worked for a short time as a trolley bus conductor but spent most of his working life in Shorts' aircraft factory. He was steady and dependable in everything. If mum was light, he was salt.

I have an older brother and sister and a twin brother. My older brother is a retired policeman and my sister is a housewife.

My twin brother was chief executive of British Aerospace in Australia and, on retirement, he became non-executive chair of the Australian Nuclear Energy Authority, Chancellor of the University of South Australia and a member of the board of directors of an Australian Rules team in Adelaide.

He was enticed back to full-time work as head of the Australian civil service and as the premier's cabinet officer for the state of South Australia.

Q How and when did you come to faith?

A I have never been conscious of not having faith, but I want to immediately qualify that by saying that I have not always acted consistently in accordance with that faith. And for the avoidance of doubt, and because 'faith' has been so variously defined by theologians, I understand faith to be the soul clinging closely ('cleaving' is the old word) to God in love. And also to say that close to God was the gift that he gave to the world in His son and gives to each individual in their baptism. We can only cleave to him because he first cleaved to us.

Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith? And have you ever been angry with God?

A I have never had a crisis of faith, although of course I have had doubts about certain propositions concerning the faith. I have also had moments of anxiety, fear, remorse and remoteness, but not, if I'm being honest, of absolute desolation.

I've occasionally been angry at the circumstances of life - occasionally my own but more often that of others. However, if we place a very high value on human freedom, then it is probably a little less likely that God will get the blame for everything that goes wrong.

Even if I could explain the arbitrariness of so much of the world's suffering with absolute clarity and rationality, it would still hurt and dehumanise.

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

A The churches and individual believers have been criticised for many failures in the past. A great deal of that is justified, especially around a certain self-righteousness. More recently, the criticism has been around certain issues of human sexuality, or end of life/beginning of life issues.

Here in Ireland, we haven't quite worked out between ourselves what a healthy pluralism looks like. Pluralism presupposes accommodating a range of worldviews in a way that enhances the common good.

Because a certain version of the Judeo-Christian worldview had what the sociologists call 'hegemony' in Ireland for so long, there has been an inevitably strong reaction against it.

Probably, the pendulum will swing back again and the work of the next generation is to try to cherish what is true and salubrious in the Christian vision of society and for that to find its place in a truly pluralist society.

A large part of the mission of God and of the disciples of his Son is to go to the places where people find it very difficult to be fully human and to assist, or be with, people in those circumstances.

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

A Despite our more recent claims to be a bridge church (i.e. embracing Catholic substance and Protestant principle), we were, for a long time, a bit of a cuckoo in the nest in Ireland.

There are all sorts of things which we did in the past and wouldn't do now.

However, I think that, as a Christian tradition (i.e. one of the many ways of being a disciple of Jesus Christ), Irish Anglicanism, moulded by providence through the processes of history, has an important and perhaps unique part to play and gifts to bring to the task of resetting relationships on this island.

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

A There is no doubt that the churches are numerically less strong than we once were. The depth of that decline has sometimes been overstated and the reasons for it are legion.

Perhaps we will never have the same numbers attending church as was the case during the post-war decades.

That does not mean that our distinctive contribution to the health of Irish society should be diminished, or that our ambition to be living witnesses to Jesus Christ and the life of sacrificial love to which He calls us (in the tradition of St Patrick) should be any less.

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

A The churches have a particular opportunity to work together, particularly in an area such as ecological activism (working to bring the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ back to our relationship with the Earth itself, with which we have been at war).

Climate justice is not a divisive theological issue and young people particularly, both inside and outside the churches, expect it of us.

In fact, it is probably worth stating that relationships between churches, certainly at a leadership level, but also very often at the grassroots, have never been better.

The work of the official ecumenical instruments, like the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Inter Church Meeting, is well-led and focused by people such as Dr Nicola Brady, but there is now something of a rudimentary expectation that (in most cases) different Christian traditions have much more in common than they have separating them and that such differences as there are should not preclude us from working together.

Q Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?

A Yes, I do believe in bodily resurrection, although I could not begin to understand how that will work. The scriptures only hint at that and, even then, in poetic terms and analogies which appeal to the imagination, rather than to the mind.

Q Are you afraid to die? Or can you look beyond death?

A I have no fear of dying that I am aware of (time will tell), although, like many people, I would hope it happens peacefully in my own bed.

Q What is your favourite book?

A I don't have a favourite book, but I admire immensely the poetry of Edward Thomas, RS Thomas and George Herbert (and many others). I am avidly anticipating the third book of Hilary Mantel's trilogy on the magnificent and tragic life of Thomas Cromwell.

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A My name and dates. Nothing further.

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