Robert Miller: I recall the words of a bursar in the Church of Ireland student centre at Queen's: 'Go ahead and shout at God, He can take it'... God understands our anger better than we do'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
The archdeacon of Derry, the Venerable Robert Miller (48), is married to Alison and they have three children — Rachel (20), Laura (18) and Peter (13). His twin brother, Paul, is a psychiatrist and visiting professor at Ulster University’s Magee campus in Londonderry. Ven Miller is also rector of Christ Church Londonderry, Culmore, Muff and St Peter’s.
Q. Can you tell us about your background?
A. My father, Bobby, was an electrical engineer in Coolkeeragh power station and my mother was Jean (nee McDermott). My parents divorced not long after the death of my sister, Margaret, aged 18, in a motorcycle accident when returning from her honeymoon. We lived with my dad and my maternal grandmother was very important to us. Mum died in 2005 from a respiratory illness.
What I learned from my parents was the importance of commitment, love and about the need for forgiveness and hope in difficult times. Dad, especially, as a lone parent raising me and my twin brother, Paul, was a key figure in my life and remains so.
Q. What about your education?
A. I was educated at Rossdowney Primary School, then Lisnagelvin Primary School, following an amalgamation, then Foyle and Londonderry College. I left Queen’s University Belfast with an honours degree in microbiology, in which I retain an interest.
I’ve been having interesting conversations on epigenetics and the transfer of trauma in relation to peace-building.
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I had a number of summer jobs before ordination — in a hotel on the Isle of Man, as a petrol pump attendant, in a meat and pie factory and in potato blight resistance testing. I was offered a PhD position in Scotland in plant virology, but I went to Dublin to study theology instead. I was ordained in 1995.
I was born and grew up in Londonderry and I’m incredibly proud of my home city.
I returned to live here in 2010 when Bishop Ken Good appointed me to the group of parishes where I’m still serving. My father still lives in Derry.
I’m an identical twin and my brother and his family live in Co Antrim.
As well as my local church ministry, I was appointed Archdeacon of Derry. And, since Bishop Good’s retirement, I’ve been the archbishop’s commissary, supporting him locally while we wait for a new bishop to be appointed.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. Faith has always been an important part of our family life. We attended St Augustine’s, Londonderry, on a weekly basis and sang in the choir. Christian commitment was important. However, I came to faith at a school Scripture Union weekend when I was 11. I felt a very clear sense that I needed to make a personal response to the love God had shown me.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. Not a crisis of faith, but I question God all the time. I think that’s healthy. Even though I’ve been a Christian for almost 40 years, I’m still learning.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. I’m not sure I can point to one big event that caused me to be angry with God, but there have been lots of moments when I’ve been angry. Sometimes, I’ve been like Jonah and I’ve been angry about what God was calling me to be and do. There have been other moments, too — illness and bereavement — when I’ve been angry.
In these times, I recall the words of a bursar in the Church of Ireland student centre at Queen’s: “Go ahead and shout at God. He can take it.” God understands our anger better than we do, so we don’t need to protect Him from it.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? Can you live with that criticism?
A. I’m not sure my faith has ever been criticised personally, but we live in a world that can be negative about Christian faith, generally. I don’t mind that. I’d be more worried if Christians were seen as completely irrelevant. If I face criticism, I want to try and respond by engagement, rather than with annoyance.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. Christian living begins by admitting that we’re all sinners and we all need forgiveness. The Church is a community of forgiven sinners. There are certainly times when I reflect on my life and leadership and feel I could’ve done better. I’m not ashamed of them, but I think we can still disappoint God.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. I’m not afraid of death, but I recognise that it’s often a cause of pain. The death of my older sister, Margaret, was very difficult to deal with, but the reality of eternal life with God has always been a source of hope and it lessens that pain.
Q. Do you worry about Hell?
A. I worry for those who turn their back on God’s love. One of the leading Christian writers of my youth was J I Packer. He wrote of the great evangelist D L Moody that he had a right to preach about Hell, because he clearly did so from a weeping heart. I worry about people rejecting God and His love for them and I weep for the consequences of that rejection.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?
A. The resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of all Sunday worship and is the foundation of my faith. I can only begin to imagine what it will be like; some of the passages in the Bible paint in broad strokes a time without illness and death. I’m certain it will be a cause for wonder, though.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. When I interact with people of other faiths, I do so as a Christian leader who believes in the Christian faith. The Bible reveals the truth that my faith puts its trust in.
I’m prepared to listen and engage with gentleness and respect, to better understand others’ faith and to explain why I believe what I believe. I don’t believe everyone defines their own truth; that’s a view which doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?
A. Yes, absolutely. If I’m to be effective in talking to others about the message at the heart of Christian faith, then I need to be able to contextualise it.
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. This is a challenging time to lead in the local Church (when has it ever been otherwise?). And, yet, there’s a desire to better understand our mission; there’s an appreciation of how difficult it can be. But this has led to the Church returning to God in prayer.
There have been some truly catastrophic failures of trust in recent years and organised religion is one of the casualties of that. There’s a problem, too, of independence. We all want to be masters of our own fate; to watch what we want when we want on TV. Modern society loves independence and can focus on rights without remembering responsibility. Any sense of being told how to live is rejected.
Q.. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. The religion that has lost sight of Jesus has hurt and hindered people right across the globe, not just here.
Religion that is Jesus-centred, where people have been bound together by a common goal to build His kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, has given hope in Northern Ireland and elsewhere that society can be better..
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music?
A. The film would be Goodbye Mr Chips, the book Gordon MacDonald’s Building Below the Waterline and the music Frances Black’s The Sky Road..
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Worshipping with other Christians.
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. My wife normally reads this answer first. Yes, but I’ve learned to remember that God’s forgiveness is for me, as well as others. I regret not learning more quickly from my previous mistakes.
Thought for the weekend
By Rev Craig Cooney
Apparently, the average Facebook user has 338 friends. Don't be too discouraged if you have significantly less, especially if you're more advanced in years. The older you are, the lower the number tends to be.
The word 'friend' has really been redefined by social media. In the not-so-distant past, our 'friends' meant the people we physically spent time with; our neighbours, colleagues and companions. Now, becoming a friend involves ticking a box on the screen of our mobile phone. 'Unfriending' is just as easy.
What constitutes real friendship? In John 15:15, not long before his death, Jesus said this to his closest followers: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you."
Let me share a few things I see from Jesus' words. Firstly, friendships change over time. Jesus' disciples moved from being servants to friends.
As individuals we can't help but change as the years progress. Our circumstances evolve and our friendships must develop and grow with those changes. I still have a friendship with the guys I lived with at university, but we're all husbands and fathers now. However fun it might be, it would be unrealistic to plan a two-week lads' holiday with them. Adapt and allow relationships to change.
Next, real friendship requires honesty and openness. Jesus tells his friends that he is sharing everything he knows with them. For relationships to flourish there must be some transparency and vulnerability. We trust our friends enough to risk letting them see the parts of our lives we would prefer to keep hidden.
Lastly, friendship chooses commitment over convenience.
Jesus said: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13) It takes little effort to tick a box on a screen. Real friends are willing to sacrifice and share, even if it involves discomfort or personal cost. For Jesus, this meant laying down his life. He literally loved us to death. In a world of increasingly shallow and superficial relationships, real friendship is rare.
Be thankful for the few people who have stood (or sat) alongside you through your many joys and sorrows. Even better, find some small way to express your appreciation. It might only take a minute, but it can mean so much.