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Rt Rev Andrew Forster: 'A school friend, Hazel, was ill for a long time, yet, in the midst of her sickness, her faith in God was so real, so radiant'

In conversation with Rt Rev Andrew Forster

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New role: Rt Rev Andrew Forster, the new Bishop of Derry and Raphoe

New role: Rt Rev Andrew Forster, the new Bishop of Derry and Raphoe

New role: Rt Rev Andrew Forster, the new Bishop of Derry and Raphoe

Rt Rev Andrew Forster is the newly consecrated Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe.

Q Can you tell us something about your background?

A I am 52-years-old and married with three adult children. I was brought up in Holywood, Co Down and studied at Queen's University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin. I was ordained in 1992 and I have served in various settings, both north and south of the border. On December 8 last year, I became the Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry and Raphoe.

Q In what ways did your parents shape your upbringing?

A I was very fortunate to have had the parents I had. My mum and dad, Joan and Victor, sowed seeds of faith in me. Church was a very important part of their lives. There were days when money was tight and, at those times, they always put us - my brother and sister and me - first. Trust me, that's something that stays with you.

They taught us resilience and the importance of hard work. Mum and dad died in 2017 within seven months of one another, but - and this may sound strange - there was no sense of tragedy at the end. Theirs were long lives, well-lived; they lived to see their families grow and flourish.

Q How important was education in your life?

A School had a huge influence on me. I started off at Redburn Primary, which, sadly, is no longer there. At secondary level, I went to Sullivan Upper, where I had many excellent teachers. If I may single one out for special mention it would be Rodney Brown, who's now retired. He instilled in me a love of history, which has stayed with me ever since and he was really the reason why I studied history at Queen's University.

Sullivan had a very active and engaging Scripture Union and this - along with Holywood Parish - was critical in the development of my faith.

Q How and when did you come to faith?

A I came to faith as a teenager. Ours was a church-going family and I always believed in God. However, faith became real to me in my mid-teens through the tragic death of a school friend. Hazel had been ill for a long time and yet, in the midst of her sickness, her faith in God was so real, so radiant and so attractive. Her death prompted me to ask big questions about faith and eternity and, as a result, I committed my life to Jesus.

I believe it is the most wonderful thing in the world to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Faith in Him is the driving force of my daily life. I readily admit to getting things wrong and messing up occasionally, but I have always found the love of God compelling and gracious and know that He is always ready to give me another chance.

Q Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A Sometimes, as a pastor, I have had to journey with people through the toughest and hardest times of their lives. We've looked for answers that have never seemed to come. Sometimes, faith has been about hanging on to God even by my fingertips, but I've always held on.

Q Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?

A I don't think I've ever been angry with God, although at times I have despaired at circumstances that people go through that just seem so unfair. I know that God's shoulders are broad enough to take our anger. There have been times when I have struggled to see His light in very dark times. Yet, as I look back on those dark times, I have always found God to be faithful.

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

A Occasionally, I do get criticised for my faith. I am always ready to talk to anyone who disagrees with me. At his penultimate Diocesan Synod, my predecessor, Bishop Ken (Good) quoted 1 Peter: 3:15: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." I think that's sound advice on both counts.

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

A The Church is a family that, at times, gets things right and, at other times, gets things wrong. When the Church sees itself as an institution, it can become defensive and preoccupied with power and reputation. Hopefully, when we see ourselves as family, we grow in humility and treasure both those who are members and those who are not.

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

A I'm not afraid of death, but I'm not exactly looking forward to the process.

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

A Yes, I believe in the resurrection. The empty tomb of Easter morning never fails to excite and amaze me. As for what resurrection will be like, I leave that with God. I love the quotation from Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Q What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A Over the years, I have learned a lot from other denominations. I like to think of other Churches as different parts of the same family.

Q Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A I could never imagine stepping out of my own faith, but I'm always interested in what other people believe and why they believe it.

Q Do you think that the churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A I believe the Good News of Jesus Christ is always relevant, bringing hope and help into people's lives. There are many churches that are doing amazing work that positively impacts their communities. Unfortunately, though, and far too often, we have managed to make following the most radical person ever to have walked the face of the Earth seem mundane and irrelevant. That's quite an achievement.

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

A People I speak to, who have turned away from the Church, give lots of reasons why. Sometimes, it can be linked to past hurts, with failings in the Church driving many away. Also, there is no doubt that the secular culture of today has relegated 'religion' to being a holy hobby for the few, rather than the life-enhancing faith that Christianity is for so many followers of Jesus.

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

A I often balk at the word 'religion'. For me, it seems to signify simply an outward show, rather than an inward transformation. If religion is superficial - just about appearance - then it is hypocrisy and we have certainly had our fair share of that. Religion does tend to hinder, whereas real faith in Jesus Christ can liberate and transform.

Q What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?

A I'll resist giving the obvious answer to my favourite book (that's far too predictable for a Church of Ireland bishop). I'm a very keen reader, though, across a wide variety of genres. I studied history at university - an interest that has remained with me - and I especially love a good biography.

My favourite film is Out of Africa. I have had the privilege of travelling to Africa on numerous occasions. The cinematography in this film captures the beauty and majesty of Africa wonderfully. I have a wide taste in music, but my go-to singer has to be Van Morrison.

Q Where do you feel closest to God?

A For the outdoors, it is always Castlerock beach, my all-time favourite place. I always feel close to God when worshipping Him with my Church family.

Q What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A I'll let my family have the last word when the time comes (so I'd better be good to them in the meantime!).

Q Finally - have you any major regrets?

A I regret I'm not fitter, but I can do something about that.

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