Rt Rev Dr William Henry: 'No one likes the prospect of death, but as I sat with my dad as he breathed his last, I read in Romans: 'He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies.'
In conversation with Rt Rev Dr William Henry
Rt Rev Dr William Henry is Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). He is married to Nora, a chemistry teacher, and the couple have three children, Bethany (21), Megan (18) and Connor (15).
Q. Can you tell us something about your background?
A. I've been the minister of Maze and Ballinderry Presbyterian congregations, just outside Lisburn, for the past 23 years. I'm 51, married to Nora, who is a chemistry teacher (we met when we both studied chemistry at Queen's University, Belfast) and we've three children - Bethany (21), a medical student, Megan (18), a dental student, and Connor (15), who's at Wallace High School. I'm originally from Mallusk, where I attended the local primary school and, later, Antrim Grammar School. I am the only child of William and Eileen Henry, who gave me the opportunities to develop my own strengths and find my own way in life. My dad worked in manufacturing, including Michelin and other heavy iron-casting plants.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. I have always had an unusual sense of the presence of God in my life and a desire to know God even when I hardly ever went to church. We got a new minister in 1983, the Rev Roy Mackay, who started a Sunday youth fellowship and, very soon, I learned what I needed was simply to accept the forgiveness Jesus had already won for me by his death on the cross. Seeing Jesus as the one who connects sinful humanity and a Holy God was transformational for me. Jesus didn't die for a part of me, but all of me. For the Gospel to be real and to be seen to be real by people who are not yet believers, they must see that it affects everything, from attitudes to actions. That's part of showing Jesus is worth believing, because he changes my life.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?
A. I genuinely believe that God has given me an unusual gift of faith which has kept me secure in my following after God and for that I'm thankful. Looking back over the difficulties I have experienced during my life, I am reminded of his good care of me and that gives me more confidence for the future.
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Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. I am as confused as anyone why certain things happen; for instance, why a family member suffers ill-health that robs them of the joy of living. Recently, I've been with people who have been horrifically hurt, physically or emotionally, through what we term the Troubles and it causes pain in my soul as to why this had to happen. I always find it helpful to talk to God about these moments of pain and I rest in the fact that the light of Jesus shines even in the darkness and I can trust him for what I don't know.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. There is always criticism in some form and none of us are perfect, but I try to be empathetic and always willing to listen.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own church?
A. I've never been ashamed, but there are many times I've been frustrated, because any large institution can be very slow to act. We live in days where we constantly witness change and shifts in attitudes and, inevitably, these changes impact upon the Church as people might think the Church is remote and not connected to real life.
As a leader, I want to strive to encourage the Church consistently to point to Jesus as our only hope in life and death and, in our efforts to do that, it might mean a change in how we do things. I think this is particularly relevant for the younger people of our society and I have a keen interest in them. Our focus must always be on ensuring that we are enabling people to encounter Jesus and not to let anything stand in the way of that.
As soon as any denomination makes the first decision to preserve the institution, rather than focus on its mission, it has already lost its way.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. No one likes the prospect of death. But as I sat with my own father as he breathed his last breath, I read in Romans 8:11: "He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies." That's my confident hope, too.
Q. Are you worried about hell?
A. I believe, when Jesus died on the cross, that he triumphed over all sin and disgrace and he gives me the hope of being in heaven with himself. For me, that's the Gospel in a nutshell. That's part of why I do what I do. I want others to share in the joy and excitement of knowing and experiencing God's best.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection? And, if so, what will it be like?
A. Apparently, my grandfather used to joke about a house opposite the gate to a cemetery near home. He often said: "You wouldn't want to live there, because you'd be trampled to death on resurrection morning." I believe it will be wonderful and glorious, just as the Bible describes it, with no more pain, or sorrow, or tears, as we are lifted from decay to enjoy the fullness of God.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. We are free to chose for ourselves our beliefs and we should respect those beliefs. I have always believed strongly in the freedom of conscience and it's a shame that, too often, we think there is something to fear from others who think differently.
Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. One of the things that has particularly impressed me this year, as I travel as Moderator, is the passion that so many local Churches have for their communities and the desire they have to love their neighbourhoods in practical ways. Of course, this is hard and costly and that's why Churches haven't always done it well and perhaps have retreated within their own walls. But there is no excuse for not working boldly for Jesus.
Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?
A. Distractions. There are so many issues and activities that can fill our vision and our time. My thinking here has been helped by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who writes that these distractions are like a box that perfectly insulates us and we believe we are content with what we already know. To get people to think differently, we need to lob a new thought over the wall of that box. That happens when we are captivated by an entirely new thought, or we see something that we were not expecting. That's why I believe it is essential for Churches not simply to talk faith, but to demonstrate it in practical, good actions - for example, Christians who give up their time working with the homeless or visiting prisoners. That's the unexpected actions that make others think, "Why would you do that?"
Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?
A. Where people have used religion to reinforce stereotypes and assumptions of political differences, then it is bad. However, the Gospel is about grace and seeking the hurting and offering hope in Jesus. We often do a slot in our church services called "This time Tomorrow", which allows one of our members to say what they will be doing on Monday morning. This enables us to see the impact of individual Christians, living their daily lives, honouring Jesus as they do it.
Q. Your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. In music, I prefer acoustic guitar, so it might be someone like Ed Sheeran, or Jack Johnson. In books and films, it's a close call between any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Harry Potter series, which have lots of action, but at their core have a strong sense of good versus bad, with good prevailing.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. Anywhere I have an open Bible in front of me and I'm allowing those words to touch my life, whether alone or worshipping with God's people.
Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?
A. Being overly hesitant about telling others about Jesus.