Belfast Telegraph

Sir Desmond Rea: The Churches have been slow to see legacy issues in light of the Christian faith... surely, they should be stating a position about the divisive nature of a hierarchy of victims

In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith

Showing the way: Professor Desmond Rea
Showing the way: Professor Desmond Rea
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Professor Sir Desmond Rea was inaugural chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and is also a former chair of the Local Government Staff Commission and the Labour Relations Agency.

He has also held several board appointments in the private sector and was formerly Professor of Human Resource Management and head of department at the-then University of Ulster. He is a former chair of the board of Methodist College Belfast and is currently chair of the board of Stranmillis University College.

Sir Desmond is married to Professor Maeve Rea and the couple have four grown-up daughters. He was appointed OBE for services to local government and knighted for services to policing.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I was brought up into my teenage years in a street, which no longer exists, off Roden Street in Belfast and adjacent to Distillery Football Club's old ground. My father, Samuel, was a hostel superintendent - it continues to meet a pressing need - and my mother, Annie, was a home-maker. My father was a committed Methodist layman and local preacher. My brother, Noel, was a lawyer in Canada and my sister, Rhonda, was a teacher. Noel has captured in a poem, Voices Not Forgotten, the home from which we came: these last three verses describe it accurately:

Behold I stand at the door

And knock. Christ's promise of unceasing

Sign In

Concern. Mum's unswerving belief,

A lifetime's faith, conviction. Lo,

I am with you always, even

To the end held firm in death's grip.

For I am persuaded that neither

Life nor death, nor things present,

Nor things to come, nor height nor depth,

Nor any other creature shall

Separate us from the love of God.

Dad's and Mum's tones though long dead.

Dad's Bible, his clear handwriting

In the frontispiece, his underlining,

His voice twenty years silent,

Speaks favourite Bible verses,

Words cascading in my memory.

Parent's inescapable legacy.

Our parents saw the significance of education and so I made my way from Donegall Road Primary School to the Model School on the Cliftonville Road, to teachers who excelled in developing children to fulfil their potential and on to Methodist College Belfast and from there, ultimately, to Queen's University, Belfast and from there latterly to the University of California Berkeley. To my surprise, I was to become an academic for over 25 years and to do other things.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. Faith was an essential part of my upbringing and, later, I was to be eternally grateful to four outstanding ministers - Sidney Callaghan, Ray Davey, Eric Gallagher and George Good. The first was a radical thinker with a unique concern for the individual and the community. The second, a Presbyterian, was a peacemaker to whom we owe Corrymeela. The third was a statesman - probably the most distinguished Methodist minister in Ireland of the 20th century. And the fourth was a pastor par excellence. I owe them all a huge debt.

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

A. Yes to 'gnawing doubt', but I am mindful of the prayer of St Francis: "Where there is doubt, faith" and I also remember committed persons, like those above, who have gone before me, and their example.

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

A. In the Methodist Church, we have an annual 'Covenant Service' and there is a particular prayer which I find difficult to pray: it contains the following two challenging lines: I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

To your pleasure and disposal.

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

A. 'Ashamed' is too strong a word. In respect of my denomination, which is the Methodist Church, the answer is rarely. In respect of 'legacy' issues, the Churches have been slow to see these issues in the light of the Christian faith and to lead. In respect of victims, our concern should be to meet their needs and, surely, the Churches should be stating a position about the divisive issue of a 'hierarchy' of victims.

Secondly, given that, if a former terrorist commits a crime prior to the Good Friday Agreement, is found guilty and is sentenced to, say, 15 years, he/she is required to serve two-and-a-half years. The same remission should apply to a soldier, or police officer, if similarly sentenced.

And thirdly, in order to embrace positively the future, should not the release of prisoners as part of the Good Friday Agreement be extended to an amnesty for all in respect of offences committed prior to that agreement?

Q. Are you afraid to die?

A. Dying and death are realities for us all. As St Francis said: "It is in dying that we are born to eternal life." That is my hope.

Q. Are you worried about Hell?

A. I will trust in God's mercy.

Q. What do you think about people of other faiths?

A. The God that I believe in loves all of us and that is a great and significant leveller.

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

A. I prefer to re-phrase the question: would you be comfortable with trying to learn something from the faiths of other people?

Of course, for example, former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is one of the most challenging voices of our times: "The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God's image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideal, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing Him to remake me in His."

Q. Do you think that the denominations and Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. I don't like judging other denominations, but let me take an example that involves a Church other than mine: a pre-requisite for a permanent teaching position in a maintained sector primary school is that the applicant must have the Certificate in Religious Studies. Recently, Stranmillis University College (SUC) was pleased to announce, in partnership with St Mary's University College, that it is able to offer on site the certificate to students enrolled in its BEd programme.

In my capacity as chair of the board of governors of Stranmillis University College, I greatly appreciate that, through the leadership of Bishop Noel Treanor and with the co-operation of St Mary's University College, this is now a reality and students who obtain the certificate on graduation will be able to apply for jobs in the maintained sector as well as the controlled sector. That is an important step forward.

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

A. It would be inaccurate and arrogant to suggest that religion has hindered us as a Northern Ireland people. Religion is nothing if it is not true to its claims. The following lines are attributed to St Patrick: "I bind unto myself today/The power of God to hold and lead." Therein lies comfort for many of us.

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

A. Each denomination must answer for itself. The Christian Gospel is as relevant today as it was yesterday; it is human beings who weaken its application. We are also short of prophetic voices, applying the Gospel to the period in which we live. It is prudent for organisations - and the Church is no exception - to remember that this is an age when authority comes also from below. It is what people consent to.

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

A. I love Trollope's Barsetshire novels. He worked for a time in the Post Office in Belfast and pillar boxes were created on his recommendation. I also have a great affection for the books of Donna Leon. As for film, it would have to be Sleepless in Seattle. I am a sucker for the work of Norah Ephron and for the performances of Meg Ryan.

As a season ticket holder for many years and a former chair of the Ulster Orchestra, that tells you of my passion for classical music. However, my musical tastes are wide.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. When listening to choral music and singing hymns, especially those of Charles Wesley.

Q. What inscription, if any, would you like on your gravestone?

A. I will leave that to others.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. I sometimes think I should have become a lawyer. However, I have had great opportunities and I have lived a privileged life, above all with my wife Maeve, our four daughters, their husbands and our eight grandchildren - five girls and three boys - and the wider family circle.

My hope for Northern Ireland is that we embrace the future and that we learn to live at peace with each other. We have much to be grateful for.

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