Reverend John Faris is Minister Emeritus of Aghada and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Cork
Q. Tell me about your background
A. I was born in 1952 not far from Queen’s University where my father John taught Philosophy and my mother Mary was a part-time Latin teacher. I have three brothers and I am married to Heather with adult children, Naomi and Peter. I am an Instonian boy and I acquired degrees from Oxford, Glasgow and QUB. This makes people think I am more learned than I am.! I was a Presbyterian minister in County Fermanagh for seven years and then In Cork for over 28 years. I retired in 2017 and we now live near Bangor.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. As a teenager I was powerfully struck by Isaiah 40.8 “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God endures for ever.” That convinced me of the reality of God. Shortly afterwards I responded to my minister’s challenge in church membership class to make Jesus the centre of my life and found an unexpected peace.
Q. Does this faith play a real part in your life, or is it only for Sundays?
A. You cannot leave the living Christ in a cupboard with your Sunday suit.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis or a gnawing doubt about your faith?
A. I struggled for years with spiritual depression but I was also given a deeper experience of God’s love, being refreshed by “the sunshine of his love”.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God ?
A. The spiritual depression had its roots in anger against others and a sense that God had not helped me, and that I was failing as a minister. But I was brought to see that I had shut God out, as if I had sat in a locked room with blinds drawn against the sun’s brightness. His love for me does not depend on my successful performance.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith?
A. Increasingly Christians are mocked and marginalised and told to keep our opinions to ourselves. We need to find ways of “speaking the truth in love”.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own church or denomination?
A. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is not perfect, but what Church is? A Scottish minister who served here told me that we are a warm - hearted evangelical denomination, but with a huge inferiority complex. It is so refreshing to meet Christians from Gujarat in North India who love Irish Presbyterians because our missionaries helped them find faith in Christ.
Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?
A. When I had a big operation last year, I was afraid, but I found great comfort in saying the 23rd Psalm to myself “The LORD is my shepherd …” I had a sense that what we think to be the worst thing is with God the best thing, to be with him for ever.
Q. Are you afraid of ‘hell-fire?”
A. “Hell fire” is a vivid picture of how God deals with all that’s dirty and wrong. The other picture used by Jesus is of exclusion from the party. That is awesome and sobering, to be excluded from God’s presence for ever.
Q. Do you believe in a resurrection?
A. We shall be with Christ. We shall see him face to face. We shall be like him. That’s enough to be going on with.
Q. What about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. Neither I nor people in other denominations have everything right, but we enjoy a common love for Jesus. People of other faiths and of no faith should be respected as humans made in God’s image. I enjoy dialogue, where you seek both to listen well and to share with others.
Q. Are the churches here are fulfilling their mission?
A. Church in Ireland used to be about big buildings with big congregations and not much personal interaction nor a deep integration of faith and life. `The statistics show decline ,but statistics don’t measure the intimacy of people’s walk with God and their care for each other.
Q. Why are so many people turning their backs on organised religion?
A. People world-wide have not given up on organised religion. In Western Europe people are reacting to churches which were authoritarian and oppressive, where we had forgotten how to be servant followers of the servant King.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered in Northern Ireland?
A. Both. The book “Considering Grace” published by the Presbyterian Church in 2021 sets out good and sad stories of how victims have found release, or not, through churches.
Q. Some personal preferences: your favourite film, book, music?
A. “Of Gods and Men” depicts the struggles of French monks in Algeria - should they escape or stay in the face of terrorist threats? They choose to stay and the last clip shows them being led captive through a snow storm. Not a happy ending but profoundly moving. I am (slowly) transcribing to a blog the journal 1857 to 1890 of my great- great -grandfather James Glasgow, pioneer missionary to Gujarat (RevJamesMcClureGlasgow.blogspot.com) It is a very personal account of joys and sorrows including conflicts with fellow missionaries. My uncle Alexander Faris composed the musical theme for “Upstairs Downstairs” I enjoy pieces composed or conducted by him, which are available on Spotify.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A .At the Lord’s Supper - the bread and wine are vivid reminders of the peace guaranteed to us through the sacrifice of Christ.
Q. The inscription on your gravestone?
A. The verse which first caught my attention Isaiah 40.6 “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God endures for ever.”