Going beyond the church buildings and into the community

The new Methodist president believes churches will work towards senior roles for women in their own time

The Rev Dr Heather Morris will be installed today as the first woman leader of one of the four main Christian churches in Ireland. She will take over for a one-year term as president of the Methodist Church in Ireland – equivalent to an episcopal posting in Protestant church terms.

Dr Morris, a cheerful, smiling and committed church leader, is inclined not to overplay this historic distinction. “I believe my election was not an issue around gender,” she says. “I see this just as a natural progression.”

But after a brief reflection, she decides not to downplay her unique achievement: “Do I believe it’s a good reflection of the way God intends the world to be? Yes I do, because I think men and women were created to work together and there is something of God’s nature reflected in that. So I do rejoice in that.

“Do I look forward to the day when there is an Irish Church of Ireland woman bishop or a Presbyterian moderator? Yes I do, but that is for those churches to work through in their time.” Morris makes no reference to the Catholic Church and women priests, let alone women bishops.

Morris sounds ecumenical in her views and says of Pope Francis: “The way he has spoken and acted about commitment to the poor is a tremendous thing and he is speaking prophetically into those issues . . . What we see so far in Pope Francis we welcome and rejoice in it.”

Yet, as she acknowledges, the whole initial notion of women in ministry almost put paid to her love life as a young woman in Trinity College Dublin. It was while there, from 1982 to 1986, as Heather Kingston that she met Neil Morris, who was studying to be a chartered accountant

On her way to becoming a speech therapist, she felt a strong draw towards ministry. “Neil and I were going out at that stage. We broke up for a while because we could not see how you would be a woman married minister. If this was the way God was calling me then Neil would have to give up a brilliant job in Dublin, following me around the country to where the church sent me. That was a big thing for us to work out as a young couple.”

In the end the two came back together, and after college, Neil, a fellow Methodist, did pack up his bags and follow his wife. “He would see that as part of his Christian journey, as in that’s the way God called him,” she says. It was a case of all’s well that ends well. For a period, Morris acted as a Methodist lay preacher while working as a speech therapist in Dublin. Her formal studies to be a minister began at Queen’s University Belfast in 1987 and, by chance, she has been based in the city ever since. This allowed Neil to pursue his career, and she was ordained in 1992.

Morris was born in Nigeria in 1964; the Biafran war forced her family to leave four years later. Methodism and ministry run deep in the Kingston family: her father Paul was a minister, as was her grandfather.

After ordination, she took a six-year break while her two boys, Peter and David, were very young (Peter is now 20 and studying theology at Queen’s). Could there be a fourth-generation minister in the family? She doesn’t rule anything out but laughs and says: “Oh, don’t say that, for goodness sake, the poor child . . .”

Presidential priorities
As Methodist president, her first job is overseeing the church's annual conference in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, which runs until Sunday. She is conscious that just as in the Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian churches, Methodist membership is reducing.

There are now 50,245 Methodists in Ireland, compared with 53,668 in 2006. The biggest concentration – 13,171 – is in Belfast, with 2,614 in Dublin.

“I do see signs of hope,” she says, “and I believe God is at work even in the places where we are creaking.” She points, as one example, to the work of the church in east Belfast. “When we begin or continue to live lives that are distinctive and different, then broader society begins to asks questions about why this might be so. Why would it be that at 7.30 on a winter’s morning at Sydenham station, there are [Methodist] people serving coffee? That’s not logical but it does point to God’s love for that community.”

On abortion, the Methodist church believes it is allowable in cases such as rape, incest, threat to life and viability. “The Methodist Church sees life as God’s good gift and wants to protect life and sees that abortion on demand is not right, but does see that in certain narrow situations that abortion may be a permissible option.”

She believes, too, that legislation rather than a constitutional referendum is the way to deal with the suicide issue. She says it is complex but believes there are enough “checks and balances” in the legislation to prevent abuse of this situation.

On gay marriage, Morris says: “The Methodist Church believes that marriage is between one man and one woman and marriage is the place for sexual intimacy.” She is firm on this line but adds: “The church wants to stand with all folk who grapple with issues of sexual orientation and to offer pastoral care to all.”

The theme of her year as president is “A people invited to follow”. She says: “Fundamentally, that’s about following Jesus beyond our church buildings into our community. The church needs to speak about God and needs to speak about God in a way that is earthed because God is involved in the day-to-day stuff of our lives.”

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