The Reverend Chris Hudson is not your conventional man of the cloth. He grew up in Dun Laoghaire in a family with a strong republican heritage, was raised as a Roman Catholic and left that church during the angst-ridden years of teenage rebellion and then flirted half-heartedly with atheism. Hudson trained as a women’s hairdresser, working in Dublin and then London, establishing quite a reputation for himself, he confides, as an “expert colourist”. Then he worked in amateur theatre, as a writer and in a post office for a time, and then went on to be a dedicated and outspoken trade unionist in his native Dublin.
He is particularly famous for his part, alongside broadcaster Sam McAughtry, in the Peace Trains Movement (for which he was awarded an MBE); at this event and others people on each side of the border united to protest against Provisional IRA attacks on the Dublin to Belfast train line in 1989.
Also unusually, for a Reverend, he came to be what is described as a critical friend of the UVF, sitting down with them to help them decide to relinquish violence and commit to the peace process in 1994.
To add to his Christian eccentricity, he has been and continues to be an outspoken advocate for the rights of homosexuals; he attended a Gay Pride parade in 2008 and has insisted that it is wrong for any Christian church – of necessity built on the idea of love – to exclude people in same-sex relationships who are also people of deep faith and strongly committed in a loving, long-term relationship.
The Rev Hudson, based at All Souls Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church on Elmwood Avenue in Belfast for the past eight years – he was ordained in 2005 – is as liberal as they come, and is therefore likely to be strongly opposed to, and has frequently elicited the ire of many within orthodox Protestantism and Catholicism – the religion of his youth.
“I have to say that for me it wasn’t ever kind of following the light or having a road-to-Damascus moment of conversion where it was suddenly clear to me that I wanted to serve God by becoming a minister,” says Hudson, a quick talker in his sing-song Dublin accent, and a man of obvious charm and eloquence.
“For most of my adult life I worked as a full-time trade union official in Dublin and while doing that I was a regular attendee of the Dublin Unitarian Church – a non-subscribing Presbyterian denomination.
“I did a three-year course there training to be a lay minister and I was very comfortable in this role.
“Then I was encouraged by the minister and others to consider going for full-time ministry and so I did and ended up here at All Souls.
“I had more of an incremental revelation of what I wanted to do.
“The union movement was all about battling issues of people facing hardship, trying to win justice for them and so on - for me ministry in the church was a progression and in some ways seemed like quite a similar vocation.”
I ask Hudson why specifically he chose to devote himself to a life of service to God specifically though- –after all one can work with people in a variety of professions; the choice of religious ministry is a hugely specialised one; ministering to the word of God is hardly the same as working in the trade unions, whatever the superficial parallels.
“I would always have felt, for most of my adult life, that I had a personal faith and that faith, for me, is expressed in a Christian way,” he explains.
“But I am not a very traditional Christian and I am not a very orthodox minister. All Souls is a very liberal church and my ministry similarly expresses this liberal view.
“But I must emphasise that I have a very firm faith in my understanding of God and I have a very firm faith of how I learn from the person of Jesus, from the moral teaching he espoused and from the way he told us how we should lead our lives.”
I ask Hudson about his years of apostasy; first he rejected the Catholic faith; then he made a conscious decision to turn away not just from the dogma of this church, but also from belief in God.
“I was about 16 when I made a conscious decision to turn away from Catholicism. It was the 1960s and 70s – many of us as teenagers would have felt that this faith didn’t satisfy all our needs.
“I didn’t agree with aspects of the Catholic church’s doctrine particularly its teaching on matters relating to sexuality.
“I also had doubts about the existence of God as I think many young people do. My atheism was always built on flimsy ground though - I mean I was never Richard Dawkins or anything like that.”
He discovered liberal Protestantism or Unitarianism – known here in Northern Ireland as Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism – while working in the trade unions and from friends in the acting world, and soon felt he wanted to attend and “be part of something that gave me a true sense of a moral code to live by.
“I had always retained a sense of my spiritual nature, and I was so interested in the philosophy of an open, free-thinking religion.”
Becoming a lay minister for some years, he soon moved to full ministry after having a deeper sense of his relationship to God.
“I began to feel God being revealed to me; I began to understand for the first time perhaps what we mean when we say ‘God’. It’s a personal revelation and intuition that is certainly difficult to explain. I feel I understood for the first time what it meant to believe in God.”
Hudson’s friendship with the late PUP leader David Ervine and his status as a ‘critical friend’ of the UVF is another point readers may be intrigued by; how can a minister befriend terrorists, some may ask? And yet wouldn’t Jesus have maybe sat down and talked with them and tried to convince them to change their ways? Isn’t it the Christian way to love everyone, even your enemies, even those who have done wrong or sinned against us?
Was Hudson guided by Christian principles when he sat down to talk with the UVF?
“I regard myself as a sinner,” he says adamantly. “In fact in the past I led a pretty raunchy life that would probably make a good film, so therefore I see no difficulty in sitting down with men who have been involved with the UVF because I am a sinner, just as we are all sinners.
“Many of the men [within loyalism] have done terrible things which they should not have done. However, many of them equally have done things which have helped to transform Northern Ireland by committing to the peace process.
“The IRA and UVF ceasefires helped create the space for politics to move forward in Northern Ireland.”