A matter of hours after receiving his eighth consecutive daily dose of radiotherapy, Bishop Alan Abernethy invited me into his home to talk faith.
The Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor has recently opened up about his battle with depression, his childhood woes and admitted that he had to refocus his faith having lost sight of the original awe that led him to the church.
His new book ‘The Jewel In The Mess’ discusses these topics at length, with Bishop Alan commenting that being part of life’s mess has made him a more compassionate person.
The 62-year-old said: “I hadn’t lost my faith, but I had questions like everybody else. I just wanted to go back to the very basics of what brought me to the point of offering my life to serve God and the Church.
“It was Jesus. I wanted to examine this person who I’ve sought to follow all my life and in a sense rekindle that first love. I never lost my faith but I was trying to just refocus it.”
He continued: “From my perspective, when you’ve spent 25 years in parish life in one shape or form, when you’ve buried young children, when you’ve been with parents after a cot death, when you’ve been with a father whose son has just committed suicide, when you’ve watched those people suffer, you’ve got to wrestle with it.
“You can just say this is all fine, it’s not all fine. Life is really difficult and painful and messy for people.
“So what’s the Christian message into that? For me it’s that Jesus came into the mess of the world, he didn’t fix it, he lived among us, touched many lives, died and rose again. He didn’t fix it but he somehow gave us a message ever since – let’s be with people in their mess and be there for them and be God to them.”
Of his book he said: “For years I’d wanted to do this. I’d wanted to write a book about Jesus – the jewel in the mess.
“Also I wanted to wrestle with what I believe is a very important theological principle for the church today that our role is not to fix people or sort their lives out, it’s to be with them in the mess.”
Discussing his mental health issues, Bishop Alan said: “I’ve experienced depression. You can never be absolutely certain where that stems from, but I think for me part of it came from my childhood.
“My dad disappeared when I was very young. I suppose there was always a sense of me probably feeling not good enough. I was one of the few kids in the class who didn’t have a dad, you were called all kinds of names in school.
“I suppose there was something in my mind that was never quite complete, the more I went on in life and the more I kept being there with other people’s pain there was a sense that eventually I had to realise there was something inside myself that had never been addressed, and that was my own pain, my own hurt.
“When I found myself in depression for me it was going back to that painful childhood, doing some cognitive therapy and working out why is it I find myself in this place and what can I do to behave differently.”
Of his father he said: “I was around six or seven when my dad disappeared. My brother was three years older.
“I think we saw him once after that. When you become a dad yourself you start to trace things. I eventually discovered he had died in England. I was in my 20s when he died. You’re left with all kinds of questions you can’t answer.
“If you asked me what I want someone to say it my funeral, I want to be remembered more than anything else as a good husband and a good father. I’m sure that goes back to my dad.”
Bishop Alan had taken a sabbatical from the church from May to August last year during which time he wrote his latest book. Within a month of his return, and having struck a deal with Columba Books to publish his writings, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
He said: “It was very traumatic. They had various tests and biopsies to see how bad it was, how far it had spread. It had spread beyond my prostate into some bones in the pelvic area. That wasn’t good news but the tumour wasn’t as bad as it might be.
“By the beginning of November I had to go on sick leave. From November to March I had six sessions of chemo. I had a month off treatment and I started radiotherapy on May 8.
“I’ve 37 sessions which takes me to June 28. It’s nearly a session a day. Because the cancer has spread you have to be absolutely brutal with it.
“Alongside that I’m on a new clinical trial called ADRAAD which is six four-weekly hormone injections.
Because I’m young and fit they want to give me every possible treatment now.
“The staff in the Bridgewater Street and Cancer Care Unit are absolutely amazing.”
Bishop Alan who enjoys walking, cycling and playing tennis has said he has had to curb his physical activity while he is undergoing treatment.
Asked if he believed cancer is part of God’s plan, he said: “I can’t see it. It’s just part of the this mess we live in. There’s all sorts of theological questions around that. Someone asked me recently if I was angry about having it. I said, ‘why not me? Why should I be immune from this?’
“It’s part of being human, being in the mess. I’ve never felt closer to Jesus.”
Despite dealing with the darkest parts of life, Bishop Alan comes across as an individual with a good sense of humour.
He said: “Humour is just the most amazing gift we’ve got. That’s one thing about being a dad, children help you to laugh at yourself, your own foibles.
“I’ve never had a problem with Christianity being the focus of humour in programmes like Father Ted. God had a sense of humour – he made us.”
The Jewel in the Mess can be ordered from Columba Press on 00353 (1) 687 4096 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. It is also in The Book Well on the Belmont Road, Belfast.