I feel really moved to hear of the passing of Helen Steven, someone who radiated peace. She wasn’t someone I had seen much since the early 1990s, when she had blown my mind at a week on Iona. She was like someone I had never met before. She was telling me how she couldn’t speak at the CU at her local university because she wouldn’t sign the statement of faith. It wasn’t that she disagreed with any of its contents, as a Quaker she just couldn’t accept any summary of faith which was written down, she believed in something and someone beyond the limits of words.
At that point she had spent a year in Northern Ireland, she said that you couldn’t know anything about a conflict until you had been there with people and heard their stories. At that time I didn’t know what she meant. As long as you watched the nine o’clock news (as was), you could have a fairly good idea of what was going on in the world. It wasn’t until I met my hardline Protestants in Belfast in the late 1990s that I knew what she really meant.
The person who taught me that was Ken Newell, Rev. Ken as the Catholics call him, or Father Ted as he was frequently called on account of his whitened hair (Ken belongs to a trio of folk with heavy mops of whitened hair who have profoundly shaped my life – the other two being Martin Scott and Mark Sundby).
I remember the first Sunday I went to Fitzory Presbyterian – the Belfast Church where Ken was minister for almost thirty years. When I was there Ken talked about the heartbeat of love far out in the universe, which was God, and the three great friends the Father, the Son and the Spirit (at this he showed a picture of Rublev’s famous icon). This was so deep and so rich, and so profoundly hit me after a series of Church services where people had engaged in cheap catholic bashing. His great friend Father Gerry Reynolds was similarly influenced by his meditations on the Trinity, which revealed the diversity of God.
Ken had been on a real journey learning not to hate. His had been the hatred of all Catholics who weren’t Christians, and then the next people he had to learn not to hate were his own side when they turned on him for going soft. He had this great heart, but a real toughness underneath it. He would fight to keep people talking, he would fight for peace but never with violence. This was really tough. It wasn’t easy to be a reconciling Presbyterian clergyman in the 1980s and 1990s. You were treated like a traitor. One of the tactics adopted by Ian Paisley and his allies in the 1980s was to note the names of any clergymen who appeared to be involved in ecumenical activity. One intern remembers that his job was to go through local newspapers, and taking the names of any clergy who were doing work with Catholics. This is detailed in Dennis Cooke’s biography of Ian Paisley, “Persecuting Zeal”. Although the link can’t be proven, it seems likely that this activity was linked to the playing of flute bank music down the phone, often late night or in the early hours of the morning, to many clergymen involved in ecumenical activity.
I’ll never forget the time he called Sinn Fein mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskie, a liar for denying that the IRA had anything to do with the Northern Bank robbery of 2004. Because Ken had spent his life as a peacemaker he had the moral authority to say such a thing. From any other Protestant clergyman it would have seemed like point scoring, but everyone knew that Ken was far bigger than that.
He also greatly encouraged me as a minister and a preacher. One early story I had told, comparing the night shift in Safeway Comely Bank (these hard guys with their tattoos and their skills with a pallet knife) with the Christmas shepherds was one he kept reminding me of. He isn’t threatened by other people’s talents, he loves to see them grow.
Helen Steven had a big impact on me during one week on Iona. For all the shortness of the time with here, I still hope I have something in me that was put there by her. I know that I got many things from Ken, and am so so grateful.