If the Presbyterian Church in Ireland wants to make history by electing a woman Moderator any time soon, one person likely to be under consideration is Rev. Dr Lesley Carroll, the dynamic and respected minister of Fortwilliam & Macrory Church on the Antrim Road in north Belfast.
However, Dr Carroll’s chances of assuming her Church’s highest honour are hindered foremost by her gender but also by her liberal leanings and independence of thought that combine to make her stand out from the pack in the religious and public sphere in Northern Ireland.
We met at Fortwilliam & Macrory the morning after one of the most memorable days of a ministry that goes back to her ordination more than a quarter of a century ago in 1988.
She has been minister there since 2005 having previously worked for five years as an assistant to Dr John Dunlop nearby.
The night before she had preached at the last two Masses at Clonard Novena on the Tuesday traditionally devoted to sermons from clergy from other Christian denominations. This had come hours after she had, as one of the chaplains to the new Catholic Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nichola Mallon, said Grace at the luncheon in honour of Queen Elizabeth at City Hall, dining at the same table as Queen Elizabeth II.
Lesley Carroll’s has been a ministry marked by ecumenical outreach, the attainment of an extremely influential role – Convenor of the Church & Society Committee 2005-12 – never held by a woman before in the Church and by a record of voluntary public service extending far beyond pulpit or manse to areas such as victim support and inter-communal mediation.
The most prominent example of such service was her appointment by the Secretary of State to the Consultative Group on the Past co-chaired by Robin Eames and Denis Bradley.
She describes that experience as among “the best of my life”.
She was struck by how everyone in the group were prepared to work hard “prepared to speak their mind and remain friends”.
Rev. Carroll, 51, recalls growing up in overwhelmingly Catholic and nationalist Coalisland in east Tyrone, her grandmother being the last Protestant to live in the town centre and being taught music theory by Anita Currie, wife of Austin Currie.
“We were very conscious of being a Protestant minority and there is quite a bit of minority mentality in my background.” She is one of just 20 women Presbyterian ministers out of 347 in Ireland.
“We had a defensive kind of attitude, we were on the side of the police and the army, keeping an eye out for them as it were, and others weren’t.”
She speaks “of growing up with too many ambiguities in our heads” recalling that “our good Catholic neighbours who waited up for us at 4am to give us tea and cake returning from the ferry” somehow were also considered “the enemy”.
“There were crazy dynamics in those days, friends were enemies, enemies were friends.”
As a 13-year-old she remembers being inspired to become a minister when overhearing a conversation in the car between her parents about the ordination of Rev. Ruth Patterson, the first Irish woman minister in any denomination in 1976.
“I remember chirping up from the back seat saying ‘I didn’t know women could be ministers’ and they said yes and I said that is what I will do.”
Lesley Carroll is a committed ecumenist and it is moving to listen to her recalling the origins of her outreach to Catholics.
It emerges that the sectarian double murder by the UVF of a Catholic husband and wife, James and Gertrude Devlin, who were friends of her family, had a profound effect on her.
They were killed, she says, “for no other reason than that they were Catholics, middle of the road nationalists” as they turned up the lane to their home a few miles from her home.
It was May 1974 and she was only 11 but the atrocity which left four children orphans sparked big questions in her young mind.
“Here you have good friends, as Gertie and Jim Devlin were, and you can’t go to the funerals of these good people. Why couldn’t we do that? I always thought them good Christian people like us, it seemed both raw and wrong.”
She also recalls being on very friendly terms with other Catholic neighbours including the two Fullan sisters who had two brothers who were priests on the missions prompting similar uncomfortable questions.
“When one of the priests leant on my car and blessed it, was there anything wrong with that?
“The priests would come round to our home when they came home and we’d have great craic, even say a prayer but we couldn’t [publicly] worship together and didn’t talk very much about Church matters. I just didn’t ‘get’ all that.”
Such encounters had a huge influence in motivating Rev. Carroll to take an ecumenical course that more than a quarter of a century later saw her work for an Irish School of Ecumenics, TCD PhD entitled Converting Divided Loyalties: A Reconciling Ethic for Churches in Northern Ireland under the supervision of her friend, Dr Geraldine Smyth OP, which she attained in 2006.
“I was open to exploring what it meant for the Churches to be relating positively to each other rather than to ignore each other.”
However, as a woman “I have often felt very isolated in the PCI [Presbyterian Church in Ireland] developing strategies to manage the situation” including “keeping your head down and being generous to people who are not generous to you”.
She stresses her indebtedness to many Catholic nuns who amid this sense of isolation were “very happy to be very supportive, prayerful, welcoming and kept in touch, giving me communities to be part of which my denomination didn’t”.
Such experiences, including the welcome she received at Clonard where she was warmly applauded – as every Protestant preacher is – undermines the notion that Catholics are somehow different, or not as good as Protestants, she says.
“However, that does not mean that I agree with all the theology of the Catholic Church nor do I expect the Catholic Church to agree theologically with Presbyterians on everything.”
Dr Carroll says she “loved every minute” of the convenor job finding it “very challenging and fulfilling” and it brought her right into the heart of political discourse.
She makes a point of saying it was her job as convenor to represent to the public the view of the various authorities of the Presbyterian Church beginning with the committee and proceeding right up to the General Assembly at the top.
This meant on occasion “swallowing hard” and articulating views with which she did not agree.
Such as? She would have disagreed with the Church on the Eames-Bradley Report – not surprising as she played a significant role in the writing of it – and she also volunteers that she would not have seen eye to eye with her Church on the so called ‘on the runs’, suspects or prisoners who have escaped from prison or custody.
On another issue, relating to human sexuality, she expresses “deep frustration at the PCI’s continued failure as a denomination to engage formally with the LGBT community more than a year after a decision was taken to engage”.
She puts this down to an anxiety among some in the Church that such an engagement would mean “it’s OK to be gay” even though “there are LGBT people sitting in General Assembly and in the pews on a Sunday morning”.
Her Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage is similar to that of the Catholic Church but does she agree with it? – “It is an issue we should be debating vigorously,” is all she will say.
Dr Lesley Carroll is not particularly optimistic about the prospects for a trouble-free summer while hoping to be proved wrong.
As the politicians prepare, yet again, to grapple the past, six months after Haass and five and half years after Eames Bradley her advice is: “You don’t have to do this on your own! Never say never, keep at it!”