I have been thinking much recently about the death of Rev'd Ian Paisley a couple of weeks or so ago. Perhaps if the news of his death had not been eclipsed by the lead up to the independence referendum in Scotland more may have been made of it
Ian Paisley was a man who divided, and still divides opinion like few others (perhaps Margaret Thatcher?) especially in Northern Ireland.
When I heard of his death my mind went straight back to a trip to Northern Ireland in 1997 on behalf of theology faculty at Manchester University and training college where I was just finishing my ordination training.
The trip lasted around a week as I recall and was filled with remarkable experiences. I came away, having met politicians from all parties and peace groups with a perplexing set of memories of a political environment which to the outsider (I count myself as such) is almost impossible to fully understand. But at the heart of the "troubles" was not only a political divide, but also a religious one, and perhaps the largest of larger than life figures during the "troubles" was Ian Paisley. He is loved and despised in equal measure. I remember going round his church and staring at the glass windows showing stories from his life and being absolutely appalled at the arrogance of the man. That was certainly, if unfortunately true, but in the final 5 years of his time as a politician and practising minister, another Ian Paisley emerged.
In my experience, most people become more hard line and less tolerant as they grow older, but publicly at least, Ian Paisley was the opposite, reaching out in a way which due to his immense standing in his political and faith community only he could have.
In a quite staggering change of heart Ian embraced his former opponents in a way which was beguiling and effective. In a few short years the political situation became transformed.
I wrote last time about forgiveness - about asking "What would Jesus do?".
One of my memories of the trip includes a female colleague of mine innocently asking a member of the protestant faith community why they would not enter dialogue with Sinn Fein. The reply was another question - "Would Jesus have spoken to his enemies?". We looked at each other and the penny finally dropped with us. Yes, I think he did actually. I think that was the whole point of his ministry.
R.I.P Ian Paisley