Why I think being the vicar is the best job in the world!

HE might wear a ‘dog collar’, but Venerable Dr Stephen McBride, Vicar of Antrim, insists he is anything but a ‘goody-goody or a killjoy’.

Stephen (pictured right) was born in 1961 in Belfast to Don and Claire McBride, and is brother to David and Naomi.

The children attended Holy Trinity Parish Church at the top of the Oldpark Road and Stephen went on to Carr’s Glen Primary School in North Belfast and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my days at school,” he told the Guardian in a far-reaching interview back in 2019.

“I participated fully in the musical and sporting life of the school, sometimes to the detriment of my academic subjects, but I have no regrets.

“I had a great childhood with my brother David and our neighbours Philip and Colin who were Catholic,” he said.

“Our different religious persuasions were never an issue for us.

“When the Troubles began, as a child, I don’t really remember being traumatised, but that is because I lived in an area that did not face the full brunt of all that developed.

“Belfast has changed so much since the peace dividend, and yet we still have a good way to go.”

Life could have been very different for the vicar, who originally had plans to be an architect.

“I always went to church, but I wanted to be an architect and drive a Porsche,” he said.

“The idea of being a clergyman when I was 16-17 didn’t do it for me, but the idea never left me.

“I studied architecture at university, but the sense of calling to the priesthood was with me from that age.

“A few people along the way encouraged this growing sense of vocation and when I started going out with Helen, our rector’s daughter, all the pieces came together.

“I completed my degree in architecture and then immediately went to Trinity College Dublin to study theology. I eventually completed a PhD in church architecture!

“Several people in the space of a few years helped confirm that the sense of calling that I had was something that had to be explored.

“Helen wanted to marry an architect rather than a minister, but she has been my greatest support over the past 32 years of ordained ministry.”

Stephen still takes a keen interest in built heritage and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1995 for research into 19th century church architecture.

“Although I would not swap my vocation for a career in architecture, I miss the creative aspect of architecture,” he said.

“I have maintained several friendships from my year group and I enjoy trying to keep up to date with modern design.

“I love to watch TV programmes that deal with architecture and engineering.

“Grand Designs and some of George Clarke’s programmes are great fun, but often come down to how big the cheque book is of the client who needs a house with eight bedrooms!

“I am in awe of how some of the great cathedrals were built without cranes and laser technology and are still standing several centuries later.

“I love the architecture of Norman Foster and Richard Rogers which shows what generation of architects I grew up with.

“It also gives me great satisfaction to see buildings in Northern Ireland that have been designed by my contemporaries.”

Aside from his passion for architecture, sport has also played an important role in Stephen’s life.

“My father was a keen sprinter and I followed in his footsteps,” he said.

“He was a successful athlete and trained with Mary Peters before she became an Olympic champion.

“Training as an athlete taught me about discipline and hard work.

“On an athletics track, you have only yourself to rely on.

“I suppose as I look at my character, my athletics training has taught me independence”

He can also be found out on the greens at Massereene Golf Club, where he is one of the Honorary Chaplains.

“I am still fiercely competitive, especially on the golf course.

“It also taught me how to manage my time and that is a skill I hope I still have.

“I managed to compete for both Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College in Dublin and was awarded colours from both universities.

“I was never good enough to be in a position where I could have been a full-time athlete, but I think I made the most of my modest talents and I hope I have carried some of the qualities I learned as an athlete into my role as a vicar.

“It isn’t the starting of a race that is important, it is finishing it.

“I gained honours at junior and senior international level and my father and I both ran on the same team and won two Northern Ireland Relay titles.

“I enjoyed the camaraderie of my athletics clubs and the feeling of being very fit.

“I miss the degree of fitness I once enjoyed and the fun of running in all weathers.

“The more sedate pastime of golf now gives me an opportunity to give vent to my competitive instinct!”

Stephen says that his fitness allows him to enjoy eating all kinds of food and sampling fine wines, without putting on too much weight!

After Theological College, he was made a deacon in 1987 and served as curate assistant in Antrim Parish.

From 1990 to 1995 he was rector of St Peter’s Parish on the Antrim Road in Belfast and then returned to Antrim as vicar in 1995 and was appointed Archdeacon of Connor in 2002.

He has been married to Helen since 1987 and has two children, Rachael, who works for Santander and Alex, who is a P7 teacher in Antrim Primary School.

And he says that one of the great things about his vocation is that there is no such thing as a typical day.

“Every day is different. It can be exciting, sad, memorable, anything but dull and boring!” he said.

Before COVID, his day typically began with a 30-minute constitutional with Helen around Antrim Castle Gardens, before prayers at 7am.

“I am usually at my desk for 8.30 to answer emails and then I could be off to school for an assembly or up to one of the two hospitals where I am chaplain,” he said.

“Afternoons can be taken up with meetings and more administration, but the best afternoons are spent visiting some of the parishioners and catching up with them and hearing about their lives.

“This is the best part of being a vicar, being with people.”

And undoubtedly that is part of ‘the job’ he is missing acutely at present.

“Evenings are also busy times.

“Our parish has over 500 families and we have a full programme of evening activities, which includes Scouts and Guides, choir practice, study group and regular diocesan administration meetings.

“I am also Archdeacon in the Diocese of Connor and that adds to the daily schedule, but it is a privilege to be able to work closely with our Bishop.”

Dr McBride is responsible for the day to day running of the parish, including the 425-year-old All Saints church building.

“It is a wonderful building which is the focus of worship for our fantastic parishioners,” he said.

“I have been vicar in the parish for 24 years and I hope the parishioners are not tired of me – I don’t think they are.

“Recently we said farewell to the Rev Aaron McAlister, my sixth curate, and hello to the Rev Peter Blake, curate number seven.

“It is great to work with a colleague and All Saints’ Parish. Antrim is large enough to require two staff members.

“I am also a hospital chaplain and spend two mornings a week in hospitals, one an acute hospital and the other a mental health hospital.

“I chair the Board of Governors of Antrim Primary School, which is one of the largest in our area.

“I thoroughly enjoy this role and the relationship I have with the school principal, Ian Gourley.

“Standing in front of a group of 300 children at junior assembly would put a smile on anyone’s face at the beginning of a day.

“As archdeacon, I also have responsibilities in our diocese of Connor with clergy support and training.”

At 10pm, Stephen finally gets to sit down.

“After work I look forward to a glass of wine with Helen.

“We have been married for 32 years and were going out for seven years before that.

“That is 39 years together. She is my best friend, my greatest support and also my most incisive critic, a role she fulfils with great tact.

“I love the time we have together and we usually catch up on a TV show we have recorded.

“We are careful that we have good quality time together at the weekends and enjoy going to the cinema regularly, eating out and catching up with Rachael and Alex.”

The clergyman says he is honoured to be involved in the lives of the community.

“I have the joy of holding a little baby in my arms at services of baptism at the beginning of their Christian journey.

“I have the privilege of celebrating at weddings and sharing with a couple as they embark at the next stage of their journey in life together and I am also often with people at the end of their lives.

“Being a vicar is one of the best jobs in all the world.

“You get to be alongside people at the most memorable and momentous moments in their lives, happy and sad.

“I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

“It is important for churches to be involved in the community.

“We can be the voice of the voiceless and speak out when things happen to vulnerable people. Although as clergy we are in a privileged position through our office, we have to earn our respect.

“In Antrim I have been involved in several community projects.

“We helped set up the first community safety partnership to help deal with sectarianism. We have met with paramilitary groups to help remove contentious flags in public areas.

“I have been chaplain to the mayor, I chair a large Primary School Board of Governors and am involved in other areas of civic life.

“Probably the most significant thing we did as church leaders was to establish a Good Friday walk of witness between four churches.

“After 17 years, our numbers haven’t decreased, in fact they have held firm with upwards of 300 people taking part each year.”

Rev McBride is also heavily involved in scouting.

“I grew up in the Boys’ Brigade and went from the Robins, joining as a five-year-old to being an officer and getting my Queen’s Badge.

“We used to have friendly rivalries with our friends who were Scouts!

“At school, I joined our school Scout Troop at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution to complete my Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award.

“My father Donald and I were the first father and son to complete the award and we had a special presentation with the Duke of Edinburgh.

“I will always be grateful to the late Ronnie Hiscocks for his welcome to me as such a late comer. He was an inspirational teacher and Scout Leader.

“Scouting where we are tends to be an organisation that although they often are connected to churches, there is no strict religious affiliation and people from all traditions and none are made welcome and mix easily.

“It is a great organisation for facilitating people from different backgrounds mixing together.

“One of our curates, the Rev Adrian Halligan, had been very active in Scouting and I persuaded him to see about starting up a unit in our church.

“From small beginnings of nine boys and three leaders we have over 60 boys and girls in Beavers, Cubs, Scouts and Explorer Scouts with over a dozen leaders and helpers. It is a great way to spend a Tuesday evening.”

“Both Scouts and the Boys’ Brigade are arenas where you make life-long friendships.

“The badge structures and the activities teach you about patience and trying to be the best that you can be.

“The thought of camping in a cold wet field isn’t my preference for a weekend away, but after every camp, I come away enlivened by the relationships that develop with our unit with the Scouts and with my fellow leaders.

“After all this time, I still don’t think I would pass a knot tying exam, but I keep on trying!”

Rev McBride says that he tries to live his life to the full.

“Sometimes people expect you to be goody goody or sanctimonious, judgemental and a kill joy,” he said.

“That is certainly not how I live my life. Life is for living and I hope I live it to the full.

“Although I am paid to be a preacher, I hope my actions speak louder than my words.

“My faith is in the background of everything I do and am but I don’t always have to be talking about it. I hope I simply live it.”

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