The Irish News: Lives remembered – Rev Mervyn Kingston

Life and ministry of modern day ‘Santa Claus’ spent reaching out

If there was a theme that resonated throughout Mervyn Kingston’s Church of Ireland ministry, it was ‘reaching out’.

In parishes across Belfast, Down and the Armagh/Louth border, the gay cleric stretched out a hand of friendship and understanding wherever he went.

In south Armagh, the east Belfast Protestant developed a love of the Irish language – he would often recite the Lord’s Prayer as Gaeilge – as he worked to bring communities together.

Living out the Gospel imperative to love God and your neighbour, Rev Kingston also reached out to marginalised members of all Irish Churches.

He was supportive of mixed marriages, divorcees who wished to have their relationships blessed in church and same-sex couples.

The 65-year-old directly challenged Church teaching too – he was a driving force behind the organisation Changing Attitude Ireland (CAI) which lobbies for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in Church life.

George Mervyn Kingston was born in 1947 in Florida Drive in east Belfast. His father was a fitter from Co Cork and his mother was from Co Tyrone.

He attended Nettlefield School and Willowfield Parish Church and both were important influences – Nettlefield prepared him for Grosvenor High School and an early career in social services, while the busy, progressive parish of Willowfield lit the fire of his vocation to ministry.

On being ordained he gave up his job at a benefits office in west Belfast, where his sympathetic approach had earned him the nickname ‘Santa Claus’.

In a varied ministry Rev Kingston would serve Comber, St Donard’s in east Belfast, Down Cathedral, St Andrews at the top of the Shankill Road and the small Protestant congregations on the Armagh/Louth border.

He preached a practical Christianity as the Troubles raged around him, preferring to see the best in people and promote accommodation.
Ecumenics was non-negotiable.

He welcomed Catholic friend Fr Joseph Campbell in his robes to his installation at St Andrew’s in the loyalist Glencairn estate and parishioners were later treated to a sermon from a nun.

In his last incumbency at Creggan, Ballymascanlon and Rathcor on the south Armagh border, Rev Kingston encouraged close working relationships with the Catholic majority, securing major European Union funding to transform the land around Creggan church into the public park known as Poet’s Glen.

His appreciation of the rich gaelic heritage of the area led him to train as a tour guide to Creggan graveyard near Crossmaglen – burial site of the ‘Red Hand’ O’Neills – where he would greet visitors in Irish picked up in evening classes.

If ecumenism was one elephant in the room to be confronted, the other was homosexuality.

At his funeral, Canon Charles Kenny described how he had for many years been drawn to “quiet involvement in mixed marriages, to help with, encourage and sometimes to offer private blessings for mixed couples or for divorced couples not welcome in their own church who still wanted a Godly benediction on their union”.

“Mervyn is among those who came, after much thought, study and prayerful consideration, to a similar openness towards same gender couples,” he said.

“Christians who were gay were beginning to emerge from the shadows in the 1980s and Mervyn was among them.

“But there was a change of gear, a new burst of energy, with the setting up of Changing Attitude Ireland in 2007.

“Here for the first time was concerted public involvement by church men and women, gay and straight, within the Church of Ireland and all other Irish Churches, pointing out simply the unjust and socially damaging and downright cruel nature of conventional Christian dismissal of the unhappiness and anxiety of gay Christians.”

Rev Kingston was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002 and finally lost his battle with ill-health on August 2.

He is survived by his partner of 24 years, fellow CAI founder Richard O’Leary, as well as his twin sister Jill in Australia, cousins and many friends.