Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

I'm devastated, says the minister removed from his church amid rows and allegations of intimidation

Presbyterian Minister Stephen Dickinson
Presbyterian Minister Stephen Dickinson

A Presbyterian minister has spoken out about the "devastating effect" of being removed from his congregations and churches after years of in-fighting.

Rev Stephen Dickinson, noted for his hardline views, was until recently the minister of Glenarm and Cairnalbana churches in the Antrim Glens.

However, his congregations have been left leaderless after the minister and his entire elected body of elders, known as the Kirk Session, were removed from post.

The decision was taken by the Judicial Commission, the highest ecclesiastical court of the Church. The charge was "contumacy", wilful and stubborn disobedience, and there is no right of appeal.

Confirming its decision to remove the minister and elders, the Presbyterian Church said the congregation was "riven by two factions" with "deeply fractured relationships emanating from the leadership of the Church but also penetrating into the congregation".

It is understood a breakdown in the relationship between the minister and elders over the last 10 years led to the decision.

The Judicial Commission upheld the verdict of an inquiry by Ballymena Presbytery, where Cairnalbana is situated. On July 5 2011, it ordered Rev Dickinson to read the Gospel of James and recognise, as a minister, "we who teach will be judged more strictly".

It also ordered him and the elders to reconcile, but found last year that they had failed to do so and called in the Judicial Commission to deal with them.

Rev Dickinson will be allowed to stay in the manse for up to six months and paid for up to 18 months while he decides his future.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Rev Dickinson claimed his wife Sharon had had two nervous breakdowns as a result of years of Church in-fighting which lost him his job.

"It has had a devastating effect," he said.

While a Church statement blamed a "breakdown in relations" and Rev Dickinson claimed "there was no theological disagreement, just people who decided I had to go".

"I am not bitter over that. I count it an absolute honour to have served there for 18 years," he added.

Despite these warm words, he went on to claim there had been an orchestrated campaign of anonymous phone calls against him which he reported to the police.

The Presbytery spoke, in its findings, of "a perception amongst a significant number of hearers that the pulpit was being used to 'get at' individuals."

Asked if he had done this, Rev Dickinson said "certainly my preaching seemed to be one of the issues".

However, he denied it to the Presbytery.

Firebrand preacher who found Orange Order too liberal

By Liam Clarke

Rev Stephen Dickinson has often been at the centre of controversy, and this is unlikely to be the last we hear of him.

The commission which condemned him is the Church's highest court – lawyers sit on it – but this case could eventually end up in the civil courts.

He said he has a psychiatric report showing two mental breakdowns suffered by his wife Sharon were due to the "severe pressure that was put on us from Cairnalbana", adding: "There was no theological disagreement. People decided I was to go and they forced me out."

He pointed out that he has two dependent children, including a severely handicapped son, as well as two who've left home. He also claimed his ministry went well overall in Cairnalbana, a congregation of 115 families, and Glenarm, with an additional 70 families.

"People only hear about the bad things. If you had have come to our church any Sunday you would have said 'this is a great church'," he said.

These would be good points to make if you were considering a legal challenge, and Rev Dickinson had taken legal advice.

Church sources said he will be paid an allowance for up to 18 months. The minimum stipend for a Presbyterian minister of his standing would be £24,026 per annum. He will also be allowed to stay in the manse for perhaps six months.

Just now he is awaiting God's guidance rather than a lawyer's. Asked if he will join another denomination, he said: "I don't want to make any comment on any of that sort of stuff. I was called to be a preacher of the gospel so I intend to fulfil that call in the days that lie ahead and I am looking forward to what the Lord has in store for me. He guided me from office manager to being a Presbyterian minister so I am sure he has other plans for me."

The Dickinsons are a Presbyterian dynasty. His father Bertie was Moderator in 1985 and his two brothers, Peter and John, are ministers in Muckamore and Carnmoney respectively. Born in 1956, he worked in the office supplies business before entering the ministry in 1994.

He has always been a hardliner; his highest profile was in the Orange Order where he rose to be deputy grand master. He clashed with the organisation, condemning some as compromisers. He joined the hardline Orange Reformation Society aimed at "putting Protestantism back in the Orange Order".

Asked if he regarded the modern Order as too liberal, he said: "Yes, I think they were getting away from the basis of what the Orange Order stood for in regard to the Protestant faith."

A taste for amateur comedy got him in trouble in 2005 when he was accused of mocking Pope John Paul II in a routine shortly before the Pope's death. The pontiff was suffering from Parkinson's disease. Rev Dickson apologised at the time saying he was "taking the mickey" and met the Parkinson's Society to explain. But yesterday he said: "I did not 'mock the dying pontiff', I didn't know he was dying, and I did not imitate his symptoms. I only told a joke that I got from a book I was given for Christmas."

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