Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

I'm now homeless after cruel and brutal axing by Church: minister

Reverend Stephen Dickinson
Reverend Stephen Dickinson

A controversial Presbyterian minister has spoken of how a "cruel and brutal" disciplinary process led to him being removed from his ministry at two churches in Co Antrim.

Reverend Stephen Dickinson was removed from office at his churches in Cairnalbana and Glenarm last week and said the decision had left him "devastated".

The move against Mr Dickinson – who is noted for his hardline views – was taken by the Presbyterian Church's judicial commission, its highest ecclesiastical court.

The charge was "contumacy", namely wilful and stubborn disobedience, and there is no right of appeal.

It followed years of in-fighting involving the church's leadership and the congregation.

In a statement, the Rev Dickinson claimed the Church's ruling had left his family homeless.

"We have found the whole process cold, mechanical, cruel and brutal in the end, which has left us effectively homeless and with a financial package that prohibits me from being able to take on extra work to make up the shortfall and provide for my family," he claimed.

"I and my family have been left devastated by the judgment of the judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church concerning the situation in Cairnalbana.

"I was taken before the judicial commission about 15 minutes prior to them announcing their decision at a public meeting in Cairnalbana on March 27 with no prior knowledge, or even a hint of what was about to happen."

However, the Presbyterian Church's director of communications, Stephen Lynas, said it was providing both pastoral and financial support him and his family.

The minister and his entire elected body of elders, known as the Kirk Session, were removed from their posts.

Elders at Glenarm remain in their posts and are unaffected.

The investigation by the 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".

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last week, Rev Dickinson claimed his wife Sharon had suffered two nervous breakdowns as a result of years of in-fighting.

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

The Church removed the minister and the elders from office with immediate effect – and subsequently declared the congregations of Cairnalbana and Glenarm "vacant".

An interim minister has been appointed to both churches and an interim Kirk Session will be appointed at Cairnalbana.

But Mr Lynas said Mr Dickinson would be "given every support to try to find another congregation, to try to move on in his ministry".

Mr Lynas confirmed that the Presbyterian Church would continue to pay a salary to Mr Dickinson for up to 18 months.

He also said that the clergyman's family could continue to live in Church property in Glenarm for the same length of time.

"Stephen Dickinson is still a minister of good standing within the Presbyterian Church and he is eligible to apply to vacancies in congregations and can be considered to be called to other congregations," Mr Lynas said.

He said the situation had been "difficult for everyone involved" but said the Church authorities were hoping their decision would mark a "fresh start" for the congregations and their minister.

Mr Lynas added: "Disputes and divisions have been allowed to fester, to get worse.

"Nobody has really dealt with that and nobody has been able to bring about any process of reconciliation."

The judicial commission began an investigation into the two churches in October 2012, after the issue was referred to it by the presbytery of Ballymena.

Parishioners in eye of storm split on treatment of their former pastor

The snow is just beginning to thaw around the Glens of Antrim but there is little evidence of the current row within the Presbyterian Church doing the same.

It has been just a week since Rev Stephen Dickinson was removed from his two churches at Glenarm and Cairnalbana.

Sunday saw the first services at both churches since the news broke.

The congregations are split geographically, around five hilly and snowy miles between them. So, too, it appears is their opinion on the situation.

Some believe it to be "shocking", others say it was right, but many are keeping quiet about how they feel about the minister's removal.

Standing watch outside Glenarm Presbyterian Church ahead of the 11am service was church elder Robert Johnston.

The entire body of elders at Cairnalbana was removed. "There was, indeed, support for him; I think there would be if he was still here," he said.

Mr Johnston, a parishioner for more than 40 years, welcomed Rev Colin McDowell, the new minister drafted in, with a handshake.

"My responsibility is really just to lead them through this time of vacancy," Rev McDowell said.

"Of course it is difficult; any vacancy is a difficult time."

As others arrived wearing their best Sunday suits and hats, many did not want to comment about the ongoing spat. But there were some willing to publicly voice their anger.

Maureen Reid from Glenarm said that the way Rev Dickinson was treated was "disgraceful".

Holding a copy of her Bible, she said: "I've been going to this church since I was a child and in my opinion the Reverend Dickinson was very supportive throughout my time here.

"We were never asked any opinions down in Glenarm in relation to Rev Dickinson. It came as a complete shock."

She said the reasons for his departure were "scant".

"Stephen has always been professional in his approach and it has left my family quite devastated," she added.

As the service began, 12 people sat inside the little church. Two, however, stood up, refusing to remain inside with a journalist amongst them.

As the service continued, Rev McDowell urged both congregations to "be patient" while the vacancy is filled.

Five miles down the road, around 70 people filled the pews for the 12.30pm service.

But few were willing to talk about the mood within the congregation. "We are just going to worship and worship some more," one said.

Another man, however, not wanting to be named, agreed with the Church's decision.

"I think it was the right thing that he has gone. In fact, it may have been the case that he went sooner," he said.

Another woman simply said: "There is still work to be done in the church; we are still supporting the church."

In the surrounding fields of the Glens the sheep and lambs huddled together, lucky to have survived the recent blizzard.

But whether Rev Dickinson's former flock will come through this as united still remains unclear.

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