Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Protesters abandon pews as row simmers on

Reverend defiant as furious parishioners stage second demo

The Rev George Speers greets the congregation as they leave after a morning service
The Rev George Speers greets the congregation as they leave after a morning service
Protesting members of the church make a statement after walking out before the start of the service
Protesting members of the church make a statement after walking out before the start of the service
Protesting members of the church make a statement after walking out before the start of the service
Protesting members of the church make a statement after walking out before the start of the service

A bitter feud at a Co Down church looks set to continue after worshippers abandoned their pews and staged a dramatic walk-out in protest at the presence of their own minister.

Around 60 opponents of Rev George Speers got up and walked out of Ballynahinch Congregational Church's morning service yesterday.

It was a peaceful demonstration, unlike seven days earlier when the police had to be called to quell angry exchanges between rival parishioners.

The evening service passed even more uneventfully. Around 70 members of the congregation were present and there were no protests or walk-outs.

Rev Speers has made it clear that he will not be giving up his post despite no longer receiving a salary from the church.

He maintains his removal –voted for by church-goers at a Congregational meeting in June 27 last year – has no legal basis.

However the protesters are adamant that he and his two assistants no longer have a role.

The feud has become so bitter that some parishioners are refusing to have loved ones' funeral services held at the church.

Rev Speers and his colleagues, Stephen Walker and George Galbraith, were ordered out of the church, according to protesters, because of their "dictatorial methods" and their non-adherence to Congregationalism.

Following yesterday's walkout, church trustee Sammy Graham read out a statement outlining the stance of Rev Speers' opponents.

"Our church's solicitors have indicated that the meeting (to remove Rev Speers) was legal and valid," he said.

"These three men have been removed but have refused to step down, even though they have been issued with their P45s and P60s."

Mr Graham accused Rev Speers of "taking the pulpit by force" every Sunday and added that he was disappointed with the unruly scenes of a week earlier.

But, he said, they were brought about by "frustration and deep despair which the majority of the peace-loving members have been brought down to".

Yesterday, Rev Speers, who has been in place for seven years, refused to elaborate on the statement he made at the weekend.

"I will not be deterred from preaching by the illegal actions of a group of protesters," his statement said.

"By their actions they have violated all that scripture teaches about worship and have denied others the fundamental liberty to worship without interference.

"I have been greatly encouraged by the messages of support given to me by members of my congregation, ministers from various denominations and members of the general public."

As rival factions become increasingly entrenched in a bitter row and with no end in sight to the dispute, there were mixed views from people outside the church yesterday.

Former trainee care assistant Christine Alderdice (below), from Ballynahinch, said Rev Speers had her full support.

"This row is really ridiculous. There's no sense in it at all. I didn't think they would fall out with him the way they have done," the 51-year-old said.

"He's a Calvinist. Calvinists are people who go by the Bible and I think some people think his views are too strong. But if Rev Speers left over the feud I would go with him."

Harry McNamara (78), who doesn't support Rev Speers, said he has been going to the church for more than 72 years. "We'll be here again to protest next Sunday morning. I don't know what it'll take to resolve this row," he said.

STORY SO FAR

Years of tension erupted last Sunday when Rev George Speers was jeered with whistles and chants of "out, out, out" during angry exchanges between worshippers.

The minister continued with his sermon, at one point using a megaphone to be heard over the noise. Police had to storm into the church to break up the protest.

 

Calvinist minister's views caused split in his congregation

It's a row that has split the congregation – and it's been simmering for two years.

When dozens of church members walked out of Ballynahinch Congregational Church within seconds of the minister entering the room yesterday, it marked the second Sunday in a row with very public disapproval over the Rev George Speers.

Supporters want the minister to remain preaching while others want him to go and they have vowed to continue protesting until he leaves.

The protesters – around 60 of whom walked out at the beginning of the service – are in disagreement with both Rev Speers and the way in which he is leading the church.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that Rev Speers follows Calvinism and protesters against him believe his views are too hardline.

Calvinism is described as a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and Christian practice of John Calvin and other reformation-era theologians.

The nature of a congregational church means that its members decide on its direction – there is no ruling authority.

Problems first arose in 2010 when it is claimed that Rev Speers announced to the Diaconate, the body elected by the congregation, that he and his two assistants, Stephen Walker and George Galbraith, would run the church as elders.

The 13 trustees allege that when Rev Speers realised he had opposition, he set about removing them.

On June 27, 2012, Rev Speers and his two assistants were voted out of office, according to Sammy Graham, a trustee.

"Our church's solicitors have indicated that the meeting [to remove Rev Speers] was legal and valid," he said.

"These three men have been removed but have refused to step down, even though they have been issued with their P45s and P60s."

He added: "To date they have received no monies from the church." Yesterday's protest followed on from angry scenes inside the church last weekend, when police were called to the scene amid reports that one member of the congregation was head-butted as a result of the dispute.

During last Sunday's sermon Rev Speers was jeered with chants, whistles and shouts of "out, out, out" but he continued to speak using a megaphone.

A crisis meeting was held last Tuesday, after which trustees accepted the offer of mediation through the Congressional Union of Ireland.

However, Rev Speers responded to that by issuing a defiant statement saying he intends to remain at the church.

"I will not be deterred from preaching the gospel by the illegal actions of a group of protesters," he said.

"By their actions they have violated all that scripture teaches about worship and have denied others the fundamental liberty to worship without interference.

"I have been greatly encouraged by the messages of support given to me by members of my congregation, ministers from various denominations and members of the general public.

"In obedience to God's will and with His help I intend to continue to fulfil my calling as minister of Ballynahinch Congregational Church."

The minister said he had attempted to bring about a resolution through the use of internal church structures, and had engaged in talks facilitated by third parties.

He added: "Sadly, a resolution accorded with biblical principles could not be found."

During his sermon yesterday, Mr Speers preached that righteousness was the only way out of the church's current problems.

Two police officers were on duty and they maintained a discreet presence while the Sunday service got under way.

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