Pastor James McConnell, founder of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, has said he is “heartbroken” following the decision of his apparent successor to leave and form a new church.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph shortly before he conducted the Sunday service at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Pastor McConnell said that differences with Pastor George McKim, who left and formed a new church at Corr's Corner Hotel in Newtownabbey, was not about doctrine.
“It's about a date but I'm not saying more because I don't want to add to the speculation or the acrimony. The whole thing is breaking my heart,” he said.
Earlier this year, Pastor McConnell indicated that Pastor McKim, who returned to Whitewell in 2005 after several years of ministry in Scotland, would be his successor. However Pastor McKim left Whitewell a short time ago and opened a ‘Peoples' Church’ at Corr's Corner.
The Sunday and midweek services have attracted upwards of 350 people each time, a considerable congregation for a start-up church. A number of former members of Whitewell are attending the new church, including those who have been with Pastor McConnell for a long time.
It is reported that the first collections raised around £11,000, which marks a sizeable donation by those involved. One member attending the Corr's Corner Church confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph that more than 350 people were attending each service. He described himself as “still a member of Whitewell, “ but added: “It's a very delicate situation.”
Sources at the Metropolitan Tabernacle confirm that Pastor McConnell, who is 72, told a midweek meeting that he saw Pastor McKim as a successor “but not just yet”. Nevertheless there were widespread expectations that Pastor McConnell would hand over to his nominated successor in October this year.
Pastor McConnell confirmed that he still saw Pastor McKim as his successor, and that he was still hopeful of a reconciliation.
He said: “George is my Plan A, and there is no Plan B. I am still hoping that there will be a reconciliation.”
He added: “I hope that the Lord will melt my heart and also melt George's heart. My heart is already melted and I am trying to pull myself together. I am going down to theTabernacle this morning to preach to the people and to help to lift them up.”
The Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road is one of the biggest churches in Belfast, and it was founded by Pastor McConnell in 1957 in smaller premises in north Belfast. It regularly attracts some 2,000 people to its main services.
Pastor McKim has been unavailable for comment.