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Church of Ireland minister offered to fight parishioner in dispute over rectory

By Lyra McKee

Published 14/10/2015

The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, with Rev Brian Stewart (left), rector of St George’s Church, in Belfast
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, with Rev Brian Stewart (left), rector of St George’s Church, in Belfast
St George’s Church in Belfast

A Church of Ireland rector threatened a parishioner - offering to fight him, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

The altercation was one of a number reported to Church of Ireland authorities concerning the Rev Brian Stewart of St George's in Belfast city centre. It is understood that Rev Stewart has been the subject of at least three complaints.

One recent complaint was made by the wife of another Church of Ireland priest, Maire Foster, who said that Rev Stewart had ordered her into his office at the church and shouted at her for 10 minutes after she challenged him during the church's AGM in April. He then told her that he wanted her to leave the church.

The next day, he informed her that the monthly Irish language service she ran at the church was being suspended.

While her complaint is currently being investigated, two charitable projects she helps run - Men to Men and The Joseph Project - have been ordered to leave St George's, where they were based.

Two years before Ms Foster's complaint, a remarkably similar complaint against Rev Stewart was made to Bishop Alan Abernethy in 2007 by another member of the church, Colin Armstrong.

Mr Armstrong claimed that a dispute with Rev Stewart ended in the Rector's office, where Rev Stewart shouted at him for 20 minutes and waved his fist in his face.

Afterwards, he alleged that Rev Stewart told him it would be better if he left the church "at least for a little while". Mr Armstrong is autistic and has a history of suicidal depression.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Armstrong said that Rev Stewart was aware of his mental health issues, as he had visited him during his stay as a voluntary patient at a psychiatric unit in Belfast between 2006 and 2008. Mr Armstrong waived his anonymity to speak to the newspaper.

Mr Armstrong told the Church of Ireland representative investigating his case, Belfast Archdeacon Stephen McBride, that Rev Stewart had told him about an altercation with another parishioner after he complained about his children - an incident confirmed by Ms Foster, who was present when it happened.

It is understood that, at one point during a dispute over the sale of St George's rectory in 2007, Rev Stewart told the parishioner: "Let's go outside and settle this like gentlemen".

Ultimately, the Church of Ireland investigation found in favour of Rev Stewart, declining to pursue any disciplinary action against him. Summarising his findings, Archdeacon McBride attributed blame for the dispute to Rev Armstrong's "condition", saying it could cause stress to others.

Archdeacon McBride also declined to reopen an investigation into prior complaints made against Rev Stewart, when a delegation from the church visited the Bishop of Connor to make a complaint about the minister's behaviour during the dispute over the sale of the rectory.

He wrote: "I decided not to re-open what I understand to have been a time of tension in the parish over differing views about the purchase."

A subsequent appeal upheld the archdeacon's conclusions.

Rev Stewart's history of temperamental behaviour appears to pre-date the 2007 complaint made to Bishop Abernethy.

In a letter to the Irish Times, dated March 8, 2001, written in response to another letter the newspaper had printed from Rev Father David O'Hanlon, which was critical of the Church of Ireland, Rev Stewart wrote: "I would respectfully request that a Roman Catholic bishop, preferably a former Gaelic, or rugby forward apply a suitably shod episcopal toe to Father O'Hanlon's posterior ... should there be any difficulties finding an episcopal, or clerical, volunteer in Father O'Hanlon's own Church, then I, as a priest of the Church of Ireland and purely in the interest of better relations, humbly offer my services. I wear a size 12 boot, which should do nicely."

In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph, the Church of Ireland said: "The Diocese of Connor is concerned at the factual accuracy, or otherwise, of assertions put to us by the Belfast Telegraph.

"Since 2009, the diocese has operated a process whereby complaints are investigated. This process provides for a review of any decisions reached following any investigation.

"All complaints are treated confidentially to protect the data protection rights of both complainants and the Church's staff and clergy, as well as ensuring compliance with employment and equality legislation.

"In those circumstances, it is not appropriate to comment further on these matters."


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