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Church of Ireland minister steps aside after British Legion flags row

By Noel McAdam and Rebecca Black

Published 12/10/2015

Rev Kingsley Sutton
Rev Kingsley Sutton
Stand-in minister Scott McDonald leaves St Patrick’s Church of Ireland in Newry
Bishop of Down and Dromore Harold Miller who stepped into the row
Parishioners leave the church
The church at centre of row

A Church of Ireland rector has stepped aside after a row with parishioners over the removal of Royal British legion flags from churches in Newry.

The Rev Kingsley Sutton "acted against the clear instruction" of his Bishop in removing the flags from St Patrick's and St Mary's partner churches, a statement said yesterday.

The Bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Miller, added he had asked Rev Sutton to "step back" for a period to try to settle the dispute.

The severe rebuke for the Rev Sutton came in a statement which said "every attempt" is being made to resolve the row following the replacement of the British Legion flags with a white flag which includes a red heart.

Rev Sutton had told the congregation his decision to take the flags away was to declare "a break from the past".

In his parish newsletter he admitted his actions might have seemed unusual "and even very hurtful.

"I have nothing against the good work of the Royal British Legion... however, I have intentionally removed these flags to declare a break from the past and a shift into a new hope, a hope that is embodied in the two new flags."

He explained they were part of a Global Day of Prayer organised in the grounds of Stormont Estate and the heart symbolised "God's love for us all".

But a statement which was read at morning services at both churches yesterday said the Newry rector had "acted against the clear instruction of the bishop in removing Royal British Legion flags...

"In light of this he has been asked by the bishop to step back from ministry for a period of time as every attempt is made to find a resolution.

"The diocese will be holding the rector, the parishioners and all concerned in prayer over this difficult time."

Rev Sutton was not present for either morning service yesterday but an accompanying statement denied claims that he had also barred the Loyal Orders from holding services.

A statement issued on his behalf by the Diocese of Down and Dromore stated: "This is not the case."

Ill-feeling within the church showed little sign of dissipating, however, after it was claimed the Minister "insulted" people who gathered for a special service to commemorate the signing of the Ulster Covenant on Sunday, September 27, though Apprentice Boys Governor Jim Brownlee, who was also at the service, said he felt comments made by Rev Sutton were profound and said they could have been interpreted in a number of ways.

Enniskillen man Blaine Bailey was among the estimated 400 Apprentice Boys present at St Mary's in Newry following a parade during which a wreath was laid at the cenotaph - an annual parade dating back 103 years.

Mr Bailey told the Belfast Telegraph that the Rev Sutton said next year's service should be one of repentance and criticised those who signed the Ulster Covenant.

"We had no idea he was going to insult us until he started his sermon warning us that we might not like what he was going to say," Mr Bailey said.

"He said next year's service should be a service of repentance.

"He said it was so wrong to ever bring politics and religion together, that the Covenant should not have been signed by members of the clergy and that anyone who signed it should repent.

"This was very strange because obviously we were there to give thanks to God that so many had signed the Covenant, it saved Ulster from peril.

"What made it so much worse for me is that I am a member of the Church of Ireland. I was so insulted to be sitting in my own denomination and being insulted like that."

Mr Bailey said the hundreds of Apprentice Boys present were horrified by the sermon and that some even heckled Rev Sutton as he spoke.

"Some walked out during the service, some - including me - refused to shake the minister's hand on the way out the door and some even heckled during the sermon.

"There were about 400-500 people in the church, including Jim Brownlee, the Governor of the Apprentice Boys, sitting in the front row.

"There was a coach load of us from Fermanagh, but we wouldn't go back if it is that same minister again."

But Mr Brownlee disagreed with Mr Bailey, and said there were a number of interpretations that could have been taken of Rev Sutton's comments.

"I think his intention was bringing people back to God and the fundamental principles of being born again," he said.

"That has been interpreted in a number of ways.

"I believe in freedom of worship and it is up to individual clubs whether they would wish to return to the same church next year."

Last week the Belfast Telegraph revealed parishioners claims that the removal of the flags was the latest in a number of incidents which included modernising services and also banning the Orange Order and Royal Black Preceptory.

A spokesperson for the Diocese added: "The diocese very recently became aware of the current issue in St Mary's and is taking a closer look at the situation.

"Meanwhile, we ask those involved to exercise Christian grace and restraint."

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