Church protesters claim legal backing
More fuel has been added to an already fiery dispute at a Ballynahinch church row.
Sunday marked the third consecutive week of protests by a group of parishioners in the rural Congregational Church against their minister, Reverend George Speers.
Tensions in the church came to a dramatic climax on September 1 as the police had to be called when churchgoers surrounded the pulpit chanting "out, out, out".
The main issue arose on June 27, 2012 after a meeting where the church trustees voted to remove the Rev Speers and his ministerial team from office.
They claim the ministerial team has since refused to leave.
Rev Speers has refuted these claims, branding the group "illegal" and the accusations "false".
Now, in the latest development the 13 trustees of the church have produced a letter which is dated September 12, from the church solicitors Hewitt and Gilpin, who have given written confirmation of the group's authority.
It states: "In accordance with the deed dates 1 February 1997 you are Trustees of the premises in which Ballynahinch Congregational Church is situate and other material assets."
In reference to the meeting at the heart of dispute the letter claims the meeting was "properly called and convened". "The Reverend Speers, Mr Stephen Walker and Mr John Galbraith refuse to comply with the resolution passed and the Reverend Speers purports to exercise a ministry at Ballynahinch Congregational Church in breach thereof," it added.
Reverend Speers declined to comment on the letter but an elderly man close to the minister who did not wish to be named said this is all just a power struggle.
The retired man said: "Hewitt and Gilpin are the lawyers for the church, but in this instance they are representing the trustees.
"The trustees have no authority to remove anyone and if the solicitors are right, then why haven't they brought him to court?"
On Sunday, before 55 members of the congregation left, the trustees attempted to read the legal letter aloud. They were allocated a time slot of 11.20am, but decided this was not appropriate.
Secretary of the trustees, Jim Magowan, said: "George Speers did not want it read out."
A further peaceful protest is planned for this Sunday.
Years of simmering tensions reached boiling point on September 1 when police were forced to intervene as protesters surrounded the pulpit. The church is divided into those who support the minister and those who support the church. The church trustees claim Rev George Speers was dismissed over six months ago but won't leave. The Reverend refutes this.