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Disputes divide both congregations and families

By Rebecca Black

Published 09/10/2015

Protest: Rev Alan Kilpatrick
Protest: Rev Alan Kilpatrick
Split: Rev George Speers

The congregation at St Mary's in Newry is not the first to become involved in a dispute with their own minister.

At Ballynahinch Congregational Church, the PSNI had to intevene in heated disputes between members and there has even been a threat to burn the church down.

The Rev George Speers was at the heart of this row.

Tensions came to a head on Sunday, September 1, 2013 when police moved in to restore calm after members of the congregation stormed the pulpit just as Rev Speers began his sermon.

The congregation is split between those who supported Rev Speers and those who want him and his supporters removed.

Regular protests took place outside the church for years, with around half the congregation inside for the service while others protested outside before adjourning to the church hall for a separate service.

At one stage, a sinister text message containing a threat to burn down the church was received.

By last November, the cost of policing the protests had reached nearly £12,000, according to the PSNI.

Church trustee Samuel Graham said they had "probably not" expected the protests to last as long as they have, but blamed Rev Speers, accusing him of splitting the church, and even families.

Meanwhile in June, a Belfast Telegraph photographer was soaked with a glass of water at St Matthias Church of Ireland at Knocknamuckley close to Portadown following months of tension among the congregation.

Again the dispute focused on a minister, this time the Rev Alan Kilpatrick.

Rev Kilpatrick was criticised for conducting 'happy clappy' services and claims that he has links with an American revivalist group, the Bethel school of Supernatural Ministries. His unconventional style of dress during services and a ban on the Royal Black Preceptory from using the church also raised ire.

Scores of parishioners are believed to have quit the church over the minister, while others remained to oppose him.

By April the situation had become so serious that the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Millar, had become involved.

Rev Kilpatrick had hoped to wait for the opposition to die down, however in August he formally resigned.

The parish became formally vacant on October 1, 2015. However, some of his former congregation followed him. Those who remain have said they can now "start to build bridges".

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