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Parishioners hit out after minister removes British Legion flags from churches

By Rebecca Black

Published 09/10/2015

Controversy: St Mary’s Church Of Ireland in Newry
Controversy: St Mary’s Church Of Ireland in Newry
Above left: one of the heart flags that have replaced the RBL flags inside St Mary’s church
Moderniser: Rev Kingsley Sutton

Congregation members at a Northern Ireland church have told of their hurt after the removal of a Royal British Legion flag by the rector caused a bitter split.

The Rev Kingsley Sutton replaced the RBL flags at St Patrick's and St Mary's Church of Ireland churches in Newry with a white flag which features a red heart.

He told the congregations that he removed the flags because he wants to "make a break" from the past.

But the move has caused hurt among parishioners of the border churches who say it is the final straw after the minister barred the Orange Order from holding parade services there and changed the traditional services.

Rev Sutton ministers to both St Patrick's and St Mary's.

It is understood his actions have caused most anger at St Mary's where parishioners are planning to hold a meeting to discuss their grievances in the near future.

One parishioner said a row was brewing over the rector's action. He did not wish to be named as he expressed frustration that the minister did not appear to be listening to members of his congregation.

Another parishioner, whose family has been attending the church for several generations, said he has approached the Belfast Telegraph as a "last resort", claiming Rev Sutton would not change his mind.

He said they have also attempted to contact Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Millar.

The parishioner who contacted the Belfast Telegraph claimed many members of both congregations (St Mary's and St Patrick's) have left in disgust at the actions of Rev Sutton, which have included changing the traditional style of services and barring the Orange Order or the Apprentice Boys from holding services in either of the churches.

"He has gone very modern and done away with traditional services," he said.

"Then he removed the legion flags from both churches saying he wanted to make a break with the past. This has caused a lot of hurt, not least because the adjoining churchyard has a lot of soldiers' graves in it.

"People are also very annoyed that he has stopped allowing the Orange Order to use the church, and also two weeks ago stopped an Apprentice Boys parade in Newry from using the church.

"We tried to go to the bishop but got no response, so now going to the Belfast Telegraph is our last resort."

A spokesperson for the Church of Ireland's Diocese of Down and Dromore said it was looking at the situation in Newry.

"The diocese very recently became aware of the current issue in St Mary's and is taking a closer look at the situation," they said.

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

Writing in the autumn parish update, Rev Sutton explained his actions over the RBL flags. He said the white flag with the heart which he replaced them with was from the Global Day of Prayer event in the ground of the Stormont Estate in 2006.

"We must make a resolute break from the past, lest we be dragged back," he wrote. "I have taken down the Royal British Legion flags in both churches and have replaced them with a white flag that has a red heart at its centre. Although this act may seem an unusual thing to have done, and even very hurtful, please let me expand on why I have taken this action.

"First, can I assure any reader of this letter, and all my parishioners, that I have nothing against the good work for the Royal British Legion or against any of its members and supporters. They do an immense amount of good among us, and especially following the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 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."

St Patrick's Church is believed to be one of the oldest in Ireland. It was built in 1578 on the site of a former monastery and is thought to be the first Protestant church to be built in Ireland. It was rebuilt in its current form in 1866.

The Belfast Telegraph attempted to contact the Rev Sutton for comment but he did not respond.

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