Police scale back their presence at Ballynahinch Congregational Church after year of revolt
The PSNI is scaling back its policing at a church where an unholy row over its minister is still going on after an entire year of protests.
Officers were first called to Ballynahinch Congregational Church last September to break up a heated dispute which began when the Rev George Speers was heckled from the pews.
For the second time that day, just as his sermon began, around 40 church members left their seats and began to shout at the minister.
They roared "Out, Out, Out", clapping, whistling and cheering and moving to the front of the church to surround the pulpit. Rev Speers continued with the service but could not be heard over the angry crowd.
At one point he used a megaphone to make himself heard over the jeers.
Protesters have since staged a series of walkouts before progressing to a placard protest, where they stood outside the church brandishing signs bearing Bible verses.
They began holding their own services in the church hall and last Christmas was the first time they had set foot inside the church in months as they held their own carol service.
The dispute, which has been ongoing for a number of years, has several complex issues at its heart but the congregation remains deeply divided between those who support the minister and those who want him and his supporters removed.
At its centre is the claim that church members voted to remove Rev Speers and his ministerial team from office at a meeting in June 2012 – but the ministerial team refused to quit.
In November, the cost of policing the protests had reached nearly £12,000 according to the PSNI.
Now the PSNI has said the policing operation had been "scaled down".
Sergeant Nigel Donnelly said the number of reports to police have greatly reduced and while they are aware of some ongoing issues within the church, these are being dealt with internally.
"The policing commitment has been scaled down as issues of concern continue to be addressed by those involved," he said. "Police continue to maintain close liaison with members of the Ballynahinch Congregational Church and work in partnership with them to ensure there is adequate provision for public safety."
Samuel Graham, one of the church trustees, has previously said they had not expected the protest to last so long and that they were following a legal process in a bid to resolve the matter.
The Rev Speers was unavailable for comment.
In September last year he responded to the accusations against him, calling them false and said he intended to continue his "calling as minister" at the church.
He said: "I will not be deterred from preaching the Gospel by the illegal actions of a group of protesters."