Rowing factions still not giving an inch after five years
A row dividing a church congregation in Ballynahinch is still going on after almost five years.
The dispute reached its peak in September 2013 when police were called in to break up a scuffle between those for and against the Rev George Speers.
Police retained a presence at the church until last year. Protests continue against Rev Speers and two separate services take place every Sunday at Ballynahinch Congregational Church and the adjoining church hall.
Protesters claim Rev Speers was unanimously voted out by the congregation in June 2012, but did not accept the decision.
Decisions over taking off and letting go ministers within the Congregational Church are taken by the congregation. There is a higher body in the Church but it has not stepped in on either side. Now, four members of the diaconate (group of church deacons) have spoken out, claiming Rev Speers has rejected seven attempts at mediation to resolve the row - the latest of which was offered just last month.
They claim 11 out of 13 deacons in the church are against him and all of the 13 trustees.
On Saturday the protesters held a service to dedicate remains of the old war memorial, now embedded in a wall of the church hall. Rev Speers was not present.
Sammy Graham explained that a former minister at the church, the Rev Thomas Warwick, had been instrumental in erecting the first war memorial in the town in the 1930s.
In recognition of this, the Royal British Legion offered the church some of the old stones recently as it built a new war memorial in the town.
This new feature was unveiled yesterday afternoon, and dedicated by Padre Rev Colin Jones from Aldergrove Flying Station.
Money was also collected for the fund to complete the new memorial in the centre of town.
The church row started in 2010 after Rev Speers decided to stop the children's address section of the service, and stopped taking on the advice of his congregation.
At one stage, it has been claimed that he, his assistant minister and one other declared their own eldership and attempted to dismiss the diaconate. "One by one, we began to realise it was bad; he stopped the children's address, he said it was not biblical to talk to children," the group told the Belfast Telegraph.
"It later resumed after we questioned this decision."
They have claimed that 75% of the congregation oppose the minister and that in June 2012 he was voted out at minister. "He is currently squatting, both in the church and in the manse," they said.
"He has been served eviction notices, but remains there.
"Other religious ministers have offered to help by mediating, but he has turned down seven offers of mediation, the last just a few weeks ago."
Yesterday, a harvest service was held in the church hall, a week after the harvest service was held in the church.
The group said they will not leave as they feel they owe it to their forefathers to protect the church.
"Historically, our forefathers looked after this place well, we cannot let them down," they said.
The bitter row has seen superglue poured into church door locks, cars damaged, and even photographs of children intentionally scratched.
Rev Scott Woodburn of Edengrove Presbyterian Church confirmed he had attempted to mediate between Rev Speers and disaffected members of his congregation, but that offer was not responded to by the minister.
Rev Speers, who has his supporters, has released one statement, in which he said he would "not be deterred from preaching the Gospel by the illegal actions of a group of protesters".
The Belfast Telegraph attempted to contact Rev Speers by telephone and by calling at the church rectory.