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Another flap over a flag is dividing the faithful

By Alf McCreary

Published 17/10/2015

Divisive issue: one of the controversial red heart flags (top left) which angered Church of Ireland parishioners
Divisive issue: one of the controversial red heart flags (top left) which angered Church of Ireland parishioners

One of the saddest developments in Church life is when a minister and a congregation fall out, and the story becomes headline news.

Once that happens, it is hard to see a way back to rebuilding trust and mutual respect, and yet it seems to be happening here with all too depressing frequency.

Earlier this year there was the Knocknamuckley mess when the local rector, the Rev Alan Kilpatrick, and part of his erstwhile congregation parted company.

This row was made even worse when a retired minister who was drafted in by Bishop Harold Miller to try to bring reconciliation then threw water at a Press photographer who was only doing his job.

It was the kind of behaviour that is least expected of the clergy, and it added a touch of farce to what was already a tragic situation.

Bishop Miller is not having much good fortune this year, with another parish in his diocese embroiled in controversy.

The Rev Kingsley Sutton and part of his congregations in St Patrick's and St Mary's partner churches in Newry are at loggerheads.

It appears that the rector chose not to follow his bishop's advice and went ahead with removing British Legion flags from the churches, and to replace them with two new white flags, each with a red heart. Since then the rector has been asked by Bishop Miller to step back for a period to try to settle the dispute. I hope that he and his congregations manage to do so, but this situation has gone so far that, like the situation in Knocknamuckley, it may end in tears.

A number of factors about the Newry controversy puzzle me. Apparently Mr Sutton has served in this area for more than a decade, so he has had more than enough time to get to know his parishioners very well indeed.

Second, I wonder to what extent the local Church committees were consulted, or whether Mr Sutton took the controversial step of removing the British Legion flags on his own initiative.

A golden rule, too often broken, about running any group - and particularly a Church congregation - is learning to bring people with you. That is the whole art of leadership, and it is surprising how many people fail to do this.

In particular, anyone in a leadership role in Northern Ireland should be aware of the prickly question of flying flags. We are a symbolic society where one flag is worth a thousand words, either way.

The British and Irish governments, and the Stormont administration (such as it is), have singularly failed to solve the issue of flags and emblems, so why should any individual inside or outside the Church try to solve it alone?

The removal of British Legion flags from a church would be controversial at any time, but the decision in Newry was particularly ill-judged during the 75th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain. There are various other ways of "moving on", but no one will make progress by appearing to snub the veterans of two World Wars. It is not easy for any minister to run a Church nowadays, but members of congregations have their rights too, and because people like traditional values and symbols, that does not mean that they are wrong.

The saddest thing of all is that bitter Church disputes which flow over into the public domain do no favours to Christianity. Such disputes only give an opportunity for the Church's many critics to declare yet again: "A plague on all their houses."

Belfast Telegraph

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