Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Shocking scenes in church gives religion a bad name

Ballynahinch Congregational Church protest

The scenes of confrontation last Sunday at Ballynahinch Congregational Church to which the police were called, simply beggar belief, and it looks as if both sides are firmly entrenched.

Most people to whom I have talked, inside and outside the churches, have expressed bewilderment that the situation got so out of hand that the police had to intervene.

It was particularly regrettable that the PSNI had to remind those involved that an affray in a church constitutes a breach of the peace, but I wonder how many listened.

Rows in churches are nothing new, and there have been splits from time immemorial, including the great schisms between the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom in 1054.

There was also the Great Schism in the Catholic Church from 1378 to 14I5, when there were two Popes, and then the Reformation itself from the 16th century.

There have been rows among people in many congregations, but this is the first time in my memory that a quarrel has burst into the headlines, with the police on hand to keep the peace.

Such behaviour among church members gives a bad name to Christianity and undermines the whole teaching of a religion where people are taught to love one another.

Clearly both sides in this dispute have dug in long ago and it is difficult to see how people can be coaxed from their trenches to try to make peace.

However, it is a sad example of what can happen when those who claim to be Christians ignore the basic teaching of the Gospel and pursue their own agenda.

Friction is part of human nature unfortunately, and it can be found in most big organisations outside the church. However, people realise that they have to get on with each other to do their jobs and bring home their wages, so they keep friction to a minimum.

However, a much higher standard is expected from a church, and when bitterness inside a congregation spills into the public arena it is not a pretty sight.

One of the problems with the Ballynahinch situation seems to be the autonomy of each Congregational Church which makes mediation or problem -- solving by a central authority very difficult.

However, some major groups like the Presbyterian Church do have such a mechanism, and earlier this year the minister of Cairnalbana Presbyterian Church was judicially removed and the elders stood down because of a breakdown of relationships over a long period. The judicial commission described a congregation "riven by two factions, with deeply fractured relationships emanating from the leadership of the Church but also penetrating into the congregation".

These were strong words but when the situation reaches this stage, everyone loses -- as in Ballynahinch.

What has happened in these two churches should be a warning to everyone else. In almost every church there is a difference of opinion between people at one time or another.

In some cases someone stops talking to somebody else, so a feud develops. Some people may not like the new choruses or the 'songs' that now replace hymns and good old psalms.

However, these are not worthy of splits and members do try to apply the Gospel and turn the other cheek.

The trouble is that when some people are determined to quarrel, they believe that God is on their side, even if He is not.

So if a quarrel is developing in your congregation, try all you can to nip it in the bud. Otherwise you might end up as pitiful and depressing as Ballynahinch Congregational Church.

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