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Knocknamuckley: The church row that has gone way beyond the pail

By Gail Walker

Published 02/06/2015

Rev Alan Kilpatrick
Rev Alan Kilpatrick

How we worship our God - if we have one - is always a sensitive issue. Our memories reach back to childhood, when we couldn't understand much of what was going on, to adolescence, when we felt perhaps even embarrassed by services, through to maturity and a deeper understanding of what that hour on a Sunday (or Friday or Saturday depending on your faith) really means.

And this goes to the core of the recent dispute at Knocknamuckley, which we have covered extensively in this newspaper.

Many in that congregation felt they had nowhere else to turn but to the glare of the media with their concerns about the doctrinal influences of the Rev Alan Kilpatrick.

This is rural Ulster we are talking about - not Hampstead or downtown LA. So it's hardly surprising that many long serving members of St Matthias were upset by a man of the cloth - or rather a man of the denim, given Rev Kilpatrick's preference for pulling on a pair of jeans to conduct morning service - who has an association with the Californian Bethel Church of Supernatural Ministries.

Four studs in his left ear will only have served to raise eyebrows and further heighten fears. Throw in Rev Kilpatrick's opposition to a service for the Royal Black Preceptory - one of the routine events in the calendar - and it's a fraught situation indeed.

Parishioners have every right to feel unsettled.

They have a stake in the church, making freewill offerings for its upkeep, supplying the flowers each week and burying their generations in its grounds.

It is the primary job of a rector to lead his flock but to do that he first of all needs to know how his flock thinks, how that flock has behaved for year after year, decade after decade.

Most importantly, he needs to understand how it feels. Did he take enough time to do that?

It would be easy to suspect that those opposed to Rev Kilpatrick's ministry are traditional stick-in-the-muds. But they have been fighting for a version of the Anglican communion that has been handed down to them by - guess who? - clergy.

There is a scene in John Ford's movie The Searchers when a posse of white folks pursuing a band of 'marauding Comanche' find themselves surrounded. "How far to the river?", the Texas Ranger cum parson asks of one of his slower-witted companions. To which the reply is 'I been baptised, Reverend, I been baptised'.

This thought may have occurred to Belfast Telegraph photographer Kevin Scott, as the Rev Tom Conway, the minister who has been put in to cover services at Knocknamuckley, astonishingly threw a bucket of cold water all over him, threatened to take legal proceedings and declared there was "a lot of hurt" over the reports we have carried. Rev Conway has since apologised.

But apart from such hostility from a man of God, his actions also betrayed a disdain for the views expressed by the very parishioners he has been put in to minister to - a group of people clearly already extremely vexed by the events engulfing them.

Let's be clear about this, the newspapers did not make this story, the people of Knocknamuckley made it. Feeling they had nowhere else to turn, they picked up the phone and talked to the Press.

That wasn't an easy decision to make, but one taken after much frustration. The church authorities should remember that.

Indeed, the fact that the Rev Kilpatrick has now moved his contemporary services to the nearby Goodyear Sports and Social Club suggests the argument had already been conceded, or simply kicked down the road.

We're also told the Bishop has requested a period of "gracious provisional judgement" while his working group reflects on the theology of the Royal Black and the theology of the Bethel Church.

A spokeswoman also states that neither the Diocese nor Bishop Harold Miller will be making any comment on Bethel. Given its impact on Knocknamuckley - those claims that Bethel followers elsewhere have attempted to raise the dead, not to mention the apparent phenomenon of gold dust appearing on believers when the 'glory of God' is released - have they no view? The wider church community is all ears too.

There are big concerns for all churches here - as pew numbers decline, they're under pressure to widen their appeal. How should they balance tradition with modernity?

These are difficult days for the parishioners of Knocknamuckley. The 100-plus who have remained in its pews have watched tearfully as friends set off for new premises with Rev Kilpatrick. They are difficult days, too, for Rev Kilpatrick, his wife and their four children. Though he's admitted it was a mistake to drop traditional services completely, he will feel he was doing as God wished him to do.

And they are difficult days for the Church of Ireland, which finds itself at the centre of an embarrassing dispute that has split a church.

It's time indeed to pour oil on (buckets) of troubled waters.

Belfast Telegraph

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