When Rev Craig Cooney was first asked to take over the breakaway group who'd left Knocknamuckley, he said no. Then he changed his mind... and now hundreds flock to his church and he has a huge Instagram following
The music is modern, the services are informal and he doesn't usually wear a clerical collar, but the new man at Hope Church is packing them in and tells a story of conciliation after controversy
When the Rev Craig Cooney was first asked to become minister at the Hope Community Church in Craigavon he declined the offer.
He was aware of the troubled history which led to the establishment of this church after a bitter split in the rural Church of Ireland parish of Knocknamuckley near Portadown in 2015.
The congregation was divided over the style of evangelism practised by the then minister, Scottish-born Rev Alan Kilpatrick. Along with his penchant for wearing an ear stud and preaching in jeans rather than traditional robes, the modern approach in his teachings caused a rift.
It was only ended in September of that year when Rev Kilpatrick and a significant number of parishioners including members of the select vestry left and formed Hope.
Two years later Rev Cooney had just finished a year as a teaching pastor at the Causeway Coast Vineyard church, which attracted congregations of around 1,500 every Sunday.
"That was a great year. Alan had just moved on from Hope and I was asked to come there. My wife Becky and I said no initially because of the recent history there, but over a short period of time I got a sense of call and decided to go after meeting members of the vestry," he recalls.
Having been born in Portadown and with friends of both him and his family among the congregation at Hope and also Knocknamuckley, he says he had "a degree of credibility".
He adds: "I had preached a few times at Hope and had taken a church weekend at Knocknamuckley during the very tense time of the split. No one knew how it was going to end."
He admits there was still a little bit of suspicion within the church when he was appointed but during his ministry he had been a curate at Shankill Parish in Lurgan, which helped ease minds.
Since his arrival in October 2017 Hope has gone from strength to strength - and Knocknamuckley has also flourished.
"When I arrived at Hope I found a very committed core group of about 80 to 100 people in the congregation. They had experienced a difficult time. The Rev Kilpatrick had left in June and, understandably, there was some concern about the future.
"I have been ordained for 13 years and the people who were there when I arrived were the most dedicated and committed people I have ever ministered to, and I don't say that lightly."
The message the Rev Cooney brought with him was obviously one that the congregation liked to hear as the numbers attending the church now fluctuate between 200-250 and in the last fortnight he has had to hold two Sunday services to cater for the growing size of the congregation.
It is not the first time he had such an impact. After his time in Lurgan he went to an inner city parish in Dublin where the congregation was dwindling and numbered around 50. When he left five years later it was nearly 10 times that with a congregation consisting of 45 nationalities, many of them drawn from a Catholic background.
Rev Cooney admits he doesn't subscribe to the traditional Catholic/Protestant view of religion.
"We just call ourselves a Christian church and I know that some people from a Catholic background come to Hope," he adds.
While adopting modern methods to increase the outreach of the church he stresses that he is theologically very conservative.
"I teach the Bible for 45 minutes each week but I try to inject humour and personal stories into my sermons. I am not afraid to tell stories which are self-deprecating and admit to my failings. I believe the modern generation are fed up with the 'fakeness' of church teachings and want something else. Young people have told me that the only get candy floss sermons each week when they want real food for thought. I find that people relate much more to weaknesses than strength.
"However, I must stress that I take God seriously and I take my job seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously."
He has found himself at home at Hope. "When I had my own faith experience I made a decision I would only lead a church I would want to go to myself and now I am."
He has found a church which obviously is a good fit for him. "A lot of people would not recognise us as a typical Church of Ireland. I understand that. Our music is very modern, and for some people, too loud. We are very informal and relaxed in our style, probably more Pentecostal than many would expect. On Sundays I'm dressed in jeans and a shirt. I only wear a clerical collar when I'm officiating weddings and funerals or visiting people in hospital.
"So, I guess we aren't typical. But we are as much a part of the Church of Ireland as any other parish. I'm glad that there are many different types of churches in the area, with different styles of worship for people to choose from. If you take the analogy of ice cream, we are just one flavour that some people like and some people don't."
The Rev Cooney (44) believes there is an unnoticed revolution taking place in religion with many younger ministers who don't fit the traditional mould doing different things in their churches which is proving attractive to younger people.
He points out that the average age of his congregation is somewhere around 30, with perhaps 25% aged under 18. A significant number of young families are also attending weekly services.
He believes that those who left Knocknamuckley to form the new church may not have agreed with the Rev Kilpatrick but had had a spiritual experience which transformed their lives and they felt they could not return to their former church. However, he accepts that there was also a strong element which wanted things to remain the way they had always been and remained at Knocknamuckley..
Rev Cooney acknowledges that the split caused a real sense of grief for many people. "This was a country church and people had been going there for generations."
He also admits that he was not a natural candidate for a life of ministry when he was growing up. "I lived in Portadown and my family were a very normal Church of Ireland family. They may have concentrated on going to church on God's big days - Easter and Christmas - but my parents always encouraged me to go to Sunday School.
"Things changed when I was about 14 going on 15 and went to a Summer Madness summer camp which annually attracts thousands of young people from across Ireland. I went there with two thoughts in mind - to cause havoc and to meet girls. I did both for the first four days but then I had a radical faith experience and very quickly that led to a call to ministry."
He realised the Church had a strong message for people and after school he decided to take a communication, advertising and marketing degree at the then University of Ulster at Jordanstown. "I was intent on using my new skills to spread God's message and after some time working as a marketing professional I went to Trinity College Dublin at the age of 27 to study theology and was ordained at 30."
And he has certainly put those skills to good use. He has written an e-book, The Tension Of Transitions, which he sells through his Instagram account. "It is essentially my guidance for navigating the changes that occur in life and helping people get through what I call the 'in-between stage' between their past and their future. It may be something to do with their lives, or their jobs or leaving a church.
"That is how Becky and I left our parish in Dublin with our now six-year-old son Elijah. We were suffering from burn-out and decided to move to Portstewart. We had no jobs and didn't know what the future held but we thought that if things were difficult we might as well spend it somewhere nice. A lot of the book is my experience as a husband and a father and how I tried to provide for my family." Rev Cooney says he knew the first day he met Becky, a Methodist minister's daughter and speech and language therapist, that he would marry her. They were engaged after four months and married nine months later.
"A lot of people have said the book has helped them to the point that I never imagined it would".
He sells five to 10 copies of it every day through his Instagram account which has 41,000 followers around the world. "Every day I get messages from people asking me to pray for them or telling me what is going on in their lives. I am shocked at the success of the account which is growing by about 1,000 to 2,000 followers a week. I don't know of any other minister in Ireland who has that sort of following."
He adds: "Just two weeks ago I received a private message on Instagram from someone on the other side of the world who told me that my page had stopped them from committing suicide last year. Obviously that places a certain degree of pressure and responsibility on me, but mostly I'm just thankful that God has somehow given me the ability to use this modern form of media to encourage and inspire people."
Now that the dust has settled on the split which made headlines what are relationships like between the two churches?
"I have not had a great deal of contact with Knocknamuckley but I have met the rector and have had warm conversations with him. I and members of our congregation have also attended funerals at the other church and we have been made very welcome," he says.
"We want to focus on the future of Hope and I have never heard any animosity towards Knocknamuckley. It might have been different if we had not handled our hearts well."
Hope church is situated in a retail park in Craigavon in what was once a Water Board office. Currently the Rev Cooney and others are talking to the landlord about getting permission to extend the church to 400-plus seats, twice its present capacity.
He is glad to see it making positive headlines after the trials of the past.
For more information go to the Instagram page: @daily.prophetic (https://www.instagram.com/daily.prophetic/); Book: The Tension Of Transition; website: http://dailyprophetic.com; church website: https://wearehope.church
- Pictures by Kevin Scott