Over 1,600 people braved Arctic-like conditions to worship at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast — but two of its best known flock were nowhere to be seen.
The landmark Shore Road church, regularly attended by Peter and Iris Robinson, was crammed with people, many no doubt discussing the controversy.
Making their way into the Shore Road church, many were confronted with the sight of graffiti about Mrs Robinson. A billboard advertising the church stressed the importance of the family and community — but vandals had scrawled “adulterer” across it with red paint.
The ‘First Couple’ of Northern Ireland politics — embroiled in a political scandal sparked by Mrs Robinson’s affair with a teenager — were conspicuous by their absence at the well-known north Belfast church.
DUP ministerial colleague Sammy Wilson, however, was among those at the Sunday service which heard no reference made to the furore engulfing his party since news of Mrs Robinson’s affair and financial dealings broke last week.
He was no doubt among thousands of faithful who made their way to church services across Northern Ireland yesterday unable to avoid the lurid headlines screaming from the front of every Sunday newspaper. Any worshipper popping into the shop on the way home from church would have found it impossible to not at least glance at the relentless details of Mrs Robinson’s illicit affair and her young lover spilling from the news stand.
During the course of the hour-long service at Whitewell, Pastor James McConnell called on those present not to allow the events of the past week to distract them from worshipping God.
He also spoke of the need for people to show compassion and sympathy for others in their time of need.
The Robinsons have regularly attended the church over the past 16 years although Mr Robinson was the more frequent visitor.
“Peter always said this was his church,” Dr McConnell told the Belfast Telegraph afterwards.
“He said it was his primary place of worship.
“Most of the time she (Iris) was there too but there were times he was on his own.”
Asked why he had not made direct reference to the Robinsons during the service, east Belfast man Dr McConnell said: “We had 1,600 people out on this cold morning and I wasn’t going to mention the Robinsons as those 1,600 people come to the Lord as sinners also.”
Dr McConnell said the First Minister had not been able to attend the church as often as he had previously because of work commitments.
He said it had been three weeks since the East Belfast MP had been present at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Dr McConnell said he wished to assure the troubled couple he was on hand should they need him.
“It is going to be very difficult for the two of them to rebuild their lives,” he added.
“I think there have been other developments and details which Peter did not know about which will be extremely difficult for him.
“This (church) is a house for him and everybody who needs help.”
Dr McConnell said he hadn’t spoken to the couple in recent days but that Mr Robinson “had sent word to him”.
“I think they deserve to be allowed to try and re-build their lives,” he said.
Many of the congregation were keeping tight-lipped regarding the Robinsons on their way out of church, although those who did speak were unanimous in their support of the couple.
One woman said: “I think there has been enough said on it to be honest in recent days. People in the church will support them in any way we can. Anyone can fall.”
Malcolm and Alexis Johnston have been travelling to the church from Randalstown, Co Antrim, for the past five years.
“My heart goes out to them,” said Mr Johnston. “Trouble comes to us all in this life and our prayers are with them. We would have loved to see them in church today but hopefully they will be back soon.”
Jim Daniels (43), from south Belfast, said: “It might be the end of him, I don't know, everything is happening so fast.”
On the other side of the city, the congregation at Rev Ian Paisley’s Martyr’s Memorial Church on the Ravenhill Road was also quietly contemplating the fallout from the media storm.
The First Minister’s predecessor made no direct reference to the troubles facing the party he proudly led for 30 years.
Mrs Robinson’s fall from grace was the elephant in the room as Rev Paisley rose to preach at the Free Presbyterian Church.
Only a reference to “the state Ulster is currently in” by the former First Minister gave any clue of the crisis
which had befallen his beloved DUP.
Looking undeniably frailer as he climbed to the pulpit, Rev Paisley showed his powerful preaching had lost none of its vigour.
He led a prayer for the family of Co Antrim policeman Peadar Heffron who was injured in a dissident bomb attack and commented on the freezing weather, but made no comment at all on troubles facing the man who was at his side for decades while he led to the DUP.
A grim faced DUP press officer also attending the service told the Belfast Telegraph worshippers would not be speaking to the media.
Accordingly most exited the church grounds from different gates as church elders peered out the front door at gathered journalists. Despite these efforts, the strength of feeling against the Robinsons was hard to hide.
One woman shouted from a distance at the assembled media: “Don’t waste your time talking about those two — wasters the pair of them.”
A man, who did not wish to be named, said he had been let down by Mrs Robinson’s affair and associated financial dealings.
“I suppose it’s money; money corrupts. It is a temptation for all of us,” he said.
“It was very disappointing to hear of, but then they were not Free Presbyterians, they did not go to our church.
“We prefer not to get involved with politics because in Northern Ireland it can be so volatile.”
By Emily Moulton
If you are after a story, I will give you a story,” the Rev Pat Herron said as I introduced myself as a member of the Press.
“But I won’t be saying anything,” Peter Robinson’s sister added graciously, in a clear reference to how her small Dundonald church found itself in a strong media glare.
Rev Pat is the pastor of the Light ‘n’ Life Free Methodist Church on the Gransha Road, which has unwittingly become embroiled in the political scandal sparked by Iris Robinson’s affair with a teenager.
She allows me to take a seat amongst her small congregation. “This is a story,” she says some five minutes later while handing me a Bible. “This is the story.”
Of course, it’s not the only story that would have been on the minds of those who had come to the church to worship yesterday.
Over the past two weeks the trials and tribulations of their pastor’s sister-in-law Iris Robinson have been plastered over the front pages of every newspaper in the country. The scandal is of immense proportions and it would be naive to think that even the most understanding of Christians would not have some opinion on the whole sordid tale.
After all Iris herself has been known to preach about morality and sin many a time.
But throughout the almost two-hour service yesterday there was no direct mention of the entire affair, just a lot about forgiveness. Peter Robinson had said last week that he forgave his wife for her indiscretion. And many of her supporters rallied behind her.
But this was when all the public knew was that she had an “inappropriate relationship” and tried to take her own life as a result.
It then emerged this affair had been with a teenager and that she allegedly arranged for two property developers to bankroll
his new business venture. When the affair ended Mrs Robinson asked her lover, Kirk McCambley, to return the money in the form of two cheques. One made out to her and the other to the Light ‘n’ Life church to which she belongs.
This quiet, small community-based congregation, which has about 30 members, has now found itself caught up — albeit unknowingly — in the whole affair.
Maybe the only hint of the church’s mood was a subtle acknowledgement by the guest preacher during the sermon.
Pastor Rosemary said she could sense there was “a shift” taking place in the church and that it would be testing times ahead.
But if speculation is right, there could also be a shift in the corridors of Stormont very soon.