Church row parishioners to protest at Christmas service
Peace at Christmas and goodwill to all men will be in short supply at one Northern Irish church when parishioners protest against their minister as he celebrates the birth of Christ on Wednesday.
Church-goers staging weekly demonstrations outside Ballynahinch Congregational Church say they will be present with their placards on Christmas morning, before holding their own service without their official minister.
The Co Down congregation is split between those who support the minister, Rev George Speers, and those who want him to go. Deep theological disagreements are understood to be at the heart of the bitter dispute.
The row reached its head when police had to enter the church to break up a protest on September 1.
During the protest, church-goers surrounded the pulpit chanting "out, out, out". The plug was also pulled on the organ.
Since then peaceful protests have continued outside the Sunday morning services on a weekly basis.
Earlier this month, 125 protesters set foot inside the church for the first time in months. The trustees and other supporters took a seat in the pews as they held their own carol service.
Church trustee Sammy Graham said there would be around 80 people with "very large banners" as usual on Christmas morning.
"There will not be anything confrontational," he said. "On Christmas morning we intend to hold our own service at 10.15am in the hall. It is the first time we have had to do this."
Mr Graham said it was a matter of regret that matters had been resolved for the festive season but said the protesters would not be deterred.
"We are not giving up – whatever it takes we are keeping going," he said.
Mr Graham, who also claims Rev Speers is trying to boost his support by bringing in worshippers from other churches, said he was always hopeful the minister would "step back" and consider his position.
Mr Graham recently claimed to have received anonymous text messages telling him "action" would be taken if protesters continued to talk to the media. Speaking on Sunday he claimed one of the protesters, an elderly woman, was also told to stop protesting in a local shop.
"One of the people who supports him (Rev Speers) has been actually harassing people in the town in Ballynahinch," he said. "One is a pensioner, a lady in her 80s... he followed her into the shop and had a real go at her about protesting. The proprietor asked him to leave the shop."
Mr Graham said the protesters' plan for 2014 would involve continued work with their legal team.
"We will be working out a process and we hope that this man will see sense," he said.
The trustees of the church claim that Rev Speers and his ministerial team were dismissed over 15 months ago, but have refused to leave.
Rev Speers has rejected the stance of the protesters and previously indicated that he intends to stay on as minister.