Co Antrim villagers at loggerheads over plan to pull down 200-year-old church
A Co Antrim community is in turmoil after a church congregation began tearing the pews out of their landmark 200-year-old church late on Friday night.
While members of Straid Congregational Church are keen to build a new place of worship "fit for the 21st century", others in the village are horrified that the building will be razed.
Officials from the Historic Environment Division (HED), which has been considering the building for listed status, visited the site last week and were in the process of completing their records when the attempted demolition took place.
Tom Gilbert (64), who has lived near the church for almost three decades, was asleep in bed when he was alerted to the fact that church members were ripping the building apart from the inside.
"I was horrified," he said last night.
"Then I found out they were preparing to tear the building down the next day."
Mr Gilbert was one of dozens of protesters who managed to save the historic structure from being completely demolished on Saturday when they obstructed a bulldozer in a desperate bid to buy time until an emergency preservation order was issued by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council.
Protesters were successful in peacefully delaying the demolition until a council employee arrived with a stop notice.
The preservation notice means the church will effectively be given temporary listed status for six months.
However, campaigners are hoping it could be permanently listed within weeks.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that the local authority has issued a letter to councillors advising that they are in receipt of a letter from HED which will be discussed with the planning committee in "due course". Plans to knock down and rebuild the church have caused a deep rift in the congregation, with the pastor Paul Bradley supporting demolition.
He was present during the protest along with a small number of his supporters.
UUP MLA Steve Aiken, former Alliance Party leader David Ford and DUP MP Paul Girvan all attended the protest.
Mr Gilbert, who is not himself a church member, claims many of the congregation have been left upset by the row.
"Some of them were crying and begging for the demolition to stop," he said.
Just over a year ago, in a video celebration of the church's 200th anniversary, Pastor Bradley described the "beautiful building" as having a lot of "history and sentimental value".
"You would be surprised and delighted to see the original internal structure," he said.
But on Friday night that historic interior was reduced to matchwood.
Ballyclare Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Bingham, who also took part in the protest, said many residents had been left furious after the inside of the church was wrecked.
"No one would object to a new church, but this building has been part of this community for centuries and they didn't consult with anyone," he said.
"They thought they could do what they wanted, but it didn't work out that way and if they continue they will be in breach of the law.
"I know people who have left the church over the head of it and they say they won't be stepping foot inside it again."
Chair of the Green Party of Mid, East and South Antrim, Dawn Patterson, branded the church's "destructive step" as disappointing.
"Our churches across Northern Ireland are a key part of our architectural treasure trove and once gone, they are gone forever," she warned.
Last night the old church was in darkness as the congregation gathered for a Sunday evening service in the neighbouring church hall.
Pastor Bradley declined to be interviewed about the redevelopment.
Worshippers arriving for the service all supported the pastor's plans for the church but none would give their names.
"The plans are brilliant. We're all for it," one female worshipper said.
Another member of Straid Congregational Church said she had seen a presentation about the development on Friday, and thought it was the right thing to do.
In the church car park, a worshipper in his 30s said: "The vast majority of the congregation are in support of the redevelopment.
"It's not just a one-man band, as has been reported."