Belfast Telegraph

Former Dean dismisses claim he barred minister from pulpit at Army thanksgiving service

By David Young

A former Dean of St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast has rejected claims by Presbyterian minister Rev David Latimer that he had been barred from preaching at a thanksgiving service marking the return of soldiers from Afghanistan.

In his new book A Leap Of Faith, launched this week, Rev Latimer, who had served as an Army chaplain in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, told of the humiliation he felt when he was prevented from speaking at the service.

Rev Latimer claimed he was banned from joining other clergy in a procession at the service because he was wearing his combat uniform instead of ecclesiastical dress.

The Very Rev Dr Houston McKelvey, who was Dean of St Anne's at the time of the thanksgiving service in 2008, told the Belfast Telegraph last night that no invitation had ever been issued to Rev Latimer to preach at the service, as that was the role of the Dean.

"My recollection is different," Dr McKelvey said.

"The decisions regarding the service were taken while the unit was still in Afghanistan.

"The arrangements for the service were made between myself and those who were responsible from the unit. We had a couple of services for units returning, and I'm pretty certain that I preached at both of them.

"I think what may be pertinent is that I was also a reservist chaplain with 30 years experience, recognised by the award of the Territorial Declaration and the Queen's Volunteer Reserve medal.

"I also felt that it was important that the people who returned home, including the chaplain, were thanked by someone outside their unit. I am not prepared to comment on Rev Latimer's observations.

"I would beg to differ, and I'm not going further than that."

Dr McKelvey said that the service went "exceptionally well" and that many expressions of thanks came in to St Anne's Cathedral afterwards.

The service was for a specialist medical unit, the 204 (North Irish) Field Hospital.

Most of the people who served in it were NHS professionals, according to the Dean.

"I felt that the job that they did was worthy of public recognition, and a public 'thank you' from the Dean," Dr McKelvey said. "It is a matter of fact that the Dean of the Cathedral is the person responsible for the worship of the cathedral. No invitation was issued to anyone else to preach, because the Dean decided to preach."

Rev Latimer's book also revealed how "there was disquiet back home" in the Army about an article in the Belfast Telegraph. In it, Rev Latimer said after seeing the dead and injured in Helmand, he was "not sure" if he could ever support decisions to send troops into a war again.

Last night Rev Latimer said he stood over his account of what happened at the cathedral, describing his experience at St Anne's as "the most hurtful incident of my life".

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Rev Latimer said he only learned he would not be allowed to preach hours before the service was to begin, when his commanding officer told him so.

"The assumption within the unit was that the chaplain would be preaching," Rev Latimer said.

"I remember sitting on the bus going from Hydebank down the Ormeau Road and I'm actually nervous, I'm thinking: 'What am I going to this for? Why am I being treated like this?'

"As soon as I went through the door the Dean said to me: 'Where are your robes?'

"I was humiliated by not being allowed to process with the other clergy. I was treated like a little schoolboy.

"After the service the Dean came and invited me to shake hands with people at the door, and I was no more feeling like shaking hands with anybody. I was actually sick inside at the way I was treated in the cathedral.

"I was wearing the uniform I wore at repatriation ceremonies in Camp Bastion. That was the dress that I had stood in alongside the broken bodies and hurting people and the traumatised people. It was good enough there.

"The uniform that I was wearing was the uniform that all the other soldiers were wearing. It was the most hurtful incident that has ever taken place in my life."

Rev Latimer said he had never before spoken publicly about the St Anne's incident.

"I've often wanted to reveal the way I was treated, because it was traumatic coming back from a theatre of conflict having been standing beside all those body bags, having been in the operating theatre, and having been in the wards with nearly a thousand injured people... to come back from that and then to be treated the way I was treated.

"That wasn't best practice."

Belfast Telegraph

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