Killinchy church congregation split over demotion of Girls' Brigade leaders
A Northern Ireland church has been rocked by a split in its congregation which a judicial commission has stated "is injurious to the cause of Christ".
And the fall-out has led a prominent Ulster businessman to warn of a growing schism within the Presbyterian Church between liberals and those of a more traditional theology.
This claim follows a recent ruling by a judicial commission of the church which backed a decision by the Session of Killinchy Presbyterian to demote three members of the Girls' Brigade because they are members of another church.
In this case they are members of the Non-Subscribing Church, which is 400 metres away from the Presbyterian church.
The judicial commission was asked to rule on an appeal by the captain of the Girls' Brigade at Killinchy Presbyterian over the decision to demote three officers.
The commission ruled that "the responsibility for selecting suitable adults to work in a Girls' Brigade company rests firmly with the local church leadership."
It rejected the appeal of the GB captain Paula Burrows against the demotion of Lynne Patterson from GB officer to associate, and the demotion of Sarah Davidson and Tiffinee Dickson from sub-officers to associates.
However, it did recognise the "commitment and dedication of those who work within the Girls' Brigade company in Killinchy, commending all those who genuinely desire to lead girls to seek, serve and follow Christ".
The judicial commission stated: "It further recognises that the Church Session has rightly set itself goals that it believes will strengthen the leadership of the organisations in the congregation.
"However, it must be remembered that all things are lawful…but all things are not expedient.
"The Kirk Session would be wise to proceed towards its commendable goals slowly, seeking to build trust and active co-operation with all church organisations in achieving these goals."
The judicial commission also stated that at the heart of the recent appeal about the GB "lies a mutual lack of trust between the Kirk Session, and at least some of the leadership of the Girl's Brigade in Killinchy Presbyterian Church."
It added that: "This is almost certainly part of a wider issue within the congregation over the past few years, which continues to foment distrust and division, and which is injurious to the cause of Christ."
The ruling continued: "The commission would ask all those with influence from outwith this specific matter, whose actions, words and demeanour are subversive to the properly appointed leadership of the congregation, to consider their behaviour in the light of the standards required of Christians by the New Testament and to desist from those things which bring nothing but harm to the work and witness of the congregation and shame on the work of the gospel."
Commenting on the situation in Killinchy GB, Lyn Campbell, president of GBNI, said: "The responsibility for appointing the leaders in a local GB rests entirely with the church who runs the company.
"For many years there have been teams of committed volunteer leaders in Killinchy Presbyterian GB doing excellent work in supporting the spiritual, physical, social and educational development of girls.
"We hope that this current dispute can be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned and with a primary focus on the well-being and growth of the girls who are members of the company."
Businessman Dr Chris Gibson, a former pro-chancellor of Queen's University, criticised the church for their handling of the controversy.
He said: "The commission is sticking to both the letter and the words of church law. There seems to be no realisation of the consequences to the community, and that many of us do not hold our Christian beliefs in such stark and black and white terms.
"There is clearly a schism within the church which, until the last few years had a long record of harmony."
Dr Gibson added: "In the past four years or so, the eldership has dwindled significantly through a succession of resignations and retirements from over 30 members to 10, and attendance at services has also decreased from substantial numbers to usually below 100."
Dr Gibson was an elder in the Presbyterian churches in Dun Laoghaire and Killinchy for over 30 years but resigned two years ago.
Dr Gibson said he believed that the underlying situation in Killinchy was a theological dispute between liberals and conservatives within the church who are taking their lead from the Reverend Dr Annes Nel, who joined Killinchy some five years ago, and was a former member of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Dr Gibson stated: "This is a test case as to whether the Presbyterian Church holds together broad congregations including liberals, or whether it wants to move towards a harsher interpretation of theology.
"I, and others, do not want to be part of that church, and I feel that this issue is affecting not only Killinchy, but also a number of other congregations within the Presbyterian Church at large."
The Belfast Telegraph contacted the Revd Dr Nel and Church House but no response was issued in relation to the findings of the Judicial Commission.