Belfast Telegraph

Legion flag burning cleric's parishioners and those hurt by deeds deserve better

By Alf McCreary

It is no surprise that the Church of Ireland rector of Newry, the Rev Kingsley Sutton, has resigned following the stand-off with his parishioners when he removed the Royal British Legion standards from St Patrick's and St Mary's churches.

By doing so, he ignored the advice of Bishop Harold Miller and he failed to consult his select vestries. He also offended members of the loyal orders by remarks he made about them.

Inevitably, the story was leaked to the Belfast Telegraph and, once it made the headlines, there was no going back.

It was bound to end in tears.

In a dramatic statement, the Rev Sutton has now made a profound public apology to all concerned and has offered his resignation as rector.

Bishop Miller has welcomed this resignation after what he calls "a very painful situation" and is now left to pick up the pieces.

The rector's apology could not be more heartfelt. He admitted that, in his haste "to provide worship areas in Newry that are more accessible to all people and free from what I perceived as the vestiges of the past, I completely underestimated the depth of meaning and present day values of the Royal British Legion standards".

To underline his initial error of not consulting his parishioners in advance, he now says: "I truly wish I had sought advice... and avoided all the damage I have caused."

The sincerity of his apology might have mitigated his actions within the context of a parish where forgiveness is a central part of the Christian faith, but the truly shocking part of his confession is that he not only removed the British Legion standards, but "in my misguided thinking and zeal ... I also made my decision irreversible by destroying them".

He admits that this was "inappropriate and unacceptable", but it was more than that - it was grossly offensive to the memory of those who fought and died in two world wars and in many conflicts since then.

After such an action, there really was no going back and Rev Sutton had no option but to resign.

Bishop Harold Miller is already in touch with the Royal British Legion, the select vestries and others who have been badly hurt in an attempt to build bridges.

No doubt in time - and with goodwill and much Christian charity - those bridges will be built and, perhaps, new Royal British Legion standards will be returned to both churches. Members of the loyal orders will be able to resume their traditional services, as requested.

In personal terms, there will be sadness for the Rev Sutton and for his family, but the whole sorry mess has been a classic example of how not to run a church and of a gross failure of leadership.

It is also a clear warning to others who want to "modernise" Churches and other institutions with long, cherished traditions.

The message is simple: if you want to make changes, move slowly and make sure that you bring the grassroots people with you. Otherwise, it may end in chaos and great hurt.

No doubt, the Rev Sutton meant well, but the parishioners of Newry and all those people hurt by his actions deserved better.

Alf McCreary is the Belfast Telegraph's religion correspondent

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