Belfast Telegraph

Our Sunday protests will go on: Church members defiant over standoff with minister they want out

By CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Furious members of a congregation involved in an extraordinary standoff with their minister have vowed to continue protesting each Sunday until he is forced to leave.

Tensions in Ballynahinch Congregational Church have reached breaking point after years of underlying issues reached a climax at both the morning and evening services at the weekend.

Trustee Jimmy McClenaghan said: "I would say there will be more of the same this Sunday.

"We've been told by police we are breaking the law and that we are going to be investigated, but the church is more important."

He continued: "On Sunday morning I tried to speak to him, and when I wasn't allowed to, the people rose up en masse."

Police were forced to intervene during the heated exchange between certain members of the congregation and the minister, Reverend George Speers.

The Belfast Telegraph has tried to contact the minister by phone, email and letter but he has so far not responded.

According to 13 trustees of the church, who wish to make it clear that they support the church but not the minister, the main issue is that Rev Speers and his ministerial team were dismissed from their positions up to six months ago, but have refused to leave.

They claim that the minister has split the church with around 75% against him staying and 25% supporting him.

During the unrest on Sunday, the plug was pulled on the church organ, the organist allegedly had her music stolen and protesters whistled and shouted.

Organist Joan Gibson told the Belfast Telegraph that the encounter left her feeling frightened and that it is "not fair on those who want to go there to worship".

At one stage they roared "Out, Out, Out", clapping, chanting and jeering and moving to the front of the church to surround the pulpit.

Rev Speers continued to preach throughout the disturbance and at one point spoke through a megaphone to be heard over the noise.

The PSNI has confirmed it was informed of an allegation of a man being headbutted, but had not received an official complaint.

The problems first arose in 2010 when it is claimed that Rev Speers announced to the Diaconate, the body elected by the congregation, that he and his two assistants would run the church as elders. The 13 trustees allege that when the Rev Speers realised he had opposition, he set about removing them. On June 27, 2012, Rev Speers and his two associates were apparently voted out of office. It is believed this meeting was viewed as both legal and valid in all respects by the church solicitors. The trustees claim that this means the Rev Speers is no longer the minister there and was fired from his position. On the same day at a different meeting, Rev Speers allegedly dismissed 15 people from the list of communicant members in a meeting without telling them.

Recently the doors to a wing of the church were said to have been sealed to prevent some members attending worship.

Chairs were said to have been removed from the same wing of the church, leaving just one. Locks were allegedly Super Glued, changed and keys were hidden or removed.

The series of deep-rooted issues culminated in the dramatic showdown on Sunday evening and it is understood that this was not the first time the police have been called to the rural church.

The numbers attending have dropped from 200 to below 100.

The church is one of 27 belonging to the Congregational Union of Ireland. Chairman Rev Victor Neill said: "We are deeply saddened by the situation in the Ballynahinch Church and whilst recognising the autonomy of each church within the Congregational Union of Ireland, we would again offer help by way of mediation, in the hope of finding a resolution to this distressing situation."

Rev Speers was not available for comment.

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