Belfast Telegraph

The road sign outside says Give Way, but yielding is last thing on minds at split church

By Ivan Little

The road sign at the junction right outside Knocknamuckley's imposing church on the hill urges people to Give Way.

But there's little indication on the inside that anyone from this history-steeped but troubled parish is planning to yield to anyone else in the religious roadblock over their colourful minister who has split the congregation in two.

It may be situated exactly halfway between Lurgan and Portadown, but there's not an inch of middle ground between the two sides in the unholy row at St Mathias' Parish Church which, with its rambling graveyard and towering trees all around, looks nothing like a battleground.

Even though the church has been washing its dirty vestments in public all week following protests about their 'maverick' minister the Reverend Alan Kilpatrick and his 'unusual' ways, the reception for an outsider is universally welcoming - just as it says on the Knocknamuckley church's website.

The church is by no means full, but it's by no means empty either.

The faithful at yesterday's 11am service numbered 170, about 20% up on a normal Sunday, according to insiders.

Any thoughts that this is a show of support for Mr Kilpatrick, who wears a jacket with elbow patches, a pinkish shirt and no tie, are dispelled by a nudge and a wink from a church member that not everyone who opposes the Scots-born cleric has stayed away or gone elsewhere to worship.

But the critics who are in their House of the Lord keep their dignity - and their feelings - to themselves. Until the end of the service.

On the way out, several church members refuse to shake the rector's hand.

The knockers at Knocknamuckley are loathe to give their names, but they're not quite so reticent when it comes to sharing their opinions, though unlike their Sunday hymns, they don't want to shout them from the rooftops.

One man whispers to me that Mr Kilpatrick has hijacked the old style of service at Knocknamuckley and he says a lot of older traditionalists from the church have moved elsewhere.

"But I don't think that our minister is unduly concerned," he adds.

Another man says he's seen off previous incumbents of the minister's job and insists he'll see Mr Kilpatrick off the premises too.

One woman scoffs at the notion that the problems at Knocknamuckley are restricted to the style of 'happy clappy' service which the cleric, who has four studs in his left ear, has brought to the church near Bleary.

She insists that's not the issue, but ask her to outline what has angered her and she just walks away, with a smile admittedly.

Others are annoyed that Mr Kilpatrick has links with the Bethel school of Supernatural Ministries in America and some have taken umbrage at the ban on the Royal Black Preceptory using the church and at the enlisting of a dance troupe to get across the Easter message.

At Knocknamuckley, the Sunday morning service itself is a world away from this lapsed Christian's Church of Ireland upbringing in east Belfast, but having since sampled the ground-breaking songs of praise at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, in London, it doesn't come as a complete shock.

At St Mathias', the strident beat of a sometimes over-enthusiastic drummer, together with a guitar and a piano during the songs, is the inspiration for some, but not all, hands in the congregation to be thrust skywards, with Alan Kirkpatrick pointing the way and he soon brings 30 children to join him in a family chorus, complete with actions to match the words.

Mr Kilpatrick shuns the pulpit and instead talks to his flock from a lectern, though he's not a man for standing in the same spot for too long, constantly on the move to underline a point.

For the first part of the service, a stranger wouldn't know that this was a church at war with itself.

When lay reader Ian Morton, who's from Tandragee and who's dressed casually too, steps into the pulpit to say a prayer, he gives the first inkling that all is not well with the world of Knocknamuckley

He says many people in the church are confused and worried. "Many hearts are troubled," he adds, praying for God "to renew each one of us with a love for Him and for our fellow men, women and children".

Mr Morton goes on: "I pray, Father, for a spirit of unity in this church once again.

"I pray, Lord, that you help each one of us to be wise in our words, wise in what we say, so that we will thwart all attempts at disunity."

He also prays for "Alan, Jan and the leadership of the church to give everyone a spirit of wisdom and courage".

That's the cue for Alan Kilpatrick to move from his pew near the front to stand centre stage, where it's clear that he's a showman as well as a churchman.

He's chosen the parable of the prodigal son for his sermon and the theme of the reunited family in the Bible would appear to be particularly apposite for the Sunday that's in it.

The alarm on the mobile phone in his pocket goes off on the stroke on noon, but he's not finished yet, though something obviously has gone awry as he searches through his notes before admitting: "I can't find my last page."

He isn't lost for his words and he soon regains his composure and throws in a joke or two before he comes to the end of today's lesson.

There's more business at hand, with Mr Kilpatrick articulating what many people have been thinking about - the controversy swirling around Knocknamuckley.

He says the "busy" week has left him and his wife Jan shattered.

And he reads a letter from his Bishop, the Rt Rev Harold Miller, outlining what he plans to do to reconcile the parish.

Mr Kilpatrick emerges after the service to insist that he's constrained on what he can say about the headline-grabbing furore.

But he produces a piece of paper which he proceeds to read.

It says: "Many people in the church are growing in their faith and are excited about what God is doing in and through the church in their lives and families. I pray that this will continue and that God will be honoured and glorified through the church.

"I hope and pray that the church will be united again in the near future."

As he walks down the road to join those of his congregation who have waited behind to have a cup of tea in the church hall, one man says: "Alan's heart is in the right place.

"But I'm not sure that Knocknamuckley is the right place for him."

Belfast Telegraph


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