Belfast Telegraph

Flock don't always turn other cheek...

The sight of police called to intervene in a Church dispute is shocking. But religious schisms are more common than you think, writes Alf McCreary

This week's row at Ballynahinch Congregational Church – during which the police were called to intervene – created bad headlines for Christianity. However, in the long history of religion, the splits in the worldwide Church have been many and varied.

For centuries, Christians from different backgrounds in many different countries managed to fall out because of warring personalities, theological differences, 'old' versus 'new' and conservatives at loggerheads with liberals.

These disputes have occurred not only in local congregations, but in synods, assemblies and gatherings at the highest levels.

Splits arose in the universal Church from the earliest times and the first Great Schism occurred in 1054, when the Western and Eastern Christian Churches parted bitterly.

This led to the establishment of the Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East and the breach has not yet been fully healed.

Within Catholicism, there was another Great Schism, which lasted from 1378 to 1415, during which time there were Popes in Avignon and Rome.

There are technically two 'Popes' even today, but for very different reasons, as Benedict and Francis share the same title, but not the same responsibilities.

There was yet another schism within Catholicism, which led to the 16th-century Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, which led to the establishment of the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Though Churches, in general, were exhorted by their founder to live in harmony – and most of them do – there have been many major disputes within the traditional Churches, big and small.

In 1927, there was a famous trial within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, when the Rev Professor Ernest Davey was accused of heresy and had to face several detailed charges brought forward by his accusers.

The details were complex, but it was mainly a theological dispute between liberals and conservatives. Davey was exonerated by a large majority of 707 votes to 82 and his reputation was so secure throughout the Church that he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly in 1954. His main accusers left the Presbyterian Church and formed the Irish Evangelical Church, now known as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

There have been other significant disputes within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and, following a conflict between Lissara Presbyterian Church, Crossgar and Down Presbytery in 1951, the Reverend Ian Paisley went on to found the Free Presbyterian Church.

On occasions, some disputes had serious international implications and, during the Troubles, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland voted to withdraw from the World Council of Churches, following disputed allegations of help from the WCC to militant groups in Africa.

There have been conflicts within individual congregations. This year, the minister of Carnalbana Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim was judicially removed and the Church session stood down after a long series of differences, which were viewed as a serious breakdown in relationships.

Other major denominations have had their differences and, currently, the worldwide Anglican Communion is deeply split over the Church's attitude to same-sex relationships and gay marriage.

In spite of attempts by the Windsor Commission, lead by Lord Eames, to try to find some compromise several years ago, the dispute is continuing and is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

There have been major differences within smaller Churches, including the Whitewell MetropolitanTabernacle on the Shore Road in Belfast.

Several years ago, Pastor George McKim, who was widely seen as the successor to the founding Pastor James McConnell, broke away from the Metropolitan Tabernacle with a number of members to form his own group.

Pastor McConnell described this as one of the most difficult times of all during his long ministry, but the Metropolitan Tabernacle overcame the difficulties and is continuing to attract a large and lively congregation.

Controversy has always been part of Church life and, even in Biblical times, there were constant disputes and splits.

However, the vast majority of Churches at ground level have been able to settle their differences. Sometimes, a leading member takes issue with the teaching of a pastor and decides to leave.

Sometimes there are bitter disputes over the provision of musical worship – as happened some years ago at St Anne's Cathedral – but in most of these cases, the dispute eventually plays itself out and time becomes a great healer.

However, it is rare that a Church dispute like that which recently occurred in Ballynahinch requires the intervention of the police. When the situation reaches that stage, everyone is a loser.

Given the long history of Christianity, it has almost been inevitable that disputes and splits of many kinds would occur.

But the fact that there have been so comparatively few disputes – given the huge numbers of Churches in the world – has been nothing less than a miracle.

However, even one bitter dispute in a Church is one too many and it flies in the face of the founder of Christianity, who exhorted his followers to love one another.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph