THE deep split which has emerged at Ballynahinch Congregational church has echoes of damaging schisms that have scarred the fabric of Ulster Protestantism through the centuries.
Members of the Ballynahinch congregation are in a bitter stand-off with minister the Rev George Speers over theological and administrative issues and protests that regrettably marred last Sunday’s service may be repeated.
Congregational schisms are nothing new in Reformed churches, particularly in the non-conformist sector. The Irish Presbyterian Church, both past and present, has been confronted with problems arising from theological and grassroots differences.
Even today, conciliatory processes are at work in the church, dealing with schisms that have developed in congregations. Splits in hierarchal bodies like the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, due to bishopric powers over parishes, are less pronounced. But in wider Ulster Presbyterianism circles, there are Seceders, Burghers, Covenanters, Unitarians and Frees.
In the 19th century, Irish Presbyterianism was embroiled in three controversies with fundamental differences over instrumental music, use of hymns and communion wine. The 1868 General Assembly was divided over using instrumental music in public worship and there was also a congregational furore over stained glass windows.
Around the same time, a row blew up in Presbyterianism regarding use of communion wine in services, with the temperance movement taking a stand against any liquid perceived to have alcoholic ingredient. The Assembly ruled that “a mild natural wine” should be used and that agitation on the subject must end. But in some churches, this was ignored, in keeping with the democratic structures enshrined in Presbyterianism.
In some Ulster towns, there are first, second and even third Presbyterian churches, designations and separatism undoubtedly with origins in deep schisms in years gone by.
When they moved to America in the 18th century, Ulster Presbyterians had a tendency to fall out over Biblical interpretations, worshipping format and socially, as I found out in researching my Scots-Irish books. An intense debate in the early American Presbyterian church, founded by Donegal pastor Rev Francis Makemie, sharply divided the church into two factions; ‘Old Side’ (traditionalists) and ‘New Side’ (evangelicals).
First Pittsburgh, founded by Ulstermen, was a society church run by the merchant/military class, with Second evangelical, comprising Scots-Irish farmers and lower order tradesmen. At Timber Ridge Presbyterian in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Sam Houston’s church, a breakaway congregation exists close by. And at Williamsburg in South Carolina, emigrant Covenanting Presbyterian families from Drumbo in Co Down fell out in the 1780s when conservative values were superceded by a new minister’s liberal theology. This led to the formation of a separate congregation, with bitterness to the point in 1786 of the old church being raised to the ground in a fire. The split was irrevocable, sadly, an example of the extremes deep doctrinal friction can lead to.