Tonight’s programme reveals for the first time from Ian Paisley’s mouth that he did not voluntarily retire as minister of Martyrs’ Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, but was told to resign.
Although at the time when he announced he was standing down as a minister there was no public suggestion that he had been forced out, rumours have since abounded that the church had asked him to retire.
The vast building was largely empty for Sunday services, only filling up for large denominational events, and some were rumoured to have wanted a younger, more active minister.
Tonight’s programme reveals the letters from the elders of that church on Belfast’s Ravenhill Road which spelt the end for the only minister the church had known.
Baroness Paisley said that they felt “absolutely shattered” by the move and went so far as to say that it was her belief that Dr Paisley’s life-threatening illness of 2012 was brought on by the actions of the church.
She said: “We just could not believe that after 65 years ministry in the same church, continuous ministry for all those years leading the church and building it, that these men took the attitude that they wanted him out.
“We just couldn’t understand why – in fact, one of them said that he was destroying the church, he was wrecking the church; those were his terms.”
Dr Paisley said that it was “hurtful” and added: “That was the way that they thought they would treat us... they will have to answer to the people and they will also have to answer to God at the end of the day.”
Baroness Paisley said it was “heartbreaking” and that when he announced his retirement, Dr Paisley’s opening words were: “I did not think that I would be making this announcement here this morning.”
She said that people in the congregation “immediately caught on to that; that it wasn’t his way”.
“There was just a stunned silence across the church and afterwards people were coming out openly weeping and they said to me: ‘We didn’t expect that this morning.’ And then some people said: ‘Well there must have been something which has happened because that’s not the way he would do things; he’s never done anything like that before.’
“They just realised in themselves that there was some skullduggery going on somewhere and I didn’t want to say anything and we just kept quiet about it.
“But since then, there’s been a lot of talk and stories being circulated which are without foundation and that’s why I feel that we need to put the matter straight.”
Asked whether it was right that no member of the Paisley family now enters Martyrs’ Memorial Church, she said: “That’s correct. It was almost like a death. It was almost like that feeling that this person has gone; everything has gone and can’t be the same again; can’t ever be the same again.”
Dr Paisley recalled going back to the church for his massive farewell service on January 27, 2012: “The Lord gave me help and I was among my friends. Those people who had come to hear me preach were my friends; they were my friends, some of them, for over 50 years. I was at home.”
When questioned on why he and his family no longer go to worship at the church, he said: “I think that they’re better not going to worship there because they would not be happy and you don’t go to a church to sit on nails; you go to a church to sit in a place where there is rest and peace.”
Baroness Paisley said: “I know he was heartbroken. I believe – and I’m going to say this – I believe that it was the heartbreak that made him ill and took a toll on his health.”
Just days after that massive farewell service, Dr Paisley was rushed to hospital where he spent eight days on a life-support machine.
Baroness Paisley said so gravely ill was her husband that she and the family began discussing his funeral arrangements.