A new report has raised questions about whether all the beliefs of the Royal Black Institution (RBI) are consistent with the Church of Ireland.
The report says some of the RBI’s rituals and ceremonies “may be difficult to defend from a Christian basis”. It adds that problems associated with the “privacy and secrecy of the RBI” raise questions about whether the COI should hold its services.
The report was written by a four-person Theological Working Group appointed by the Rt Revd Harold Miller, Bishop of Down and Dromore in June 2015 after problems arose in the St Matthias congregation at Knocknamuckley in Co Armagh.
The group’s brief was to examine the theology of the RBI and of Bethel Church, Redding in California, which was reported to have had a significant influence on the teachings of a newly appointed minister at Knocknamuckley.
There was a very public split in the church following the appointment of Rev Alan Kilpatrick, who sported stud ear rings, dressed informally and introduced a very modern, charismatic approach to worship.
One of the biggest tensions in the congregation followed him blocking the Royal Black Institution - one of the Province’s loyal orders - from using the church.
The service eventually went ahead under the leadership of Bishop Miller.
Rev Kilpatrick eventually resigned and set up an independent church – Hope Community Church Craigavon.
Bishop Miller yesterday described the report as “fair and balanced”.
He added: “I am looking closely at the report’s recommendations and hope to meet with people from the Royal Black Institution, St Matthias’ Church and Hope Community Church, Craigavon.”
The beliefs of Bethel Church – as taught by Rev Kilpatrick – were found to be “mostly consistent” with the Church of Ireland.
However, there were some indications that the definition of Jesus Christ as “fully God and fully man” was “at risk”.
There were also found to be “unrealistic expectations” of what God may do today in terms of miracles – and how people were prepared for the possibility that healing may not occur.
Concerns were raised that training for laymen “may not give enough guidance about deliverance and counselling” or professional supervision.
The report also expressed concerns about ‘the Prosperity Gospel’ which may lead people to believe that discipleship will lead to God “providing material plenty to all believers”.
The panel found it difficult assessing the Royal Black Institution (RBI) because “its rituals are not public”.
It found that the RBI theology may contain “confusion of biblical material with other sources, which could mislead members”.
And it was concerned that RBI doctrine could cause members to “misidentify themselves”, for example, as members of the tribe of Levi.
The report also concluded that there “may be a lack of attention to the New Testament in their rituals”.
It added: “Some rituals and ceremonies may be difficult to defend from a Christian basis”.
For example, it cited people being asked to take oaths without prior warning of their content.
The panel also found problems associated with “the privacy and secrecy of the RBI, which makes it hard for the Church to assess whether it should, by implication, endorse the RBI by holding services in its churches for members and friends”.
It concluded with concerns that the RBI “exists by separation which may hinder its witness to the message of reconciliation”.
The report said Bethel church had been accused of teaching “grave sucking” - trying to suck spiritual power from the graves of Christian heroes.
However, Bethel strongly disassociated itself from the doctrine and the panel found nobody at Knocknamuckley had been encouraged to practise it.
The panel also said former RBI members told them that, in one degree, candidates are asked to drink blindfolded from “a mystic cup” which can be “an actual human skull” – and that “actual bones” may be used in another degree, as well as a coffin. It also questioned links with Freemasonry.
The panel said it was told that “human remains which may have been used over centuries were incinerated within living memory”.
But the RBI told them they would “deplore” such actions and had no knowledge of them whatsoever. The RBI said it has not had the opportunity to look at the report in detail.
“The institution had a constructive meeting with the people preparing the report and they are ready to meet with them again to discuss theological issues,” it said.
Each RBI procession either goes to or comes from a religious service, it is understood.
The report recommended that the churches involved reflect on whether their culture excludes non-Christians.
It suggested a further meeting with the RBI to discuss “theological matters” and it mooted the idea of a diocesan group which considers requests from the loyal orders to use churches.
The report also suggested the diocese may wish to reflect on how it monitors prayer, counselling or deliverance ministries.
And it recommended that the diocese considers “focusing on helping everyone know and understand their Bibles thoroughly and deeply”.
Download the full report here.