A PRESBYTERIAN minister says he has been left devastated by a decision to remove him from his position as head of two churches in Co Antrim.
The Rev Stephen Dickinson was stood down by the judicial commission of the Presbyterian General Assembly and a replacement minister has temporarily taken over at the Cairnalbana and Glenarm congregations.
In a highly unusual development, 12 church elders at Cairnalbana have also been removed following a long-running quarrel between some members of the congregation and the minister.
Elders at the Glenarm church remain in post and are unaffected.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday morning, Presbyterian Church spokesman Stephen Lynas said he hoped the Co Antrim minister would be able to continue his church career.
“Stephen [Dickinson] has been offered pastoral care, there has also been provision made, in terms of his salary, for a period of up to 18 months. He continues to live at the Glenarm manse,” he said.
Mr Lynas added: “He will be given every support to try to find another congregation, to try to move on in his ministry.”
However, in a statement to the same Sunday Sequence programme, Mr Dickinson described the disciplinary process as being “cruel and brutal”, and said it had left his family effectively homeless.
“I and my family have been left devastated by the judgment of the judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church concerning the situation in Cairnalbana,” he said.
“I was taken before the judicial commission about 15 minutes prior to them announcing their decision at a public meeting in Cairnalbana on March 27 with no prior knowledge, or even a hint of what was about to happen.
“We have found the whole process cold, mechanical, cruel and brutal in the end, which has left us effectively homeless and with a financial package that prohibits me from being able to take on extra work to make up the shortfall and provide for my family.”
The displaced minister claimed his wife and severely disabled child have also suffered for several years as part of “an attempt to force me out as the minister of Cairnalbana”.
It is understood the disciplinary action is a result of the dispute which has not arisen from any scriptural or theological disagreements.
The extraordinary saga began as a dispute centred largely on the Cairnalbana congregation, with some church members apparently at odds with the minister in what has been described as a clash of personalities.
When news of the General Assembly’s action – thought to be unprecedented in living memory – was revealed last week, a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland confirmed that replacement elders were also being drafted in.
“They will be running the church and trying to bring a degree of reconciliation and healing to the congregation,” he said.
“Their aim will be to try to create a fresh start for the congregation as well as overseeing the normal Sunday-by-Sunday services; trying to repair the damage that’s been done and rebuild relations between members of the congregation.”
Less than a decade ago, Mr Dickinson was Deputy Grand Master of the Orange Order.
Presbyterian spokesman Mr Lynas yesterday said the minister still had a “good standing within the Presbyterian Church” and that he is “eligible to apply to vacancies in congregations and can be considered to be called to other congregations”.
Mr Lynas acknowledged the situation has been “difficult for everyone involved”, but said it was hoped the changes would mark a “fresh start” for both congregations.
“Disputes and divisions have been allowed to fester, to get worse,” he said. “Nobody has really dealt with that and nobody has been able to bring about any process of reconciliation, and indeed, in their finding, they (judicial commission) said the situation had got worse, and that he divisions had become even worse, than when they first got involved.”
Commenting on the possibility that the removal of both the minister and church elders was unprecedented, Mr Lynas said: “I don’t think in recent memory it has. It may have happened many, many years ago. We have certainly removed ministers from time to time, elders have been removed from time to time, but in recent memory this seems to be the first time that both the minister and the elders have been removed.”
The judicial commission investigation into the affair of the two congregations began in October 2012 – three years after the difficulties were first reported to the local presbytery of Ballymena by congregation members.
Last week, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: “It is with regret that the judicial commission has concluded that the minister’s usefulness has been seriously impaired and that he has, in part by his own actions, placed himself in a position where it is impossible for him to satisfactorily discharge the duties of his charge.”