An ongoing church feud which resulted in police being called to monitor an angry protest could end up in someone having a heart attack, a member of the congregation has said.
Ballynahinch Congregational Church played host to extraordinary scenes on Sunday as two rival factions shouted and sang at each other during the minister’s sermon at two services.
Police confirmed they were called to attend both the morning and evening services in the Co Down church amid tensions between members of the congregation who support the work of the Rev George Speers and those who are opposed to his ministry there and want him to leave.
A crowd gathered in front of the pulpit on Sunday shouting “get out, get out” at the minister as he gave his sermon.
The Rev Speers was appointed as minister seven years ago, but his alleged attempt to introduce more traditional and strict Calvinist teachings has not gone down well with many members of the congregation.
One eyewitness told the News Letter she was “absolutely devastated and disheartened” at the situation.
Referring to many of those on both sides who she said are pension age, the woman, who did not wish to be named, said she had very real fears for the health of those involved.
“It would really worry me about their health,” she said.
“Most of them are 65 and they feel so passionately about it. I would fear somebody might have a heart attack.”
The woman said she declined to take part in any of the protests, instead choosing to simply look on during the “horrendous” ordeal.
“I don’t think it would take much for me to stop going,” she added.
“It is very demoralising. I go to church and end up feeling worse when I come out.”
The PSNI confirmed they attended disturbances at premises on the Dromore Road, Ballynahinch at 10am and 7pm on Sunday.
Police said they had received an allegation of a man being head butted but that no official complaint has been forthcoming to date.
James McClenaghan, one of the church trustees, said that the church had been unaware of any such incident, noting that no official complaint had been made to police.
One person who was “particularly vocal” on Sunday was asked to leave the church by police but was not physically removed, he said. The same person was later allowed to return, he said.
Mr McClenaghan released a statement last night to outline the position of the church trustees, whom he said are opposed to Rev Speers.
The minister was appointed in 2004 but now enjoys the support of only 25 per cent of the congregation, the statement claimed.
“About three years ago George Speers announced to the diaconate that he and his two assistants were now running the church as elders without the authorisation of the congregation and that the diaconate elected by the congregation no longer counted,” the statement claimed.
Mr McClenaghan went on to claim that Rev Speers “had been voted out” of his position, but confirmed that the minister is still preaching from the pulpit.
Rival votes have taken place about support for Rev Speers, the trustees said, with the issue of whether non-communicant members are entitled to vote having been a key point of debate.
The statement claimed the income of the church has dropped from around £175,000 to £25,000, with worshippers dropping from 200 to under 100 in number.
Mediation has been offered on at least four occasions, the trustees said.
Rev Victor Neill, Chairman of the Congregational Union of Ireland, and Rev Raymond McLarnin, Secretary of the Congregational Union of Ireland, said they were “deeply saddened” by the situation. They said that whilst recognising the autonomy of each church within the Congregational Union of Ireland, “we would again offer help by way of mediation, in the hope of finding a resolution to this distressing situation”.
The News Letter tried unsuccessfully on a number of occasions to contact Rev Speers yesterday to put to him the claims made in the trustees’ statement.