There was an air of bemusement and disappointment in Ballynahinch yesterday in relation to the town’s Congregational Church row.
There were incredible scenes on Sunday when police officers had to be called to keep order during the morning and evening services.
Witnesses report the minister using a megaphone at one point to try and shout down protestors during the service.
According to the trustees, tensions arose three years ago when the minister, Rev George Speers, dismissed the ruling body of the church, the deacons or diaconate, and announced that he and his two assistants – assistant minister Rev Stephen Walker and church visitor John Galbraith – would be taking over.
The three men have yet to respond publicly to any of the claims being made about them, though the News Letter has tried repeatedly to contact them.
There were three cars at the church’s majestic, red-brick manse on the town’s Belfast Road yesterday morning, but nobody answered the door or the phone.
The trustees said there have also been tensions over the closure of an annex of the church in which many members sat during services, and anger over the removal of the church piano and choir’s chairs.
Also controversial among some is what they allege is so-called “hyper-Calvinism”, a teaching that a small number of people are chosen by God before they are born and that the rest are rejected without regard to whether they would wish to follow the Christian faith.
The trustees claim the congregation has voted for Rev Speers to leave, but that he has not accepted the decision.
Yesterday the News Letter canvassed feelings in the town about the unusual situation. Everyone was happy to talk but most declined to have their names used.
Three members of another Protestant church were very sympathetic.
“It reflects very badly on Christian churches,” said a leading member in the church in a gentle manner. “We will all be tarred with the same brush.”
A woman from his church added: “There were rows in the early church, as we see in scripture, but it is still a pity.”
A receptionist in a local business said it was “very sad”, adding: “It is not very churchy.”
Further up the street a woman walking her child, who attends a different church, said it was “a disgrace how they were getting on during the service”. She added: “It just isn’t right. They could have waited until the service was over.”
Another young woman pushing a pram, who was also a churchgoer, said: “It is a bit of a shock to see cops inside a church building. You don’t expect Christianity to be like that; but actually in a house of God? It is very surprising.”
A woman in her fifties said she “just laughed” when she heard the reports, adding that it was “comical”.
Asked if it would affect her desire to go to church she added: “Maybe just to see what is going on. Besides that, no.”
Walking past, a man in his sixties who described himself as Catholic, offered: “It is not something you like to hear about. It is unusual. I would not think it is too nice to have to call the police.”
Nearby an affable 21-year-old man in the doorway of a betting shop said it was “ridiculous”.
“A row in a church!” he exclaimed. “It is a place of God. It is just a joke to see that in a church with women and kids there!”
He used to go to church as a child but his parents stopped when he was five because he did not like going, he said.
“This fight wouldn’t affect me because I don’t have any feelings about religion either way,” he said.
A journalism student from Kenya, Jeff Kiyondi, said: “If people are fighting in the church what example is that to people like us who don’t really want to go to church?” he asked. “Only in Northern Ireland.”
The trustees of the church have issued a statement claiming that Rev Speers now enjoys the support of only around 25 per cent of the congregation.
Offerings to the church have dropped from £175,000 to £25,000, threatening the very future of the church, they say, and the congregation has halved from 200 to 100.
Trustee Jim McClenaghan said they have repeatedly sought mediation but claimed Rev Speers has rejected this.
“We don’t like the situation but we felt we could not take any more after three years,” he said.