The protests at a bitterly divided Co Down church have escalated as opponents of the minister yesterday defied an appeal by their denomination to end the public feud.
Members of Ballynahinch Congregational Church — where for two months police were called to keep the peace — yesterday picketed fellow members of the church as they entered and left morning worship.
In the past, there have only been demonstrations at the start of the service but opponents of the minister said that they reacted against a statement from the Congregational Church of Ireland which this week pleaded with them to end the protests.
And one of the protest leaders last night told the News Letter that they are attempting to put the minister, the Rev George Speers, out of his home, which is owned by the church.
Church trustee Samuel Graham, one of those at the forefront of the attempts to have the Rev Speers removed, said that yesterday, as in previous weeks, there was a separation of the pro and anti minister factions, with about 70 people opposed to the minister and 56 who supported him.
But Mr Graham claimed that some of those supporting the minister were from as far away as Banbridge.
“There was a protest at the church whilst people were going into the church and then we had our own service in the minor hall.”
However, for the last two weeks there has been no police presence at the church.
Mr Graham said that yesterday they had decided to target the Rev Speers as he left the service but accused the minister of hiding from them.
“The minister failed to leave the church; he wouldn’t come out. Most Sunday mornings he won’t come in past us so we thought that this morning we’d let him see our presence.
“We remained for a short while but then we thought ‘what’s the point?’”
Last night the Rev Speers, who has declined numerous opportunities to speak about the situation, did not return phone and email messages.
Mr Graham said that either he or deacon Trevor Crowthers preach at the rebel services in the minor hall.
And he revealed that the minister has not been paid for 16 months.
“We haven’t paid him since 27 June 2012.
“He lives in the big manse which we own. We’re having some difficulty removing him from the manse.”
Mr Graham said that he was unclear as to how the Rev Speers was managing to live in the absence of a salary.
Asked why the protestors were defying their denomination’s overarching body, he said: “We pleaded with the Congregational Union of Ireland to come and help us
“We asked them to come and talk to this man. They were willing but he wouldn’t talk to them.
“We find it very strange that they wouldn’t come to help us because they say they can’t help us but put a statement into the paper saying we shouldn’t protest.”
Highlighting that there had never before been protests on the way in and out of church, Mr Graham added: “Maybe that was a way to show that we won’t stop the protests.”
At the beginning of September, police were called when a protest resulted in chants of “Get out” at Rev Speers.
Those who took part later admitted the protests were “wrong” but said the situation had driven them to “breaking point”.