A second weekend of protests by members of a Ballynahinch church passed comparatively peacefully yesterday.
Last Sunday police officers tried to maintain calm as some members of the Ballynahinch Congregational Church attempted to shout down Rev George Speers as he preached from the pulpit.
Yesterday there was still a police presence at the church. But this time there were only two officers and they stayed in the church entrance hall. They left soon after the service started at 11.30am, when around 60 people rose to their feet and walked out.
Over 100 people remained for the duration of the service.
As the service continued inside, a group of mainly older, white-haired men made their way towards journalists and television cameras standing at the entrance of the church.
Spokesman Sammy Graham then read out a prepared statement to reiterate their concerns, in which they claimed that Rev George Speers and his two assistants were voted out of office lawfully in June 2012 for their “dictatorial” methods.
One of the trustees, 87-year-old Harry McNamara, said: “This man has no respect for anyone. He is bringing in people who have not become members.”
There will be another protest next Sunday, he said.
“I don’t think it will be resolved soon.”
The protestors dispersed while Rev Speers prepared to preach his sermon inside.
Inside, the church was very neatly decorated, with rows of wooden pews, a tall wooden pulpit and stained glass windows, and the remaining members of the congregation clearly wearing their Sunday best.
Rev Speers remained tight-lipped throughout the controversy, where his opponents have been freely airing their concerns to the media. Only five days after last Sunday’s row did he release a brief and measured statement.
But yesterday he preached a forthright sermon which repeatedly invoked the wrath of God on those who profess Christianity but do not live up to its precepts.
His opening and closing theme were the conditions required for “honour peace and fellowship” in a nation – or among God’s people.
The clergyman quizzed the congregation on how such conditions could be achieved, and one by one he dismissed such factors as education, religion and science.
The key to honour, peace and fellowship, he said, was righteousness.
“All of history proves this,” he said.
Citing the prophet Isaiah and many other authors of Biblical books, he said the result of righteousness will be “peace and quietness”.
“Peace is produced by righteousness,” he said, adding that “a lack of righteousness will result in a lack of peace”.
“Until you get right with God you will never know peace.”
He who does not obey God’s commandments “does not have God” he said.
The minister added: “If we abide by the sacred teachings of God there will be peace.”
But if our righteousness is lost “we will find ourselves under God’s severest judgment” he warned.
He went on: “The God of love is angry with the wicked every day... He can have no fellowship with unrighteousness”.
Whoever says they are of God but walks in darkness “is a liar” he added.
However, he urged those “under the wrath of God” to be reconciled to Him.
“At the cross you can be pronounced righteousness as though you have never sinned at all,” he added.
He closed by praying that his listeners would reflect “quietly” on the Bible passages – with a particular emphasis on the word “quietly”.
Speaking after the service, Christine Alderdice, aged 51, said Rev Speers was “a great minister” and that he “preaches the Bible”.
Asked what would happen if he left, she replied: “I’ll be going too.”
Ms Alderdice has been going to the church since the 1970s, she said.
“I think it is all about power,” she said. “Certain people want to rule over us.”
There had also been tensions with the previous minister, she said, with him leaving only two or three years after he had been appointed.
She rejected suggestions that there was a big influx of outside visitors yesterday, saying there were only about five members of Rev Speers’ family visiting.
Another man in his 60s said he had missed his own church service near Moira that morning “to see what was happening” in the Ballynahinch church.
“I gave my full support to the minister afterwards,” he said, commending the integrity of his preaching.
Protestors say the tensions arose three years ago when Rev Speers allegedly dismissed the church’s governing body of deacons and appointed himself and his two assistants as elders.
Protestors have also complained about an annexe of the church being closed, and the alleged removal of a piano and choir seating.