A Newry rector who removed Royal British Legion flags from his church – and destroyed them – has offered an unequivocal apology and his resignation.
Earlier this month Church of Ireland rector Rev Kingsley Sutton – the rector of St Patrick’s and St Mary’s churches in Newry – acted against a request by his bishop and removed two Royal British Legion (RBL) standards from his church.
As a result of the ensuing row, the denomination asked him to “step back from ministry”.
In a public statement, Rev Sutton has now issued an unequivocal apology for his actions, saying he had been trying to make worship areas “accessible to all” and “free from vestiges of the past”.
He confirmed that he destroyed the flags he removed.
“In the light of the unfolding events here in Newry since I unwisely and forcefully removed the RBL standards from St Patrick’s and St Mary’s churches, I wish to make a full and unreserved apology,” he said in his statement.
“In my haste to provide worship areas in Newry that are more accessible to all people and free from what I perceived as the vestiges of the past, I completely underestimated the depth of meaning and present day value of the RBL standards.
“I truly wish I had sought advice at the time and avoided all the damage I have caused. In my misguided thinking and zeal, not only did I remove the standards, but I also made my decision irreversible by destroying them. I utterly regret this inappropriate and unacceptable action. I repent, and wish to make a full and deeply felt public apology to all those I have insulted, undermined and offended by my actions.”
He apologised to the RBL members and supporters “especially those for whom the standards hold particular meaning and connection”.
And he offered to do anything he could to ease the hurt he had caused.
The rector also apologised to the Select Vestry and parishioners for “abusing” his role and causing them “deep embarrassment and tremendous stress”.
Rev Sutton apologised to his bishop “for disobeying his leadership” and added that he has since “fully resubmitted” himself to the church.
And he apologised to the Loyal Orders, and in particular to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, adding that he now wishes to “show more respect for their traditions and values”.
The cleric said his “desire and heart has only ever been to make Jesus known and to draw as many people as possible to Him, to advance the hope of peace and love in this troubled land”.
However, he added: “As I got this so blatantly wrong with my actions, I feel I can do no other at this stage than to offer my resignation as rector of Newry.”
The Bishop of Down and Dromore has “sadly” accepted Rev Sutton’s resignation offer.
Bishop Harold Miller said: “The rector of Newry, the Rev Kingsley Sutton, offered me his resignation last night, Wednesday 21 October and sadly, I feel I must accept it.”
He added that the recent situation has been “very painful indeed” and that he welcomed the rector’s apology to the local RBL and the Select Vestries of St Patrick’s and St Mary’s. He has been in touch with the RBL, the Select Vestries and the Apprentice Boys of Derry, to arrange to meet and seek a way forward, and thanked all concerned for “their helpfulness and graciousness”.
UUP councillor David Taylor, who is a member of the parish, said: “The situation is extremely regrettable and distressing for all the parishioners of St Patrick’s and St Mary’s including myself and I would appeal for privacy and understanding to be provided to everyone concerned at this time to allow a healing process to begin.”
Sinn Fein councillor Valerie Harte declined to say whether her community had found the flags in any way offensive.
“He worked very hard in the community he was a minister – even in our community. He will be sorely missed,” she said.
UKIP councillor Henry Reilly said it “just beggars belief” that this would be done in such an historic church in south Down.
“This has really hurt a large section of the community in south Down,” he said.
He added: “There have been regular services in that church which had drawn members of both communities, for example funerals. But I have never heard any complaints from the Catholic community about these flags.”
Brian Maguire, Area Manager Ireland for the RBL said: “This is a local issue between the parishioners and the Church. It is unfortunate that the Legion Standards have been destroyed but I welcome the apology and I know that the local Legion members are looking to move forward.”