A Free Presbyterian preacher has told how two DUP politicians approached him to object to him criticising their party from the pulpit – and he was then stopped from preaching the second part of the address.
According to multiple sources in the church which Ian Paisley led for 57 years, the move to censor criticism of the DUP has provoked internal debate about the church’s relationship with the party which was also founded by Dr Paisley but has in recent years adopted positions which bring it into conflict with the church’s strict teachings.
Last July, English-born preacher Luke Barker, who spent two years studying at the Free Presbyterian theological college, preached a two-part sermon in Markethill Free Presbyterian Church but the following day the audio of the sermon was erased from the church-maintained website.
The Rev James Porter, who was the church’s minister at the time, last week declined to comment on the sermon’s removal.
Mr Barker’s ferocious criticisms of the DUP included opposition to Arlene Foster’s attendance at a GAA match on a Sunday and a LGBT event in Stormont and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s willingness to welcome a visit by the pope.
Mr Barker told the News Letter that last September he was then invited to speak in Castlederg because the minister, the Rev Lindsay Wilson, was on holiday, and on the Sunday morning he had preached the first part of his sermon ‘The Deliverance of Northern Ireland’.
He said: “After the meeting was over, I greeted members of the congregation as they left the church. Just after the last of the congregation had left, two gentlemen approached me and identified themselves as members of the DUP.
“One described himself as an MLA and the other as an alderman. I later learned these men were DUP MLA Tom Buchanan, and DUP Alderman Thomas Kerrigan”, both of whom were also church elders.
Mr Barker said that the MLA told him “you should not have preached that sermon this morning” and said that “there was nothing in that message for God’s people”. Mr Barker said that Mr Kerrigan had agreed with his colleague and Mr Buchanan went on to say that “the sermon should not have been preached because I had not used the Bible, that the sermon was all journalism and that I should not have named names from the pulpit”.
Mr Barker said that he had responded by saying that he had used “about 50 Scripture references” and that the quotes from newspaper articles “were used to simply back up the Bible-based points”.
“I then went on to ask Mr Buchanan what part of the message itself he actually disagreed with...he responded by saying that he agreed with all of it...I then replied by saying ‘then why do you have a problem with the sermon?’
“I then went on to inform him that my suspicion was that he and Mr Kerrigan had taken such exception to the message because I had named and shamed the DUP, an organisation they actively supported and promoted. As we parted, they insisted that I had better not preach part two in the evening.”
Mr Barker said that despite the political pressure not to finish the sermon he had intended to do so but that late in the afternoon he was phoned by the Rev Wilson “who informed me that I should not have preached the sermon, and that he had found a replacement preacher to take the evening service”.
Mr Barker said that since then he had preached the same sermon in other Free Presbyterian churches on a number of occasions and “a number of individuals, all of whom are actively involved in the DUP, have attempted to have me blocked from speaking at other Free Presbyterian churches”.
Mr Barker said that he viewed the DUP as “wicked and morally bankrupt” and found its influence on the church “most disturbing”. He said that the church had long taught its members “to separate from all forms of evil and false teaching, whether that be from within the church or from the world around us”.
He added: “I am fully convinced that if I had named and shamed any other political party that day at Castlederg, and not mentioned the DUP, I would not have been ejected from the pulpit.”
Other than Luke Barker, none of the others involved in the incident have been willing to discuss what went on.
Three weeks ago, the News Letter phoned the number listed in a church directory for the Rev Wilson but got no response.
On Monday, the News Letter phoned the same number, which is also listed in the BT Phone Book as belonging to an L Wilson, and the phone was answered by a woman. When asked if it was the home of the Rev Lindsay Wilson, she said: “I don’t think so. Bye” and hung up.
Another Free Presbyterian minister who was asked for the Rev Wilson’s phone number gave the same number.
Another email and a voicemail did not lead to any response.
When Tom Buchanan was asked about what had happened, he said: “If you want any information about the church, you would need to speak directly to the minister.”
The DUP MLA declined to give the Rev Wilson’s phone number but said that he would tell the Rev Wilson that the News Letter was attempting to contact him.
When asked yesterday to explain what had gone on, Mr Kerrigan, who lost his council seat in the election earlier this month, said: “I have no comment to make.”
However, a member of the Castlederg church who was present at both services confirmed that Mr Barker had spoken against the DUP in the morning service and had been advertised to preach the second part of his sermon in the evening. However the church member, whose identity is known to the News Letter but spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he had not returned that evening and no explanation was ever given from the pulpit.
* Mr Barker’s original sermon denouncing the DUP, preached in Markethill, can be listened to here