A PRESBYTERIAN church in Lurgan is being torn apart with a series of grievances between the minister, the clerk of session and church elders.
Former Moderator Dr John Finlay has been called into First Lurgan Presbyterian Church to try and resolve the row which has resulted in clerk of session John Spence being removed from office and criticisms made of Minister, the Rev David Henry (55), and some elders.
The Mail has received a copy of a top church document which was read to the congregation earlier this month and detailed a breakdown in relationships among the leadership and church congregation.
The document was the findings of the highest committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Judicial Commission, following a year-long attempt to resolve disputes in the church.
The commission described the situation at First Lurgan as “deeply disturbing”, detailing how it is “now fractured by breakdowns in relationships” with some hurts “unlikely to ever heal”.
Mr Henry’s ministry is described as “theologically orthodox and unambiguously evangelical” but the commission criticises his performance in the pulpit and pastoral ministries. However, it does not believe these faults are “irreparable and irrevocable”. It highlights that he has not been able to “nurture an atmosphere of unity and reconciliation”.
The clerk of session, Mr Spence is accused of impairing the minister’s usefulness and the commission said he does not receive the support of a “number of other elders and members of the congregation”.
A “significant number of elders” are also accused of seriously impairing the minister’s usefulness by having a “defensive attitude”.
Six elders who have been in dispute with the minister are named in the document as Jackson Blakely, Alan Brown, Robert Cunningham, Samuel Graham, James Hamill and John Hamilton. They have been given four weeks to consider the findings of the commission and if they do not agree they are asked to submit their resignation from office.
Dr Finlay has been appointed for an initial period of 12 months to “observe and advise” Mr Henry on “all aspects of his ministry”. Mr Henry has also been asked to take “immediate steps to heal wounds” and, along with the Session, undergo training on peacemaking and conflict resolution and visit those who feel “disaffected and hurt by recent words and actions”.
Mr Henry has also been urged to preach sermons on church unity and practice a more gentle style of ministry.
Mr Spence has been removed as clerk of kirk session but will remain as an elder. An interim clerk will be appointed by the Presbytery for 12 months after which elders shall elect a new clerk from within the membership.
A spokesman for the Presbyterian Church said, “For some time there has been growing concern over the breakdown in working relationships among the leadership and within First Lurgan Presbyterian Church.
“At the request of First Lurgan the wider church has sought to give support and guidance firstly locally through the Armagh Presbytery and more recently through the Judicial Commission, the senior Committee of the Presbyterian Church which deals with such matters on behalf of its overall governing body, the General Assembly.
“Following meetings and discussions with the congregation’s minister, Kirk Session and congregation, the Judicial Commission has recognised that many of the deeply felt hurts will take time and genuine effort to heal and indeed that some may never heal.
“However, believing that ‘it is always important to be hopeful’, the Judicial Commission has started on what it states is ‘a long process of rebuilding’ and has directed various steps to be taken in starting that process and these were communicated to the congregation on Sunday 13 January.
“The situation will be kept under review by the Judicial Commission which may take further action should it consider it necessary.
“It should be noted that the provision of the Judicial Commission’s finding was personal to the minister, Kirk Session and members of the congregation and the provision of a copy to the press was not intended and is not condoned by the Judicial Commission.”
The Rev Henry, who was installed as Minister of First Lurgan in 2007, was contacted by the Mail via the Presbyterian Church press office but he felt it inappropriate to make a comment at this time.