REV Stephen Dickinson has described the process that removed him from the ministry at Cairnalbana and Glenarm Presbyterian churches as “cruel and brutal”.
Mr Dickson and all 12 elders at Cairnalbana were removed from office just before Easter by a judicial commission of the General Assembly. The highly unusual step was taken following an internal quarrel - not thought to be scriptural or theological - which had split the congregation.
Presbyterian Church spokesman Stephen Lynas told BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme that Mr Dickinson had been offered pastoral care; that provision had been made “in terms of his salary” for up to 18 months and the cleric and his family could continue to live in the manse at Glenarm.
“He will be given every opportunity to find another congregation, to try move on his ministry,” Mr Lynas added.
However, in a statement to the programme, Mr Dickinson claimed his family had been left effectively homeless.
“I and my family have been left devastated by the judgment of the judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church concerning the situation in Cairnalbana,” he said. “I was taken before the judicial commission about 15 minutes prior to them announcing their decision at a public meeting in Cairnalbana on March 27, with no prior knowledge or even a hint of what was about to happen.
“We found the whole process cold, mechanical, cruel and brutal in the end, which has left us effectively homeless and with a financial package that prohibits me from being able to take on extra work to make up for the shortfall and provide for my family.”
Mr Dickinson claimed that he and his wife had suffered for several years as part of “an attempt to force me out as minister of Cairnalbana”.
The consequences of the three-year quarrel within the leadership of the rural congregation may be unique in living memory, but such disputes are not uncommon, prompting the News Letter to urge in its leader column on Monday against schisms. It stated: “The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, quite uniquely, has a most widely democratic basis of government, with a power structure that passes up from the laity to the elders and minister and to the General Assembly.”
The opinion piece continued: “Presbyterian history on these islands and in America contains examples of congregational schisms, to the detriment of the Church’s wider witness, and regrettably, the Church here is currently seeking to achieve reconciliation in several other congregations where ministers and elders disagree.
“Whatever disagreements occur in local congregations, it much be remembered that churches should always be welcoming places where the primary aim is the worship of God.”