A PRESBYTERIAN minister once tipped to be a future Grand Master of the Orange Order has hit out after he was removed from his ministry at two churches in County Antrim.
The Reverend Stephen Dickinson was removed from office at Cairnalbana and Glenarm churches last week following an internal probe.
The decision was taken by the judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church, the most senior body within the church, following years of in-fighting within the leadership and the congregation.
Mr Dickinson described the disciplinary process as “cruel and brutal” and claimed the ruling had left his family effectively homeless.
However, the Presbyterian Church’s director of communications, Stephen Lynas, said they were providing both pastoral and financial support to Mr Dickinson.
Following its investigation into a breakdown of relationships between the leadership and the congregation of the two churches, all church elders at Cairnalbana were also removed from their positions. Elders at Glenarm remain in post and are unaffected.
In a statement to the BBC’s Sunday Sequence programme, Mr Dickinson said:
“I and my family have been left devastated by the judgement of the judicial commission of the Presbyterian Church concerning the situation in Cairnalbana.
“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 have 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 the shortfall and provide for my family.”
He claimed his wife and disabled child had also suffered for several years as part of “an attempt to force me out as the minister of Cairnalbana”.
But speaking on Sunday Sequence, the church’s communications director Stephen Lynas said Mr Dickinson would be “given every support to try to find another congregation, to try to move on in his ministry”.
Mr Lynas confirmed that the church would continue to pay a salary to Mr Dickinson for a maximum of 18 months.
He also said that the clergyman’s family could continue to live in church property in Glenarm for the same length of time.
“Stephen Dickinson is still a minister of good standing within the Presbyterian Church and he is eligible to apply to vacancies in congregations and can be considered to be called to other congregations,” Mr Lynas said.
He told the programme the situation has been “difficult for everyone involved” but said the church authorities were hoping their decision would mark a “fresh start” for the congregations and their minister.
Mr Lynas added: “Disputes and divisions have been allowed to fester, to get worse. Nobody has really dealt with that and nobody has been able to bring about any process of reconciliation.”
The judicial commission began an investigation into problems within Cairnalbana and Glenarm churches in October 2012, after the issue was referred to it by the presbytery of Ballymena.
The presbytery had been contacted by concerned members of the congregation three years earlier.
The investigation found evidence of a congregation “riven by two factions, with deeply fractured relationships emanating from the leadership of the church but also penetrating into the congregation”.
In a statement last week, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: “It is with regret that the judicial commission has concluded that the minister’s usefulness has been seriously impaired and that he has, in part by his own actions, placed himself in a position where it is impossible for him to satisfactorily discharge the duties of his charge.”
It also found that Mr Dickinson’s ministry had been seriously impaired “to a very considerable degree, by the actions and inactions of members of the kirk session”.
In an unprecedented move, the church removed the minister and the elders from office with immediate effect and declared the congregations of Cairnalbana and Glenarm “vacant”.
An interim minister has been appointed to both churches and an interim kirk session will be appointed at Cairnalbana.
Two years ago Rev Dickinson quit the Orange Order after he accused the Grand Lodge of Ireland of “betraying its roots”.
He was a grand chaplain and a deputy grand master of the Orange Order of Ieland.
At one stage he was hotly tipped to be a future Grand Master of the Orange Order.