Small attempt at Christian unity falters

 — May 6, 19856 mai 1985

by Robert O’Connor, Chicago Tribune

Last December, Rev. David Armstrong, minister of the First Limavady Presbyterian Church, performed what in most parts of the world would have been a little noted act of courtesy: He exchanged Christmas greetings with a neighbor, the pastor of the local Roman Catholic church.

Last week he left town. He was the victim, he said, of hounding by some of his church’s elders who objected to this act of friendship and ecumenism.

His departure is complete. Not only did the 36-year-old minister give up his pulpit, he also took his wife and family out of Northern Ireland. He even left the Presbyterian Church.

After a vacation, Rev. Armstrong will take up duties as Anglican clergyman in Oxford, England.

His withdrawal has left a badly divided congregation. Eight of the church’s officers have resigned to show support for him. And more than 170 of the 330-member congregation have signed a petition to remove the elders.

The incident also has seriously embarrassed this town of 9,000, which has enjoyed a reputation for good relations between Protestants and Catholics.

“We are living in quite a terrible community,” Rev. Armstrong said at an emotional farewell service, attended by 900 people. “As a chaplain in Magilligan prison, I can tell you there is no future at all without reconciliation.”

He named no names. “There are those who saw my vision and those who didn’t. I will state my case at the judgment throne of Almighty God someday.”

The events that led to Rev. Armstrong’s exit began at Christmas, 1983, when Rev. Kevin Mullan, new at the Church of Christ the King, Limavady’s Catholic church, crossed the street to wish the Presbyterian congregation a happy Christmas.

He got a warm reception, and Rev. Armstrong returned the gesture. But not everybody was pleased.

“And, of course,” Father Mullan said, “the moral pressure was on us to do the same thing the second year, because if you didn’t those who opposed us would have won some sort of moral victory.”

Waiting for them at Christmas, 1984, was a 40-strong demonstration organized by Rev. Wesley McDowell, pastor of the local Free Presbyterian church founded by Rev. Ian Paisley, firebrand fundamentalist leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Free Presbyterians are not connected to the Presbyterian Church.

Three of Rev. McDowell’s supporters were in Rev. Armstrong’s church for the service. When Father Mullan prepared to speak, they interrupted, quoting from Scripture. The three were ejected after a scuffle.

In the year between their well-publicized Yuletide exchanges, Father Mullan and Rev. Armstrong developed a friendship based on an intention to promote good community relations.

“I found him a very brave, shrewd person. And I know that he was a very hardworking minister,” said Father Mullan, 39.

In a move that did the minister no good with his opponents, Father Mullan and Rev. Armstrong went to the United States to take part in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Worchester, Mass. They were invited by a local Irish-born businessman who read about their ecumenical work in People magazine.

It has been suggested from within the Presbyterian Church that much of the opposition to the minister came from members of the Orange Order, the militant Protestant organization.

But Rev. Armstrong’s opponents are not talking.

Mervin Douglas, the elder most identified with the anti-Armstrong group, said the local church presbytery discussed the issue last week.

Limavady is easily one of Northern Ireland’s quiet towns. The population, according to Father Mullan, is 55 percent Protestant. The most serious incident here was a car bombing in the early 1970s that killed two people.

From all accounts, relations between Catholics and Protestants are good.

Housing is integrated and mixed marriages are common. Father Mullan says a young Catholic escorts his Protestant girlfriend home without fear of attack. In working-class areas of Belfast, such an act would be unthinkable.

It is so safe in Limavady that it has become a bedroom town for members of the security forces who work at nearby Magilligan prison or as policemen in Londonderry about 20 miles away.

Rev. McDowell, 37, who led the protest at the Presbyterian church, seems a figure from a fiercer time.

He said he opposed Rev. Armstrong’s tendencies toward “ecumenical, charismatic and Romanistic” practices.

“The mass to me is repugnant to God’s word, certainly repugnant to Presbyterianism and Protestantism in general.

“We feel that a lot of trouble in our land is a result of Roman Catholicism.

“Romanism in my estimation breeds communism. It breeds rebellion.”

Such talk bemuses Father Mullan.

“There seems to be a very small landscape inside” their heads, the priest said. “And Catholics are heretics, or idolators, or biblical perverts, and you do not have dealings with them.”

Posted: May 6, 1985 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: Catholic, Christian unity, Ireland, Presbyterian
Transmis : 6 mai 1985 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : Catholic, Christian unity, Ireland, Presbyterian

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