A CHURCH of Ireland priest who removed British Legion standards from the two churches in his parish and subsequently burned them has resigned from his position as Rector of Newry, in the diocese of Down & Dromore.
Widespread protests from parishioners at the removal of the standards first caused the Rector, the Revd Kingsley Sutton, to withdraw temporarily from ministry at the request of his diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Harold Miller.
Mr Sutton wrote in his parish newsletter: “Please let me expand on why I have taken this action. First, can I assure any reader of this letter, and all my parishioners, that I have nothing against the good work of the Royal British Legion, or against any of its members and supporters. They do an immense amount of good among us, and especially following the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“However, I have intentionally removed these flags to declare a break from the past, and a shift into a new hope, a hope that is embodied in the two new flags.” The flags that replaced the standards in the two churches of which he was incumbent, St Patrick’s and St Mary’s, Newry, were white, with a red heart at the centre. Mr Sutton explained that they had been part of a Global Day of Prayer, organised in the grounds of Stormont Estate, in 2006, and that the heart symbolised “God’s love for us all”. Some people who attended the annual service to commemorate the signing of the Ulster Covenant against Home Rule said that they felt insulted by Mr Sutton’s telling the congregation that next year’s event should be one of repentance.
The service, which is followed by a band parade to the local cenotaph, dates back 103 years, and usually attracts more than 400 people from inside and outside the parish. A spokesperson for the diocese appealed for “Christian grace and restraint” while ways of addressing the dispute were being considered.
The reaction to Mr Sutton’s actions, however, turned from a parish dispute into widespread shock last week, when it was revealed that the Rector had incinerated the Royal British Legion flags, which were consecrated standards.
This caused his resignation, which has been accepted by Bishop Miller. The Bishop said on Thursday of last week: “The recent situation in the parish of Newry with regard to the Royal British Legion Standards has been very painful indeed. I welcome the statement of apology from the Rector, the Revd Kingsley Sutton, which was issued last night to the local Royal British Legion and the Select Vestries of St Patrick’s and St Mary’s.
“I have been in touch with the Royal British Legion, the Select Vestries, and the Apprentice Boys of Derry, to arrange to meet with them as we seek a way forward, and would like to thank all concerned for their helpfulness and graciousness.”
Mr Sutton’s statement of apology said: “In the light of the unfolding events here in Newry since I unwisely and forcefully removed the Royal British Legion Standards from St Patrick’s and St Mary’s, I wish to make a full and unreserved apology.
“In my haste to provide worship areas in Newry that are more accessible to all people, and free from what I perceived as the vestiges of the past, I completely underestimated the depth of meaning and present-day value of the Royal British Legion Standards.
“I truly wish I had sought advice at the time, and avoided all the damage I have caused. In my misguided thinking and zeal, not only did I remove the standards, but I also made my decision irreversible by destroying them. I utterly regret this inappropriate and unacceptable action. I repent, and wish to make a full and deeply felt public apology to all those I have insulted, undermined, and offended by my actions.
“I apologise to the Royal British Legion, to its members and supporters, and anyone else I have hurt in my ignorance, especially those for whom the standards hold particular meaning and connection. If I can ease the hurt I have caused, even at this late stage, I here commit myself to doing so.
“I apologise to the Select Vestry members and parishioners of St Patrick’s and St Mary’s, Newry, for abusing my role as their leader, and for causing them deep embarrassment and tremendous stress. I apologise to the bishop for disobeying his leadership, and have since fully resubmitted myself to the structures of authority within the Church of Ireland.
“In relation to my recent insensitive remarks, I also apologise to members of the Loyal Orders, and in particular to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and wish to show more respect for their traditions and values.
“I also apologise to my family and friends for the difficult and serious situation that I have put them in. I commit myself to learning from my mistakes. I can do no other at this stage than to offer my resignation.”