A suspended Church of Ireland rector is taking his local bishop to an industrial tribunal on the grounds of age discrimination.

It is understood to be one of the first employment cases of its kind.

The case has caused uproar in the small parish of Ballyhalbert, where the rector presides over two churches.

It has split both congregations - some want the suspended rector reinstated, while others want him to leave.

Feelings have been running high in the rural community on the Ards Peninsula in County Down.

The parishioners of Ballyhalbert have been holding a series of public meetings.

Bishop Harold Millar suspended their rector - the Reverend John Hemphill, who has been in the parish for eight years.

The rector's supporters claim he was told to refrain from ministry a day after he reported more than £1,000 of missing church money to the police in 2009.

There is absolutely no suggestion Rev Hemphill had anything to do with the missing money.

Police investigated and they dropped the case a year later. They say no crime was detected.

When Rev Hemphill was told to refrain from ministry he was a year off retirement age.

The 65-year-old is now going ahead with industrial tribunal proceedings against the bishop on age discrimination grounds.

The controversial suspension has split the congregation - some welcome the move, as they want Rev Hemphill out.


But his supporters, like Geoffrey Bateman, think he has been suspended on trivial procedural points and want him reinstated.

"It is pretty devastating because you have got families against families and in a small community it is pretty bad," he said.

"There is no Christian values and we should be putting our hand out to our friends and family and other people against us and try and work together."

Shirley Drysdale agreed.

"It has damaged the church immensely. The church, the rectory, is not getting attended to as it should," she said.

"There are no children attending church anymore - the children's register had 32 on it and now it has got five on it.

"My family don't go, my children don't go, my friends don't go any more. They have all left, they have gone to other churches and it is all one side against the other."

When the BBC contacted the bishop's office to find out why the Reverend Hemphill was suspended, a spokesman said they could not comment for data protection and legal reasons.

The first tribunal hearing between the rector and the bishop is listed for next month.

Article from BBC News