A SUTHERLAND church which attracted condemnation after refusing permission for a humanist funeral service to be held in its publicly funded hall is once again involved in controversy.
A children’s Sunday Club, supported by St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland, Golspie, has closed its doors amid a disagreement between its founder and operator Henrietta Marriott, Littleferry, and parish minister Rev John Sterrett.
Mrs Marriott, a part-time nurse practitioner at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, said earlier this week she had always intended to stand down at the end of the year but had withdrawn from running the club early because of "increasing differences of opinion with the minister".
Mrs Marriott set up the Christian based Sunday Club, which catered for primary school age children, in 2014 after discovering her daughter Alice, then aged 9, was often the only child attending St Andrew’s Church of Scotland Sunday School.
At the time it was hoped that the informal and interdenominational nature of the club would encourage more children to attend.
The group had the blessing of both village ministers, Revs John Sterrett and Eric Paterson and received a small amount of money from a St Andrew’s Church bequest fund specifically for children’s ministry to buy supplies.
It met monthly for nine months of the year in Fountain Road Hall which belongs to St Andrew’s but which has been extensively upgraded with the help of public funding.
Mrs Marriott was helped by her husband, retired Major General Patrick Marriott, the former commandant of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, as well as members of the St Andrew’s congregation and parents of children who attended.
The one-and-a-half hour club sessions included games, activities, story telling, crafts and singing as well as prayer. Refreshments were provided free of charge.
An average of 15 children attended the club, although numbers had decreased slightly in the months leading up to its closure in April.
Mrs Marriott, who devoted around two full days a month to organising each session, told the Northern Times that it had always been her intention to leave the group after her daughter moved from primary to secondary school.
But she said she had decided to stand down earlier than intended because of "increasing tension with the minister."
She said: "There is without doubt a growing rift within St Andrew’s. At least seven elders have resigned from the Church session within the last two to three years.
"Many of them had been part of the Church for decades but now travel some distance to attend other services.
"Indeed we now worship in Dornoch. We are not members of the Church of Scotland so have no insight into the circumstances surrounding these departures.
"The catalyst for my personal decision was that I felt I could no longer run a Christian club teaching children that everyone is acceptable in the sight of God whilst being associated with a church where there is clearly such division."
St Andrew’s has been advertising since the start of the year for
someone to replace Mrs Marriott
and she has also tried to find a successor but so far no one has come forward.
Rev Sterrett said: "I am very disappointed that Sunday Club did not manage to run to the end of the school term, and that no replacement leaders have been found to date.
"Sunday Club has been a well organized and well attended monthly event. However, the session will be looking at ways of filling the gap that Sunday Club leaves.
"Regular provision of Sunday School has been, and continues to be, provided during our Sunday services. I would encourage anyone interested in taking on Sunday Club to come forward and let us know."
St Andrew’s hit the headlines last November after a grieving family was critical of a decision not to allow the use of Fountain Road Hall for a humanist funeral service.
The church turned down a request from the Voigt family who had wanted to hold the service for Heinz Voigt, Golspie, in the hall. Critics said that, as the recent hall renovations had been grant aided, the hall should be for the use of all.
It is understood that since then, another request to hold a humanist ceremony in the hall has also been rejected.
A Church of Scotland spokesman said at the time that the kirk session would be considering the issue further at future meetings.