18 January 2001

An Irishman’s Diary:
SPG missionaries

George Berkeley: missionary as well as philosopher

Patrick Comerford

Some time ago, as we travelled through east Cork, I was determined to visit Cloyne Cathedral, with its round tower and Bruce Joy’s impressive monument to a former Bishop of Cloyne, George Berkeley, laid out in the north transept in all his episcopal finery.

As we approached the monument, my younger child asked: “Is he dead?” The bishop was dead since 1753, I replied. But Joe persisted: “Does he know he’s dead?” I presumed so. “Well, does God know he’s dead?” In three quick questions, a young boy had cut to the heart of Berkeley’s empiricist philosophy, which holds that everything save the spiritual exists only as it is perceived by the senses.

Berkeley was Bishop of Cloyne from 1734, but due to failing health he moved to Oxford in 1752. Although his monument may be seen in Cloyne, he does not rest there: he died in Oxford on January 14th, 1753, and was buried in Christ Church. Today, he is largely remembered for his work as a philosopher and mathematician, but is seldom referred to as a pioneering Irish missionary.

Educating colonists

In 1728, Berkeley sailed for North America in the hope of establishing a college in Bermuda for the education of colonists and American Indians. He settled in Newport, Rhode Island, returning only in 1731 after his plans and hopes were undermined and a grant of £20,000, approved by parliament, failed to materialise.

Berkeley’s plans and works in America were sponsored by the oldest Anglican missionary society, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), founded in 1701 by the Rev Dr Thomas Bray with the support of the bishops of the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

Between 1706 and 1761, 26 clergy served from the Church of Ireland served as missionaries with the SPG, all but four of them in the American colonies. William Smith was the first missionary to the Bahamas and the first colonial bishop from the Church of Ireland was Charles Inglis (1734-1816) from Glen Columbkille, Co Donegal. Inglis taught in Pennsylvania before he was ordained in 1759 for the parish of Dover in Delaware.

In Delaware, Inglis worked among the Mohawk Indians, and pressed for an Anglican bishop in the colonies. In 1765, he moved to New York as the curate of Trinity Church, where he became rector in 1777, during the early stages of the American Revolution. Trinity Church was destroyed by the rebels, Inglis was attained and all his property was confiscated.

In 1783, he moved with his family to Nova Scotia. During a brief return visit to these islands in 1787 he was consecrated at Lambeth Palace as the first bishop of Nova Scotia, with jurisdiction over Quebec, Newfoundland and New Brunswick. Two months later, in the first Anglican ordination in Canada, he ordained his nephew, Andrew Inglis.

Founder in Canada

Charles Inglis has been hailed as the founder of the Anglican Church in Canada. His son John became the third bishop of Nova Scotia, with a diocese that extended as far as Berkeley's beloved Bermuda.

Of the 106 clergy from the Church of Ireland who worked as SPG missionaries in the period 1824 to 1870, 67 (more than half) went to Canada, 19 to Australia, and six to South Africa. Among the remaining 14 was the Rev George Hunn Nobbs of Dublin, who worked in the Pitcairn Islands among the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and later joined their migration to Norfolk Island.

In Australia, Hussey Burgh Macartney, a former curate of Kilcock, Co Kildare, built St Paul’s Cathedral and became Dean of Melbourne. William Wright from Ireland was the first Anglican missionary in South Africa. His strong opposition to early racism led to a conflict with the Irish governor of the Cape, Sir Lowry Cole, and he left the colony in 1829. But later SPG missionaries in southern Africa included Francis Balfour from Townley Hall, near Drogheda, the first resident Anglican bishop in Lesotho, William Gaul from Derry who became Bishop of Mashonaland, Davis Croghan from Wexford, who was Dean of Grahamstown, and John Darragh, who was instrumental in building St Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg.

Social justice

It was men like these who shaped the Anglican Church in Southern Africa, giving it its high church ethos and its commitment to social justice and action against racism. Later Irish SPG missionaries did pioneering work in Burma, China, Japan and Korea, and provided bishops for dioceses in Lahore (Pakistan), the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and Gambia.

In 1965, the SPG merged with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa. Today the society is known as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG). To mark its 300th anniversary, a new history of SPG and USPG has been edited by the Rev Dr Daniel O’Connor, former principal of the College of the Ascension in Birmingham. The tercentenary celebrations, which began in St Chad’s Cathedral, Lichfield, on January 6th, will culminate with an international anniversary service of celebration in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, on June 15th.

This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 18 January 2001.

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