Saturday, 31 January 2009

Church History 2: the Church of Ireland ... how we got to where we are today

Patrick Comerford

The Caroline restoration and the Church of Ireland

1, Introduction:

With the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Church of Ireland restored too, and at first the greatest threat to the new or restored order was seen as coming not from Roman Catholics but from Presbyterians.

The Caroline divines restored much of the Catholic order, liturgy and practice that was in danger of being lost in the century after the Reformation. In his Eucharistic theology, the pious bishop Jeremy Taylor, in many ways, prefigures the ARCIC agreements between Anglicans and Roman Catholics in the late 20th century.

A new crisis was generated with the accession of James II. Archbishop William King of Dublin was imprisoned, many bishops went into exile, the Church of Ireland was disendowed, and Christ Church Cathedral Dublin, Saint Iberius’s Church, Wexford, and other cathedrals and parish churches passed into Roman Catholic hands and usage.

But when James II was defeated, we should not think that there had been a clear Catholic/Protestant divide on either side of the River Boyne. The Pope had supported William III, while many clergy in the Church of Ireland had refused to take the new oaths, and these Nonjurors were deprived of office.

2, A second restoration

The Church of Ireland could be said to have experienced a second restoration of its rights and privileges in 1691.

The Georgian era is often seen as one marked by the corruption among the clergy and bishops. Many of the most senior bishops were English-born, they provided a working majority for the government in the House of Lords, they often held two of the three key offices of state, and the played a key role in introducing the body of legislation known as the Penal Laws.

But remember that the Penal Laws also brought suffering to the Presbyterians, and that many of the capable, able Irish-born clergy within the Church of Ireland resented the way bench of bishops became packed with self-serving, English-born favourites of the government.

Yet this was also a time of great thinkers in the church. The 18th century also gave us Jonathan Swift and George Berkeley, and saw the formation of the first missionary societies or agencies within the Church of Ireland: the Irish sections of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK, founded in London in 1698) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, 1701, now USPG – Anglicans in World Mission).

By the end of the 18th century, many concessions had been made to the Roman Catholic majority and to Presbyterians in terms of civil liberties – brought about in part of agrarian agitation at home, and the threats posed abroad by the American Revolution (1776) and the French Revolution (1789), which forced government to accept that it needed the loyalty of Catholics, particularly educated Catholics, and to recognise the dangers posed by Catholic priests continuing to be trained in Spain and France, where they were opened the new, revolutionary ideas popular on the Continent.

Perhaps, therefore, there is no coincidence that the year 1795 marks both the formation of both the Orange Order and, with government funding, the Royal College of Saint Patrick at Maynooth.

There is a popular myth that the leadership of the United Irishmen in the 1798 Rising was provided in the south-east by disaffected Roman Catholic priests and in the north-east by Presbyterians, But the reality it is that Father John Murphy of Boolavogue fame may have been a loyalist until late into the planning of the Rising, while: key rebel leaders of the United Irishmen were members of the Church of Ireland, including Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, Mathew Keogh, the Grogans, the Boxwells and “Kelly the Boy from Killanne,” in Dublin they included Theobald Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward FitzGerald and Napper Tandy, and in the north-east Betsy Monroe.

The Act of Union in 1800 not only united the Parliaments of Britain and Ireland, but also united the Church of Ireland and the Church of England. Those who welcomed this included Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath, who saw the Act of Union as breaking the influence of the landed aristocratic families who controlled the Church of Ireland at the higher level, the Beresfords and the Ponsonbys, and as a way of reforming a church that was over-burdened with mediaeval structures and with non-resident pluralists.

For examples, the Diocese of Kilmacduagh had a full cathedral chapter with no resident incumbents in any of the parishes, while Lord Kilmorey was the hereditary lay abbot of the exempt district of Newry and Mourne. Among the landed aristocracy, the Earl of Mayo was also Archbishop of Tuam and managed to secure for his son the post of Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny.

Jonathan Swift ... reforming dean, satirist and founder of hospitals

The Church of Ireland was a Church very much in need of reform. But we should not forget that this was also a time of great cultural depth and of spiritual growth in the Church of Ireland. Jonathan Swift was a reforming Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, as well as the author of Drapier’s Letters and Gulliver’s Travels. George Berekely, the philosopher Bishop of Cloyne, was also the first missionary in the post-Reformation Church of Ireland. Other pioneering missionaries from the Church of Ireland included Charles Inglis from Donegal, a missionary in Canada who became the first Anglican bishop consecrated for North America.

This was a period that also saw the growth of many charities and charitable institutions. Bartholomew Mosse founded the Rotunda Hospital, and Jonathan Swift founded Saint Patrick’s Hospital. This was the era of the Wesley brothers, their preaching, their hymn-writing, and the Rise of Methodism; John Wesley first visited Ireland in 1747, preaching his first sermon in Saint Mary’s Church in Mary Street.

It was an era that saw the foundation of new schools, and the growth and spread of Sunday schools. And the church was not dead spiritually either: 430 Communicants in Saint Mary’s Church, Kilkenny, on Christmas Day 1801.

Socially, the divisions were not always clear either: there is still a debate among historians in Wexford about whether John Kelly, the Boy from Killane was a Protestant or a Catholic. Thomas O’Beirne, later Bishop of Ossory and then Bishop of Meath, had been the Rector of Longford at the same time as his brother was the Parish Priest of the town.

3, The aftermath of the Act of Union

In the aftermath of the Act of Union, the early 19th century saw a continuation of that lively social and missionary witness within the Church of Ireland.

For example, the Ossory Clerical Society, which was founded in 1800, had a number of prominent leading lights such as Peter Roe of Saint Mary’s, Kilkenny, Robert Shaw of Fiddown, and Henry Irwin of Castlecomer, who became involved in and inspired many social, missionary and outreach movements in the first few decades of the century.

The Hibernian Bible Society, founded in 1806, is now the National Bible Society of Ireland, which also runs the Bestseller book shop in Dawson Street, Dublin. The Sunday School Society was set up in 1809, and the Hibernian Church Missionary Society, now the Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland) in 1814

For the Church of Ireland it was a new awakening to the wider, outside world. As the 19th century unfolded, it was the Church of Ireland that sent the first Anglican missionary to China, provided the first Anglican Archbishop of Ontario, and sent bishops and missionaries to India, Australia, the Middle East and throughout Africa.

But the rapid expansion of the cities left the crumbling parochial structures unable to cope. Privately-funded, proprietary chapels were built all over the Dublin. The most famous was the Bethesda, which some of you may remember was the Wax Museum off Parnell Square until recently. Trinity Church in Lower Gardiner Street became a labour exchange in the last century, but is an evangelical church once again.

Saint John’s, Sandymount, built on land provided by the Pembroke estate. Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008

Not all the proprietary chapels were evangelical: Harold’s Cross and Zion Church in Rathgar began with an evangelical flavour but were essentially parish churches for the rapidly expanding middle class and lower middle class suburbs. Saint Bartholomew’s in Clyde Road, and Saint John’s in Sandymount, built on land provided by the Pembroke estate, were both in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

But the evangelical movement received an unexpected boost from Power Le Poer Trench, who became Bishop of Waterford in 1802 as a reward for his father and brother voting for the Act of Union. While he was Bishop of Elphin he went through a conversion experience, and went on to become a powerful evangelical leader as Archbishop of Tuam (1819-1839).

Another powerful evangelical leader was Robert Daly who became Bishop of Cashel. He was a champion of segregated schooling, in opposition to Archbishop Whately, and supported the National School system. Remember that the National Schools were originally set up as non-denominational schools, and the original schools lasted long after independence as the Model Schools.

The first evangelical to become Archbishop of Dublin was Lord Plunket, whose statue stands in Kildare Place, off Kildare Street, close to the National Museum, on the original site of the Church of Ireland Teacher Training College.

One of the myths arising out of this “second reformation” is the myth of Souperism, which was tackled in his books by late Desmond Bowen.

What is not in dispute is that at the beginning of the 19th century a large number of Roman Catholics joined the Church of Ireland – and not all of them were in the west of Ireland. Figures from the period between 1819 and 1861, show that the seven churches and 11 clergy in the Diocese of Tuam grew in number o 27 churches and 35 clergy.

Much of the success of this evangelical mission work was due to the use of the Irish language in preaching and mission work.

On Achill Island, agricultural reform, health care, education and pier building for fisheries were introduced along with Bible classes. In fact, part of Edward Nangle’s success was possible because there had been no resident clergy of any church in Achill until he arrived. It was only in 1850s and 1860s that the Roman Catholic Archbishop Hale responded, and then he sent Italian priests who could speak neither English nor Irish – and were happy, at first anyway, merely to provide Mass in Latin.

4, Reforms in the 1830s

But two contentious changes in the Church of Ireland were introduced in the 1830s not by the Church but by parliament sitting in London.

The conflicts over tithes led to the commutation of tithes, or their effective abolition.

In these reforms too, the number of archbishops was halved from four (Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Tuam) to two (Armagh and Dublin), ten bishoprics were suppressed with the amalgamation of dioceses, and a number of silly cathedral posts were abolished.

These were reforms that were long overdue. But they angered both the evangelical and the High Church sections of the Church of Ireland and the Church of England. The Oxford Movement was sparked by these reforms forcibly imposed on the Church of Ireland by Parliament, and the movement dates from John Keble’s famous assize sermon in Oxford on National Apostasy, opposing the changes. The Oxford Movement grew as John Henry Newman and his friends published their tracts, hence the Tractarians, although eventually Newman, Manning and others joined Rome.

5, Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland

The pressures for further reforms of the Church of Ireland continued. Eventually, in 1869, Gladstone introduced the legislation that brought about the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. It would no longer be a state church, bishops would no longer sit in the House of Lords, and the Church of Ireland, once again, was separated from the Church of England.

By 1880, £5.5 million of funds from the Church of Ireland had been redistributed for educational purposes, including endowments to Maynooth and to the Presbyterians for training in ministry.

Disestablishment created a number of crises for the newly independent and self-governing Church of Ireland. There was a loss of income, there was a loss some buildings, the Church needed to find its own system of appointing bishops and of church government. Many of the strong evangelicals wanted a complete overhaul that would have provided a Presbyterian-style of government for the Church of Ireland.

These controversies did not mean the Church was completely dominated by evangelicals. In Dublin, for example, new churches in the High Church tradition were built in Ballsbridge and Sandymount, enhancing a tradition that had already found expression at All Saints’ in Grangegorman.

The Church also debated whether it needed to revise the Book of Common Prayer. The debates on liturgical reform also included the form of absolution used in visiting the sick, and there were other rows about the use of the Athanasian Creed.

The compromises that were accepted are summarised in that beautiful statement that concludes the 1878 preface to the revised Book of Common Prayer:

“And now, if some shall complain that these changes are not enough, and that we should have taken this opportunity of making this Book as perfect in all respects as they think it might be made, of if others shall say that these changes have been unnecessary or excessive, and that what was already excellent has been impaired by doing that which, in their opinion, night well have been left undone, let them, on the one side and the other, consider that men’s judgements of perfection are very various, and that what is imperfect, with peace, is often better than what is otherwise more excellent, without it.”

Eventually the changes guaranteed the survival of the Church of Ireland in the form we find it today.

6, The post-disestablishment Church

So, was disestablishment a good or bad thing for the Church? Most of us would agree today that disestablishment was, by-and-large, good for the Church of Ireland.

Disestablishment set the Church of Ireland on a sound, independent financial footing. It resulted in the reform of the liturgy. It saw an overhaul of church structures with the introduction of synods at national (General Synod) and local (diocesan synod) level. It was followed by an upsurge of lay initiative and of giving. It freed the church of time-serving, careerists from England.

Disestablishment led to new buildings, including Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork, and Kilmore Cathedral in Co Cavan, as well as the rebuilding of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, and Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. A new teacher training college was established in Kildare Place in 1884. And two new vibrant mission agencies were founded in Trinity College Dublin in the 1880s and 1890s – the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission and the Dublin University Mission to Chota Nagpur.

7, The Church of Ireland in the 20th century

If the Church of Ireland could bounce back like that at the end of the 19th century, what happened that caused a decline in numbers at the beginning of the 20th century?

Some of the factors were political. For example, after the initial phases of the Industrial Revolution, which saw imported labour, many of the skilled labourers were replaced by Irish-born Roman Catholics when they acquired those skills from the mid-19th century on. Then the Wyndham Act and the expropriation of landlords led to the decline of many of the big estates. The Ne Temere decree of 1908 also took its toll.

World War I saw not only large number of men enlist, but many of them who survived stayed away. The War of Independence saw the move of many Protestant civil servants from the state.

To their shame, the bishops of the Church of Ireland were not above politics, so that every single on of northern bishops subscribed to the Ulster Covenant opposing Home Rule.

And yes, we have to say that there was some “ethnic cleansing” in some areas too. The Bishop of Killaloe reported this at the time of the War of Independence and the Civil War in North Co Tipperary. But, members of the Church of Ireland were also involved in the political and cultural expressions of the movement for independence. Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League and the first President of Ireland, was a rector’s son, as was the poet W.B. Yeats. The Irish Citzens’ Army is said to have agreed on its name at a meeting in the rooms of the Revd R.M. Gwynn in Trinity College Dublin – he was regular communicant in Saint Bartholomew’s, intensely involved in the Irish Labour Movement, and for many years chaired the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission.

It is often forgotten in GAA circles that members of the Church of Ireland continue to be honoured in the names of the Semple Stadium and the Sam Maguire Cup.

Archbishop Gregg and Eamon de Valera together in the 1930s.

By and large, things settled down, and Archbishop Gregg, who was assured by the new government of the place of Protestants in a new state, advised de Valera on the wording of the constitution regarding Church of Ireland.

8, Continuing reforms

The Church of Ireland continued to reform itself, despite initial reluctance reluctance to concede structural reform.

In 1930, it was accepted that women could to be elected to select vestries. Eventually, a new way of electing bishops through electoral colleges was adopted in 1959, replacing the previous system by election by diocesan synods.

However, in 1967 proposals for further reforms were rejected. These included reducing the size of general synod, creating a new diocese centred on Belfast, leaving each diocese with just one cathedral and chapter, amalgamating diocesan offices, and – perhaps most significantly – providing for team ministries and a greater potential for mobility among the clergy. The only reform accepted was a reduction in the number of dioceses from 14 to 12.

In more recent years, proposals to reform the numbers, structures and method of working of general synod have continued to meet strong resistance.

Failure to face the need for reform also led to heartbreak when it came to closing many rural churches in the second half of the 20th century, because closure was often seen as cost-saving rather than part of a process of reform and change.

On the other hand, an openness to the insights of the liturgical movement in the 1930s and 1940s, and especially in the 1950s and 1960s, led to new baptismal and Eucharistic rites, and eventually to a modern-language Alternative Prayer Book in 1984.

By then, The Irish Times had ceased to be seen as the voice of the Church of Ireland population. Meanwhile, in 1978-1980, the long, formal links with TCD were broken, the Faculty of Theology became non-denominational, three divinity chairs fell vacant, the old course of training for clergy was abolished, and the Church of Ireland Theological College established – it is now the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

Changes in patterns of ministry were introduced with the introduction of Non-Stipendiary Ministers (NSMs) or auxiliary ministers – the first NSM in Dublin was the Revd Michael Heaney who was ordained deacon in 1976 and priest in 1977 – and the ordination of women approved in 1990. A new Church Hymnal was published in 2000, and the new Book of Common Prayer was published in 2004.

9, Ecumenical encounters

Where was the Church of Ireland ecumenically as we moved through the 20th century?

Talks initiated with the Presbyterian Church were initiated in 1931. They agreed to recognise each others ordinations and sacraments as a way to move towards unity, but this was rejected by the House of Bishops, and the talks have never progressed.

Indeed, Archbishop Gregg openly referred to non-episcopal churches as “the deprived children of Christendom,” and he boasted that he had never appeared on a public platform with what he called a “non-conformist” minister.

The formation of the Church of South India in 1948 caused interesting problems. Indeed, an Irish Presbyterian, Donald Kennedy, and an Irish Anglican, Anthony Hanson, were among the new bishops of the new Church, and an Irish Methodist minister, Ernest Gallagher, was ordained in it too, so that, technically, his orders were valid in the Church of Ireland when he returned to Ireland.

Relations with the Methodists flowered in a more favourable climate, and we now have a covenant that pledges the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland to work together and to seek unity.

When it comes to Roman Catholics, the climate changed with visits to the Vatican by two Archbishops of Canterbury, Fisher and Ramsey, to John XXIII and Paul VI, and with the reforms introduced by Vatican II.

The new opportunities that this created were ably seized by the late George Simms, successively Archbishop of Dublin and Archbishop of Armagh. He is credited with creating the climate that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, so that today it is accepted in many communities that no happening actually happens unless the rector has also been invited.

During his visit to Ireland in 1979, Pope John Paul II also met the bishops of the Church of Ireland.

The late Henry McAdoo, first as Bishop of Ossory and then as Archbishop of Dublin, co-chaired the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), and his expertise on and love for the insights of Jeremy Taylor and the Caroline Divines and their sacramental theology helped to bring about agreed statements on the Eucharist.

It is often forgotten that those agreements were accepted by the Church of Ireland, but have remained in cold storage in the Vatican. Archbishop McAdoo’s vision of full and visible unity in 1970 was that it would happen by the end of the century: 30 years then appeared a long stretch, but full and visible church unity now seems further away than ever.

In 1996, the Porvoo Communion was formed, linking the four Anglican churches on these islands with the Episcopal Lutheran churches of Northern Europe and the Baltic countries.

10, The future:

What does the future hold for the Church of Ireland? This is really not within the scope and ambit of a history seminar. But what do you think are the major issues facing the Church of Ireland in the future? The election and consecration of the first woman bishop? The unity of the churches on these islands? The unity of the Anglican Communion? The debate within Anglicanism on sexuality? The integration of immigrants and their families? Secularism? Economic and financial collapse? The environment?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture was delivered at the Lay Ministry training course on Saturday 31 January 2009.

Visiting Cambridge

The Church of Ireland notes in The Irish Times today (Saturday, 31 January 2009) includes the following items:

In the past few weeks, Cambridge University has started celebrating the 800th anniversary of its founding. An impressive round of events is planned, and the anniversary coincides with events marking the 200th anniversary of the birth in 1809 of the naturalist Charles Darwin.

Both Darwin and Archbishop Rowan Williams were undergraduates at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where the chaplain is the Revd Christopher Woods, a graduate of the Church of Ireland Theological College, now the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

The Director of Spiritual Formation at the institute, Canon Patrick Comerford, is visiting Christ’s College Cambridge this weekend and is the guest preacher in the chapel tomorrow [Sunday] at the Solemn Orchestral Eucharist for the Eve of Candlemas tomorrow [Sunday]. His sermon is part of the “Sundays at Six” series on the theme The ears of the heart, exploring various aspects of prayer.

On Monday, Canon Comerford will be in the City of London, where he will preach at a Service of Light in Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate to mark the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas). The Vicar of Saint Botolph’s is the Revd Dr Alan McCormack, a former chaplain in Trinity College Dublin.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Church History 1: The Church of Ireland, early beginnings

Patrick Comerford

Part 1: Doing Church History

1, Church History, an introduction:

Many of you may wonder about the hows and whys of Church History, and where it fits into any programme of theological, spiritual and liturgical training.

But before we even begin looking at Church History, let me begin by challenging some of our understandings of history.

Learning lessons from the legacy:

Is this economic crisis in Ireland an historic moment for us, socially, politically or economically?

Was the papacy of Pope John Paul II historic? Did Bertie Aherne make an historic contribution to Irish politics?

It may be too soon, too judge this, it be too early. I know a mediaeval historian who says that everything that happened after 1600 is politics and current affairs

What a later generation may describe as historic may not be what we see as momentous now may not be seen as historic by a later generation.

Group work:

In your groups discuss and name:

● 2 important people in history;
● 2 important events in history.


There are fashions in history. Today the fashionable studies include the history of sport, clothing, and local and family history studies. But a generation ago the fashion in history was for biographies and battles, generals and Prime Ministers. A century ago, peerages and genealogies of the landed gentry were big sellers. How many of you have dusted down your copy of Burke’s or Debrett’s lately?

Who knows what events today are shaping the future and will be regarded by future generations, therefore, as historic? History is not fixed, something we can objectively set out, and that will always remain so.

Are any of you Dr Who fans? In one episode in a recent series, Dr Who was visiting Victorian Cardiff. But what we see as important in Victorian days was not seen as such by Victorians, and future generations may have their own priorities.

We cannot all travel in the same Tardis. We construct our histories out of what we think was important in the past. Our priorities today are reflected in the facts we collect, how we prioritise and emphasise them, and even by what we accept on the one hand as fact, and what, on the other hand, we question, and more so by what we decide to collect and what we decide not to use at all in telling about the past.

Compare a biography of Winston Churchill and a biography of David Beckham. What would a biography of Churchill be like if it concentrated only on his clothes, his hairstyle or lack of hairstyle, and his sporting interests, and drew on interviews with his cigar suppliers and former neighbours?

Our judgment of Churchill has been different since the popular outburst of public sentiment following his death than the judgment passed on him by the electorate in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Those voters had a different idea of how history might judge Churchill.

It may be that historians in 200 years time decide that the great liberator of Eastern Europe or the unifier of modern Europe was not Pope John Paul II or Mikhail Gorbachev. They may have different priorities. Could it have been sport – the UEFA championships, the European Championships or the Moscow Olympics of 1980 – that did more to make Eastern Europeans more aware of the West, to open their demands, to give them a spirited approach to demanding liberation and European Union?

Who knows?

In the past we men have underplayed the importance women have played in history. Historians who have been educated in middle class schools continue to underplay the importance of sport and popular culture in transforming the everyday lives of individuals, families, communities and societies. If I sound a little absurd, remember your own background and conditioning, and remember that in 1969 war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras at a football match and 5,000 people were killed in the four-day “football war.”

Because of the conditioning of our family backgrounds and schooling, many of us think history is all about dates and battles, kings and generals. Is there anyone in this room who does not know the significance of these dates: 1014, 1066, 1662, 1690, 1798, 1916, 1927, 1945, 2008?

Is there anybody who does not know the historical significance of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, Napoleon, Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, Padraic Pearse, Wallace Simpson, Churchill, Stalin?

We find it more difficult when it come to counting in memorable moments in history events such as the death of Socrates, or when it comes to counting among the great figures in history people who gave us ideas (Plato, Aristotle, Luther, even Marx), or people who wrote great works (Aristophanes, Cervantes, Shakespeare), or were great artists and composers (Rembrandt, Mozart, Picasso).

How many of the two people in history you named were drawn from the English-speaking world. Think again of what you said in your small groups.

And so if Pope Paul II is going to be remembered in history it may be as a figure of authority, a Pope, a man who exercised authority, but not for his ideas, his theology or his spirituality.

What lessons can we draw from this?

History shapes our memories; and memories shape our sense of history. This is important for how we see ourselves today, as products of our past. And it is important for how our neighbours see us as perpetuating that legacy from the past.

Archbishop Rowan Williams .... asks cogent questions about Church history

2, Why do Church history?

Why should we study Church history in places or on course such as this? The simple answer that is usually is that we learn lessons from the past.

Woody Allen has asked: Why does history keep on repeating itself? He says its because people refuse to listen the first time round.

Quite a lot of us refuse to listen not so much to history, but to the presentation of history the first time round, particularly if it is presented in a dull and boring, pedantic and condescending way. And it’s dull and boring if it’s only about dates and battles, kings and generals, a chronology listing merely dates and names, without relevance to the present.

No! History is about how we have been shaped and how we are moving into the future. History is about a legacy. And if we don’t learn from the lessons, we can’t own the good and say goodbye to the past.

In his book on Church history – Why study the past? The quest for the historical church – Archbishop Rowan Williams argues cogently that Church history deepens on our present thinking and helps us to think with more varied and resourceful analogies about our present problems.

The Church depends in many areas on an understanding of its history. And so Church history is used by theologians not just to prove arguments but to clarify what we are as human beings.

Is that how you have perceived church history in the past?

Is your understanding of church history relevant to your understanding of theology?

Is your understanding of church history relevant to today’s Church?

3, Church History and theology:

I love looking back on those times I have lived close to the sea. Perhaps, it’s because my grandmother was brought up beside the sea in Portrane. I once lived near the beach at Rosslare, and in recent years have managed to spend some valuable time in Achill, in Kilmuckridge, and by the sea in Greece.

If you live by a coast or a beach, you know that lots of flotsam and jetsam are washed up every day. Sometimes this includes living creatures, such as seal pups, baby dolphins, or even the occasional beached whale.

I have joked in the past that the approach of the dogmatic theologian to the beached whale or baby dolphin might be to see how it breathes, how its heart beats, whether the main part of the tail is three-in-one or one-in-three, to carve it up to find and examine its component parts, and finally express surprise that it is dead.

The approach of the church historian, on the other hand, might follow this course: ask where it came from; ask which tide brought it in; ask whether this tide was influenced by the phases of the moon; ask is it like previous whales or dolphins seen on this, or neighbouring, beaches; and while going to the county library to find the cuttings for the last sighting of one these in 1927, the creature heaves a last sigh and dies.

If they had both co-operated, they might have first pushed the creature back into the sea, and it might have lived, and we might have more of an idea of why it lives.

Church History needs to be relevant to your faith, to your spirituality, to your worship, to your ecumenical endeavours, to your ministry and to your mission.

Let me share some examples:

Church history and doctrine: Here, church history helps us understand the way doctrine has developed. For example, you may have to deal with the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the construction of liturgy in the past that has led to our present liturgical experiences.

Church history and art: How can you understand the great works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt, the collections in the Uffizi in Florence, the icons in Orthodox history, or the architecture of great cathedrals and churches that have survived the centuries without understanding what the artist or architect was trying to say, and, from the other perspective, how can we appreciate these works without developing an awareness of how they have shaped our images of God and of Biblical figures, or formed culturally our expectations of sacred space?

Church history and spirituality: Here, Church history opens for us and makes accessible the writings of the Desert Fathers; the development of monasticism and its links with Egypt; how early Irish monasticism, in a very short time, drew on the tradition of the East – from Pachomius, Basil and Anthony, and then spread to Europe. But how many of us know how to own much of this as Anglicans? History and spirituality have often come together for me in my pilgrimage or retreats in a monastery, such as Glenstal, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai or Patmos. But think of the opportunities of being enriched spiritually and in the tradition of the early Church by going on a retreat in Orlagh with the Augustinians, or in Rostrevor or Glenstal with the Benedictines.

Church history and our essential understanding of salvation: Much of what passes as a Protestant understanding of salvation is Augustinian. It is not so much based on Scripture as on an Augustinian reading of Scripture. And therefore it is Western as opposed to Eastern.

In the East, there is not the same emphasis on original sin, and therefore there is not the same emphasis on the need for personal salvation, nor are the same questions asked about justification. In the East, salvation is to be found in the church, and therefore people associate salvation with going to Church and taking part in the liturgy. In that sense, Western Protestant and Catholic questions about sin and salvation have more in common with each other than we ever admit or accept. Church history helps us to understand that.

Church history teaches us that the Reformation was not a unique event. There were other Reforming movements. It begs questions such as why Francis of Assisi was kept in the church, but Luther was expelled?

Church history and the other arts: The monastery played a crucial role in the development of western understandings of music, through chant and organ. In literature, Chaucer was the first person to write in modern English, and Dante was the first person to write in modern Italian. But who can separate these developments in western understanding from the spiritual and theological directions of their work?

The importance of Florence and the flowering of the Renaissance are essentially grasped through understanding the patronage of the Church. Much popular understanding today of about Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is derived not from the Gospel narratives but from Dan Browne’s Da Vinci Code. But art is important in understanding theology. Think of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

When it comes to music, church history and theology, think of Mozart and Bach. Bach died in 1750, but nobody realised then what historical significance he would have – his Saint Matthew Passion was not performed until 1829, when Mendelssohn conducted it in Berlin. Yet Bach is an example of how we can theology through music: he inscribed the scores of his religious music with the letters JJ (Jesu, juva, Jesus help) at the beginning, and SDG (Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone the glory) at the end.

4, Church history and our Christian neighbours:

History is read differently by different Christian communities.

The Presbyterian memory of the Church of Ireland is that we marginalised them at the Caroline Restoration in 1660, that we turfed them out of their churches in the north-east, and that we kept all the church endowments for ourselves.

Yet the Presbyterian memory of being the true Ulster-Scots is untrue.

When it comes to Roman Catholic memory, we’re often seen as a branch of the Church of England, or remembered for the Penal Laws and the landlords and tithes, and we are linked with their sense of disinheritance.

Catholics and Presbyterians together believe that they were the only ones to take part in the 1798 Rising.

Methodists too believe in their memories that we turfed them out of the Church.

Think of Catholic memory of souperism and the Achill and Ventry missions. How can Nangle and mission in Achill be seen in a positive light today?

5, Church history and interfaith dialogue:

Church history reminds us that Byzantium was the longest-lasting Christian kingdom, that what we call Turkey was a Christian country – the Christian country – for longer than it has been a Muslim country.

On the other hand, Spain was a Muslim country for longer than it has been regarded as a Christian country.

And so, it is surprising the Carmelite spirituality of John of the Cross or Theresa of Avila has echoes of Sufi spirituality?

We can deal properly with out neigbours if we first accept them as our neighbours. And Church history teaches that Muslims and Turks have always been part of Europe, ever since we constructed the concept of Europe.

6, Church history and our understanding of the political world:

Christianity played a key, formative role in shaping European cultural identity. For too long, there was a coincidence of Europe and Christendom.

Church history explains the development of principles such as the just war theory.

In terms of political science, church history like no other branch of history allows us to compare Savonarola (1498) with Machiavelli. Was Savanarola essentially a political opportunist or a religious fanatic?

In terms of imperialist expansion, Church history helps to explain a great deal of what was happening in Europe for the last 500 years or so, and its legacy. Just think of a movie such as The Mission, and how the Pope carved up Latin America between Portugal and Spain.

The churches played a key role in shaping North America. Think of how they shaped Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia, or Quaker Pennsylvania.

The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church at its worst as against a monarchy that was propped up by the churches teaching and preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

We cannot understand evangelicalism without taking account of its political impulses, including demands to end the slave trade, slavery, and child labour.

We understand Karl Marx in a new light when we understand that his Jewish parents converted to Christianity during his childhood.

When it comes to assessing the last eight years of American history, will it be possible for historians to understand the Bush presidency without understanding the religious beliefs of his closest advisers and their apocalyptic theology? But I’ll leave that for later historians.

7, Summary:

Bad church history is merely a summary of dates and domineering figures. Good church history relates to the rest of theology, and to the rest of society. If we don’t do it properly, people will think we’re irrelevant, or covering up.

And because we’ve done it so badly in the past, I think, explains in part the reason why many people are attracted to The Da Vinci Code. They know it’s a novel, but at the same time many really do believe Dan Brown that the book is based on facts and on real history.

Over these two days, want you to throw aside your old ideas about history, and let’s ask searching questions about the Church of Ireland, how we were shaped, and how we got to where we are today.

Part 2: The Church of Ireland, Early beginnings

1, Introduction

Brendan Behan once crudely named which part of the anatomy of Henry VIII the Church of England had been founded on. And many of your neighbours probably persistent in the popular misperception that the Church of Ireland, in some way, is nothing more than a branch of the Church of England on this island.

On the other hand, historians in the Church of Ireland, in a very antiquarian approach, tried to prove that the Church of Ireland was the legitimate heir and successor to the Church of Saint Patrick and the Ancient Celtic Church of Ireland, claiming that in some way that early church had been hijacked during the Anglo-Norman invasion, and had recovered its independence at disestablishment.

The truth, of course, is always more subtle and nuanced than popular myth. Of course the Church on this island owes much to the early Celtic Church. But it is also the Church of Vikings, who gave us new dioceses centres on cities rather than monasteries, such as Dublin and Christ Church Cathedral.

These city-based dioceses often felt closer to Canterbury than their Celtic neighbours, even before the Anglo-Norman invasion.

With the Anglo-Norman invasion came French-speaking bishops and clergy, and the Church benefitted from the closer links created not onl6y with the Church in England but with the Church in Continental Europe.

Yet we persisted in insisting on our Celtic inheritance, and the Preamble and Declaration adopted by the General Convention of the Church of Ireland in 1870 as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland,” while also conceding that this same church is “a reformed and Protestant Church.”

The Reformation dates back to the invention of printing in the 1450s. In less than half a century no less than 100 editions of the Bible published. None of this was controlled by the Church.

At same time, the Church was losing control of minds and of states. This was the time when Erasmus was thinking and writing in Rotterdam (1466-1536). In France, the king had secured right in 1516 to make the appointment to all senior posts in the Church.

Similar control over Church appointments was exercised by kings in Scotland and England, including appointing some bishoprics from 15th century. It was the same too with the Holy Roman Emperors in Germany.

Was there one single cause of the Reformations? Was it simply about the sale of indulgences to help build Saint Peter’s in Rome. Or was it about the monarch having a veto or final say in Church appointments? Or was it about freeing the thinking of individuals from the controls and authority of the past?.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, nailed his 95 theses to door of Wittenberg Cathedral. One Lutheran theologian who later became a Roman Catholic, playfully described them as the first theological Halloween prank. But we should remember that they were conservative, and that they did not attack any of the central dogmas taught from Rome.

But what did Luther and his followers stand for or against? They were concerned about:

● The all-pervading power of the Pope;
●The sale of religious rites and offices;
● The need to provide the Bible in the common language in every pulpit;
● The liturgy simplified and made more accessible and understandable;
● Clerical celibacy and marriage; and
● Communion in both kinds – but, once again, we should note that this was not an attack on the theology of Eucharist.

Much of Luther’s thinking was theologically conservative. Who knows any Roman Catholic today who would want the Pope to exercise temporal power? Hopefully we would all oppose simony. All have traditions accept that the Bible readings and preaching should be in our own language. In all churches, the liturgy has been greatly simplified and brought out towards the people. Suggesting that the clergy should be allowed to marry is no longer shocking even among Roman Catholics. And some of you will have noticed how often Roman Catholics receive Holy Communion in both kinds at weddings, retreats and on other occasions.

Luther believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; consubstantiation was still a valid theological opinion – transubstantiation was not declared a dogma until Trent, and consubstantiation is closer to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

So it is fair to say that Luther saw himself not as founding a new church but as reforming the Church. His under-girding doctrine was justification by faith.

The other key figures in the Reformation included John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli in France and Switzerland, and Thomas Cranmer in England.

Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was instrumental in the Anglican reformation

2, The Anglican Reformation

In England, Thomas Cranmer, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury with Papal approval, granted Henry VIII the divorce from Catherine of Aragon he so desperately sought in 1533, and Henry then married the pregnant Anne Boleyn.

Henry VIII already controlled the Church of England. The Pope’s predicament centred not on Henry’s divorce, but on the fact that the Pope was a prisoner of the Emperor Charles V, Catherine of Aragon’s nephew.

A year later, the Act of Supremacy was passed in 1534.

So in England, the reformation did not begin until after Henry VIII’s divorce, and the Anglican Reformation began not with doctrinal or liturgical changes, but with the dissolution of the monastic houses between 1536 and 1539. At that time, most of the clergy were illiterate. Many of the monasteries were corrupt, having amassed landed estates, privilege and power, and some may have become questionable in their lifestyles. But many of the monastic houses provided what we would now regard as basic hospitals and sheltered housing.

On the surface, little appeared to have changed during the reign of Henry VIII, apart from an English Bible placed being in every English parish church.

Henry VIII died in 1547, and the accession of his son, Edward VI, still a boy, gave a freer hand to the reformers. Cranmer introduced his first Prayer Book in 1549, but this was still quite Catholic, and still used the term Mass.

The Reforms during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553) included:

● A new and simplified liturgy was introduced, using the vernacular;
● The doctrine of the Eucharist combined both Catholic and Reformed teaching, expresses in the words of the liturgy: “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ …” and then: “Take and eat this in remembrance …”
● A new statement of doctrine (the 39 Articles);
● Churches were stripped of images and stone altars;
● All ceremonies were forbidden apart from those in the Book of Common Prayer.

3, The Reformation in Ireland

Meanwhile, what was happening in Ireland?

In 1536, the Irish Parliament approved the Royal Supremacy over the Church in Ireland. All of the bishops in the House of Lords accepted the change.

The dissolution of the monasteries was slow. The final list was not issued until 1539. Indeed, rather than being a reform measure needed by the Church, it appeared more like an act that pandered to the avarice of the landed aristocracy: for example, the Earl of Ormond was granted the lands of Jerpoint, Kells and Kilcooley.

And yet, many monasteries continued in places like Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal into the 17th century, and there were exceptions – in Christ Church, Dublin, which was an Augustinian foundation, the prior and the friars became the dean and the chapter of the cathedral.

Reforms could be said to have had the whole-hearted support of the bishops. Archbishop Browne of Dublin, a former Augustinian friar who had been appointed Archbishop by Cardinal Wolsey, publicly burned images and relics. The other strong advocate of the reformation was Bishop Staples of Meath. The rest of the bishops continued on as before, as bishops of the church with strong state links, but not particularly worried one way or the other about the Reformation, although a growing number of bishops and clergy availed of the opportunity to marry.

The first book to be printed in Ireland in 1551 was the Book of Common Prayer – but notice that this was two years after it was introduced in England – and it was first used in Christ Church Cathedral on Easter Day 1551.

It was only than that Archbishop Dowdall of Armagh left the country rather than approve the use of the Book of Common Prayer.

One of the most controversial figures of the day among the bishops was John Bale, Bishop of Ossory, who was jailed in England on several occasions under Henry VIII for his extreme Protestant views, but who appears to have been chosen personally as bishop by the boy king Edward VI.

His clergy opposed the introduction of the new prayer book, and Bales proved to be a controversialist. When Edward died 1553 shortly after Bale’s consecration, Mary came to power. In the procession in Kilkenny City to mark her accession, Bale refused to wear a mitre and or carry a crozier, and so they were carried forcibly in front of him. He soon fled to Dublin and from there to Switzerland.

Mary was committed to reversing the reforms. But is often forgotten this Catholic monarch also introduced the idea of plantation into Ireland. Queen’s County (now Laois) and Maryborough (Portlaoise) took their name from her; while King’s County (Offaly) was named after Spanish Catholic co-monarch, Philip. But in reversing most of the changes introduced under Henry VIII and Elizabeth, Mary did not abolish the Royal Supremacy, which only later was seen as a cornerstone of the Reformation but which was then normal throughout Europe, Catholic and Protestant.

Mary deprived all the married clergy of their Church office, including Archbishop Browne and the Bishops of Meath, Kildare, Leighlin and Limerick – although none was brought to court for heresy, and the systematic persecutions associated in England with her as “Bloody Mary” did not take place in Ireland..

Mary was succeeded by her half-sister, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I.

In 1560, the Act of Religious Uniformity was passed, and the Act of Supremacy was re-enacted. At this stage, only two bishops – Meath and Kildare – refused to conform and were deprived.

In 1566, all the Irish clergy were ordered to subscribe to a set of 12 Articles, and few refused, so that there was no real breach in continuity between the bishops and clergy of the pre-Reformation Church in Ireland and the post-Reformation Church of Ireland. The laity, for the time being, simply went along with their landlords, bishops and clergy. Certainly, on the eastern seaboard, the majority of people accepted the state of affairs in the Church: on one particular Sunday, there were over 400 communicants in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, and over 200 in Drogheda.

The cracks only begin to show later. Peter White, who was Dean of Waterford from 1565, was only deprived of that in 1570 for joining the Church of Rome.

Many of the bishops of the time are accepted as standing in the line of bishops by both churches. There is the famous case of Miler Magrath, who arrived in Ireland in 1566 as the Pope’s approved Bishop of Down and Connor, and then subsequently become the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Cashel. But there is also the case of Alexander Devereux, a former abbot who is seen in both traditions as being the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland Bishop of Ferns; and there was the Dominican friar who attended the Council of Trent while he was the Church of Ireland Bishop of Achonry.

It was not until 1582 that a separate Roman Catholic bishop appointed for Ireland. But he only lived in Kilkenny for a year from 1583 to 1584, and then went back to the Continent.

The first Irish version of the Book of Common Prayer was not produced until the 1580s, and the first Bible in Irish was not published not until 1603. There were great Irish scholars in the Church of Ireland such as Nehemiah Donnellan and William O’Donnell, who were successive Archbishops of Tuam. But did Irish publications come too late?

They certainly were too late for the great reformer, Adam Loftus, who was the first chancellor of TCD (1592), then Archbishop of Armagh (1563-1567) and Archbishop of Dublin (1567-1605). Loftus saw clearly that Ireland could never be made Protestant simply by bringing it under English rule. He saw that more was needed than the secular power or education – and he saw that need as being the clear teaching of the Gospel.

Unfortunately for the Church of Ireland, too many of the clergy and bishops were ill-equipped to do this, and were more interested in their careers, their comforts and their wealth.

But there were exceptions. Among those exceptions was Archbishop James Ussher, a scholar of European reputation. He saved the Book of Kells and he dated the creation to 4004 BC. William Bedell, Bishop of Kilmore would only appoint Irish-speakers to parishes, held Irish-language services, and translated both prayers and the Old Testament.

But by then there had been a resurgence in popular Catholicism, while Presbyterianism was making major inroads in Ulster from neighbouring Scotland.

4, Cromwell, the Restoration and the Boyne

The 1641 Rebellion had a traumatic impact on the Church of Ireland. The victims included Bedell. Churches were taken over, and in Kilkenny, for example, David Rothe moved into Saint Canice’s Cathedral, the communion silver was stolen, and in an act of vandalism the cathedral records were burned.

Later, with Cromwell’s arrival, the Church of Ireland was virtually forced underground, the Book of Common Prayer was banned, most of the clergy were dismissed from their parishes, and – with few exceptions – the bishops forced out of the dioceses.

It is only in the post-Cromwellian period that the Church of Ireland as we know it today took its real shape.

Next: The Church of Ireland, how we got to where we are today.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture was delivered at the Lay Ministry training course on Friday 30 January 2009.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Church History 2: 1690-1714

Patrick Comerford

Part 1: Introduction:

We have looked at the period 1660-1690 and the life of the Church of Ireland from the restoration of Charles II to the Battle of the Boyne. This was the Church of the Caroline Divines and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; the Church of Jeremy Taylor and Narcissus Marsh; a Church whose close political relations with the state produced great problems during the reign of James II; a Church that found itself, in that wonderful description by Ray Gillespie of Maynooth, “caught between a Catholic anvil and a Protestant hammer.”

It was a Church that found itself in an exciting world of new thinking, in theology, philosophy, science, literature and architecture. Continental Europe saw the challenges posed philosophically by Descartes and Pascal, and theologically by Jansenism and Gallicanism.

We can never separate those developments in the Continental Church from what was happening in the Church on this island: if the Popes saw their power and influence declining after the Peace of Westphalia, and declining in the face of the assertions of the French King and the Gallicans, then was it any wonder that – having heard that James II was ending his exile in France, and that with French support he had come to Ireland in the hope of regaining his throne – the Pope should say Mass in Rome giving thanks for the victory of William at the Boyne?

We have seen that many of the bishops of the Church of Ireland had either gone into exile under James II, or had been persecuted. What happened in the Church after the Battle of the Boyne on 1 July and after William III’s arrival in Dublin on 6 July to that solemn service of thanksgiving in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin?

Part 2: The Church of Ireland

Between 1690 and 1714, both Ireland and the Church of Ireland went through a period of change. Dublin was the second city of the Empire and grew at an unprecedented rate after the Williamite Revolution. In 1695, Dublin had a population of 47,000, and 12 parishes, with 78% of the population living south of the River Liffey. By 1715, the population of Dublin had risen to 89,000, of whom two-thirds were Protestants.

Non-resistance and the divine right of kings had become central assumptions in the relations between Church and State for both the Church of Ireland and the Church of England. There were those who had taken an oath of loyalty to the reigning monarch and who – despite the turmoils during the reign of James II – felt bound by their oath.

Those leaders who felt unable to renounce their oath, who refused to take a new oath to William and Mary, and who lost their offices, became known as the Nonjurors. They included: William Sheridan, Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, the Archdeacons of Connor (Baynard) and Dublin (John Fitzgerald), the Dean of Lismore (Barzilai Jones), the Chancellor and Treasurer of Connor (Charles Leslie and W. Jones), and Henry Dodwell and George Kelly of Trinity College Dublin.

Although this dissent was hardly as significant as the Nonjuring schism in England, it nevertheless shows that (1) there was dissent within the Church of Ireland on the question the Church/State relations; (2) the Williamite revolution did not have complete support within the Protestant community; (3) the opposition to William within the Church of Ireland came from the core of the clergy rather than from the margins.

Fitzgerald was a brother of Bishop John Fitzgerald of Clonfert, a son of Dean John Fitzgerald of Cork, and a grandson of Archbishop Richard Boyle of Tuam. Sheridan had been Dean of Down and chaplain to Ormond when he was Lord-Lieutenant, and his brother, Patrick Sheridan, was Bishop of Cloyne (1679-1682).

Sheridan and Fitzgerald moved to London, where they lived among the English Nonjurors.

Charles Leslie and Henry Dodwell, with their books and pamphlets, were later recognised as a theologian and an historian of importance within Anglican thought. They set an example of honesty in politics, emphasised the view that there is moral foundation for the State as well as for the Church, and that there is a sacredness of moral obligation in public life.

Apart from losing the Nonjurors, the Church of Ireland had also lost many leaders who had fled during the reign of James II, while others such as Hugh Gore of Waterford had died as a consequence of their suffering. As at the Restoration in 1660, the Church of Ireland once again faced the problem of reorganisation and filling vacant dioceses. In 1691 and 1692, a new archbishop and eight new bishops were appointed: Narcissus Marsh (Cashel), Fitzgerald (Clonfert – a brother of the Nonjuring Archdeacon of Dublin), Digby (Elphin), Tennison (Clogher), Vigors (Ferns and Leighlin), Lloyd (Killala), King (Derry), Foy (Waterford) and Wilson (Limerick).

Archbishop Narcissus Marsh: brought fresh vigour to the office of Archbishop in Cashel, Dublin and Armagh

Archbishop Narcissus Marsh brought a fresh vigour to his roles as Provost of TCD, Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin, and then as Archbishop of Cashel (1691-1694), Dublin (1694-1703) and Armagh (1703-1714). He was regular in visitations, combating the abuses he encountered. He forbade preaching in private houses, ordered every incumbent to preach each Sunday, and to “preach upon the royal supremacy four times a year.” As archbishop, he insisted on visiting his suffragan dioceses, and he also played a part in establishing Marsh’s Library and the Dublin Philosophical Society (now the RIA).

The other key reforming figure in the Church at this time was William King (see below).

The bishops were regarded as tending towards “high church” preferences or leanings, and their political loyalties were tested with the introduction of the oath of abjuration in 1697, which was opposed by all four archbishops and three of the bishops.

But the relations between Church and State were strengthened in the years that followed with an increasing political role for the bishops.

The Lords Lieutenant were largely non-resident, and during their lengthy absences the island was governed by two or three Lords Justices, one of whom was inevitably either the Primate or one of the three other archbishops.

Narcissus Marsh complained that the offices of state occupied too much of his working time, and during the parliamentary recess in 1707, the Council sat no less than eight or ten hours a day, leaving him little time for study or to administer his diocese. King too complained that he was over-burdened by the affairs of state. Many bishops complained that they had to spent much of their time in the House of Lords.

The Irish-born clergy also complained about being overlooked when it came to promotions in the Church: every primate who held office between 1702 and 1800 was of English birth, and a very normal path to promotion to the bench of bishops was to come to Ireland as chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant. Many of these, as Chart describes them, were “political hacks or obsequious intriguing courtiers.”

Among the clergy of the Church of Ireland, there was unease at the failure to call Convocation, which had not met since 1661, and which was not summoned again until 1703. When it was called, the bishops claimed for convocation the right to deal with all Church matters, to make ordinances and decrees that had the force of ecclesiastical canons and constitutions, while the clergy claimed the right to impose their own taxation.

The full convocation met for the first time in the chapter room of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on 11 January 1704, and met for several months. They pressed for stricter observance of the Lord’s Day, a ruling by the bishops on churchwardens’ rights to punish those who failed to attend church, and debated profane swearing, public drunkenness, travelling on Sundays, the morals and manners of stage plays, and also proposals for theatre censorship.

They drew attention to the dangers of teaching philosophy in school, their worries about the ordination of unqualified men, the abuses of parochial patronage, the scandalous lifestyles of dismissed clergy, and the plight of sick curates.

They wanted at least monthly celebrations of the Holy Communion, a greater role for deans and chapters in examining candidates for ordination, and a more thorough inquiry into the ordinations of men who were received as priests and who were former Roman Catholics.

They also debated the use of First Fruits and Twentieth Part, the division and union of parishes, and raising money for church repairs.

And a major part of the debate was devoted to the conversion of Roman Catholics, and the use of the Irish language in this mission, including the use of Irish Bibles, sermons, hymnbooks and prayer books.

But Convocation also gave the incentive and initiative for a new wave of church building.

At this time, King reported, for example, that in the Diocese of Ferns, containing 131 parishes, only 32 parishes – the poorest parishes, needless to say – were in the hands of the officiating clergy. Neither bishop, nor dean nor archdeacon was resident in the diocese, which was served by only 13 beneficed clergy and nine curates, with incomes at £30 to £100. Pluralism and non-residence were major problems for the Church of Ireland, and reform was proving a very slow process.

However, Alan Acheson judges the calling of convocation a pyrrhic victory for the Church of Ireland, with its meetings exposing the disunity of the Church.

Convocation gradually declined in importance in the closing years of Queen Anne’s reign, leaving the Church of Ireland dependent on the secular power, and therefore on the landed interest.

Primate Marsh died in 1713. Convocation was convened for the last time at the end of that year in December 1713, and it was dissolved with the death of Queen Anne on 1 August 1714.

Church and State were as divided over whether the throne should pass to another member of the House of Stuart or to the German princes of the House of Hanover. With the accession of the Hanoverian monarchy in 1714, Church and State would enter a new phase. The Church of Ireland moved from being in the hands of the heirs of the Caroline tradition to being part of the new latitudinarian age. It would not escape the challenges posed for the wider Church in the decades to come by Rationalism and Deism.

Part 3: The Church in Ireland:

3:1: The Roman Catholics

The Penal Laws have left a legacy of bitterness. Were they inspired by theological antipathies or by fear of the political influence of the Pope? The historian Lecky points out that the Penal Laws were a product of the time, when church and state were inseparable, and claims they were modelled on French laws against the Huguenots.

The argument continues. But we must still be sensitive, even today, to the inherited memory that recalls the Penal Laws as sectarian in their intent and in their impact. This is reinforced by the fact that the bishops of the Church of Ireland were often instrumental in enacting and in enforcing these laws.

A state paper of the time on the state of Roman Catholics on the island lists: 838 secular priests and 389 regular priests, and three bishops (Cork, Galway and Waterford). Several Roman Catholic bishops had been expelled, and those that remained lived a precarious life, depending on the shelter provided by courageous members of their flock.

Archbishop Edward Comerford of Cashel, who was living in Thurles, Co Tipperary, wrote to the Pope, Innocent XII, in 1698: “Several of our brethren have stayed, hiding in cisterns, in mountains, caves and holes. I am sustained by the bread of tribulation and the water of scarcity, but I have not given up my office and will not do so.” He remained in office until his death in 1710.

But the Lord-Lieutenant, the Duke of Portland, knowing that without bishops there could be no priests, argued that if needed Roman Catholic bishops would have to come from the continent to ordain to continue ordinations.

Meanwhile, the tracts and pamphlets of the times, and the sermon preached on 30 January, 29 May, 23 October and 5 November (the new commemorations in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), teem with references to the enormous evils of the powers claimed by the Pope.

Bishop King of Derry, a later Archbishop of Dublin, argued that the Roman Catholics must be held in subjection because of their religious views. They could not hold any office because they might betray their trust to the Pope. He conceded their rights to personal liberty, but not their political liberty and or any rights to the full benefits of citizenship.

King objected, for example, to a Roman Catholic priest in his diocese who was reported to have taken on himself to marry and divorce people and to dissolve marriages. On King other hand, he severely censured a landlord who took advantage of the Penal Laws to acquire the land of a Roman Catholic tenant for his own benefit.

Some of the bishops of the Church of Ireland advocated extreme measures against the Roman Catholics: Bishop Anthony Dopping, in a sermon in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, urged that there was no moral obligation on the Government to observe the terms conceded to Roman Catholics in the Treaty of Limerick.

On the other hand, on the following Sunday, Bishop Moreton of Kildare was anxious to find some means of accommodation. He urged Roman Catholic priests to accept the authority of William III, and suggested that their bishops could be paid by the state. Even one leading figure in the Church of Ireland, Peter Manby, Dean of Derry, became a Roman Catholic as a consequence of reading Archbishop William King’s Answer to the Considerations.

The Convocation summoned in 1703 devoted much of its time to debating the effectiveness and enforcement of the Penal Laws, including prohibitions on the entry of Roman Catholic priests from abroad, the opening of a register of Roman Catholic priests in Ireland, extending the vote to Roman Catholics only if they took the oaths of abjuration and allegiance, and demanding that holders of Crown offices must first receive Holy Communion according to the usage of the Church of Ireland.

In wrestling with these memories, historians of the Church of Ireland have failed to deal adequately with the real and shameful memories. A disingenuous example is provided by Murray (in Alison Philips) as late as 1933, when he writes: “At such times, however, the priest walked abroad at night and vanished in the early dawn, and when ardent Protestant neighbours came in search of arms they were apt to find pistol and corselet hidden away with pyx and chasuble” (Philips, vol iii, pp 160-161).

And yet, throughout all this time, pilgrimages were thriving – despite the Act banning them in 1702 – and especially at Lough Derg, which was owned by the Leslie family of Glaslough, who had provided generations of bishops and priests to the Church of Ireland.

Did the Penal Laws have any effect on the population? More than 40 years after the Treaty of Limerick, Roman Catholics still outnumbered Protestants in every part of Ireland, except the counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Derry and Dublin.

An analysis of population figures calculated by using the register of hearth taxes in the 1730s shows:

Ulster: 62,624 Protestants; 38,459 Catholics; Ratio: 3:2.
Leinster: 25,241 Protestant; 92,434 Catholics; Ratio: 2:7.
Munster: 13,337 Protestants; 106,407 Catholics; Ratio: 1:8.
Connacht: 4,299 Protestants; 44,101 Catholics; Ratio: 1:10.

3.2: The Presbyterians:

Although the Whigs were more amenable towards them, the Presbyterians also suffered under the Penal Laws, and also strongly resented the Sacramental Test Act.

Any legislative efforts to provide relief for the Presbyterians were effectively vetoed in the House of Lords, where the bishops had a working majority. Those who were more favourable towards the Presbyterians and their plight included a Dr Wright, FTCD, who, as a consequence, found his nomination as Bishop of Cork and Ross was blocked. Instead, the vacant see was filled by Peter Brown, who was suspected of Jacobite sympathies, and who wrote a discourse attacking the practice of drinking to the “pious and immortal memory” of William III.

3.3: The Huguenots:

Last week, we asked why the Huguenots had largely been incorporated into the Church of Ireland rather than the Presbyterians. The Convocation of 1704 discussed providing them with space in church buildings and a French version of the Book of Common Prayer, which was published in various editions in Dublin from 1715 to 1817.

The main centres of Huguenot settlement included Lisburn, Portarlington and Dublin, where they were concentrated in the Liberties and had three congregations.

Among the early Huguenot clergy in Ireland were James Hierome and Jacques Abbadie.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin: hosted a French-speaking congregation of Huguenots

Hierome was the first French Huguenot minister to come to Ireland. Born in Sedan, he was the Reformed minister at Le Mans and at Fecamp, and then a French minister in London before moving to Dublin. He was a chaplain to Ormond (1662-1666) and then became the minister of the French Church in Saint Patrick’s, Cathedral, Dublin (1662-1667). Hierome was happy to hold office in non-French parishes too, and was something of a pluralist, holding benefices in the Dioceses of Dublin, Meath, Lismore and Waterford at the same time in the 1670s.

Abbadie had been pastor of the French church in Berlin. His lack of fluent English stopped William III appointing him Dean of Saint Patrick’s, Dublin, but he eventually became Dean of Killaloe in 1699. In Portarlington, the French Church was consecrated in French, using the form in the Book of Common Prayer, by Bishop Moreton of Kildare, and the parish records continued to be kept in French until 1807.

Another new influx came with the arrival of the Palatines, German Protestant refugees who began arriving from the Palatinate and Rhine valley from 1709, settling in Limerick, Wexford, Cork and Dublin. By 1720, the Palatines numbered 185 families.

Part 4: The wider church

The reign of Louis XIV came to a close in 1715. Apart from the extravagances of his court, this period had also been marked, in Church affairs, by the debates on Gallicanism and Jansenism, and by the clashes and competition between the French monarch and the Papacy.

No wonder the Pope felt safer when William III was victorious over James II, who had come out of exile in France with the full support of Louis XIV!

But there spiritual movements in France too, such as those led by the quietist, Madame Guyon (1648-1717) and Archbishop Francois Fenelon (1651-1715), with their emphases on pure love and passive prayer. In Germany, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), author of Pia Desideria, and August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) were the early leaders of Pietism, a movement centred on Halle, and which would later have a marked influence, through the Moravians, on Methodism.

In England, the writings of the Nonjurors were also to have an influence out of proportion to their size. They included Thomas Ken (1637-1711), whose influence survives as a hymn-writer, and, later, William Law (1686-1791), author of spiritual classics.

For the Church of England, the age was also marked not just by increasingly closer and more problematic relations with the State, but also by the founding of the first Anglican missionary societies: the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1698, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG – Anglicans in World Mission) in 1701, both founded by Thomas Bray (1656-1730).

Part 5: Key personalities in the Church of Ireland:

5.1: Archbishop William King (1650-1729) of Dublin

Archbishop William King … found the people of Belfast “very refractory”

One of the key figures in the Church of Ireland throughout this time was William King (1650-1729). While he was, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin (1688-1691), he was imprisoned on the orders of James II. After the Williamite Revolution, he became Bishop of Derry (1691-1703) and Archbishop of Dublin (1703-1729).

King was the son of James King, a Scottish miller, who had moved to Co Antrim to escape the Solemn League and Covenant in Aberdeen.

King was a “high church” bishop, supported the Penal Code and refused to support the Toleration Bill in the House of Lords. He was particularly strong in his condemnation of Quakers, and had strong words about the people of Belfast who “are very refractory” and who bury their dead without prayers, come to church without removing their hats, break their fasts, and refuse to hand over collections to the churchwardens. [Murray, in Alison Philips, vol iii, pp 165-166.]

He was a reforming bishop in both Derry and Dublin, with conspicuous success. In 1711, with the assistance of Jonathan Swift, Dean of Saint Patrick’s, he obtained the first fruits and the twentieth parts for the Church of Ireland. He was incensed when the best of his clergy were passed over and important bishoprics and other senior Church posts were given to English clergy.

He rebuilt churches, including seven in the Diocese of Derry that had not been used since the Reformation; he publicly admonished sinners; he provided services in the Irish language; and he openly challenged and debated with Dissenters.

In Dublin and Glendalough, he built (or rebuilt) Arklow, Stillorgan, Kilgobbin, Ringsend, Saint Mark’s, Saint James’s, Saint Ann’s, and Saint Luke’s, he provided glebes, and he took special care in his efforts to guard against pluralism and non-residence.

A Whig politically, he failed to receive the expected promotion to the Primacy during the High Tory ascendancy at the end of Queen Anne’s reign, but came into his own after the Hanoverian accession. An important theologian in his time, his De Origione Mali (1702, translated 1731) sought to reconcile the existence of evil with the conception of an omnipotent and beneficent God.

5.2: Reforming bishops

Other reforming bishops at this time included Nathaniel Foy (1638-1707), Bishop of Waterford (1691-1707), who was jailed for strong speeches during the reign of James II, and again in 1695. He rebuilt rebuilt Saint Bride’s Church in Dublin, founded Bishop Foy School in Waterford, endowed schools, but despaired over “our sinking church” which faced the prospect of ruin and needed “a persecution [to] preserve us.”

However, bishops found their voices were not heard when they protested against abuses. Smith of Limerick protested in vain when he was instructed to institute a Dr Richards into two parishes in his diocese, taking his total number of livings to 14. “The Poison breath of the Castle” was blighting the work of “the better sort of clergy,” he protested.

On the other hand, Simon Digby, Bishop of Elphin (1691-1720), was said by King to have left his diocese “in a miserable condition: churches greatly wanting, and those that are, ill supplied … only about 13 clergymen in it.”

King also described the diocese of Killaloe as being “in a miserable condition” too.

5.3: Scandalous bishops and clergy

And there were scandalous bishops too. These included Thomas Hackett, Bishop of Down and Dromore (1671-1694). For the greater part of his 22 years as a bishop, Hackett lived in Hammersmith in London, where he openly sold livings to the highest bidders, including Roman Catholics. He was tried by King and Dopping in 1694, found guilty of simony and other abuses, and deposed.

Other trials followed. Hackett’s archdeacon, Lemuel Mathews of Dromore, was deprived for gross neglect of nine cures and non-residence in any of them; Dean Ward of Connor was deprived for adultery; Prebendary Mylne of Kilroot was punished for adultery and drunkenness; Prebendary Armer of Connor, who was excommunicated for neglect of duty, had long been absent in England – he had committed the parish of Ballymoney to a blind man.

The courts also found that the two cathedrals in Hackett’s dioceses and most of the parish churches were out of repair, and some of the parishes were in the hands of Presbyterians.

Part 6: The Church and the Arts:

The legacy of the Caroline tradition includes the emphasis on the auditory style in church architecture. Architects of the era included Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones in England. Their churches were built as a single room, typically an aisled rectangle, with galleries on three sides.

Examples include Saint Mary’s, Dublin. The three centres of the church were the font, the altar, and the three-deck pulpit.

In music and poetry, the influence of the Church of Ireland would spread through the work of two Irish clergymen, Nicholas Brady (1659-1726), from Bandon, Co Cork, and Nahum Tate (1652-1715), the Dublin-born poet laureate, who collaborated in publishing a new version of metrical psalms in 1696. Tate was the author of one our best-loved Christmas Carols, While shepherds watched their flocks by night (1703?), originally titled Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour. He was the author also of also wrote the libretto for Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (1689).

New libraries attached to cathedrals were founded and endowed. Otway of Ossory, who died in 1693, gave his books to found a library in Kilkenny. Marsh established his library in Dublin. Other famous libraries followed, including the Bolton Library in Cashel, and the library attached to Saint Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore.

Baroque music:

In the wider church, two composers serve to show how rich an age this was: Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

Vivaldi was ordained in Venice in 1703, and served in the Pieta, a church attached to an orphanage where he taught the violin. He was subsequently given a dispensation from having to say Mass because of asthma, before eventually leaving the active priesthood in 1706.

Vivaldi was nicknamed il Prete Rosso (“The Red Priest”), not because of his politics but because of his red hair. A composer, as well as a famous virtuoso violinist, he is best known for The Four Seasons, a series of four violin concertos. Vivaldi is one of the composers who brought Baroque music – with its typical contrast among heavy sonorities – to evolve into a classical style.

At this time too, Johann Sebastian Bach, a child of the German Lutheran Church, was coming to maturity and prospering. He has been described as “the most stupendous miracle in all music.”

Bach was deeply influenced by Vivaldi’s concertos and arias – recalled in his Saint John Passion, his Saint Matthew Passion and in his cantatas. Bach transcribed a number of Vivaldi’s concertos for solo keyboard, along with a number for orchestra, including the famous Concerto for Four Violins and Violoncello, Strings and Continuo (RV 580).

Bach saw himself not as a genius but as one of God’s craftsmen. Music should, he wrote, have no aim other than the glory of God and the “re-creation of the soul … Where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamour and ranting.” His scores bear dedicatory abbreviations like “S.D.G.” (Soli Deo Gloria: To God alone be praise) or “J.J.” (Jesu Juva: Help me, Jesus).

Next: (1) the early Georgian Church and the age of Swift and Berkeley; (2) Seminar: the Church and the arts (1660-1800).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, The Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on Thursday 29 January 2009 was part of the Year II B.Th. course in Church History.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The novelist as a writer in spirituality and theology

Patrick Comerford


Professor Guy Martin once offered two courses at Harvard Divinity School on the writer as theologian.

The first course focussed on a few major literary artists and theologians who have confronted theological issues in their writing, and compared the role of creative expression with that of theological expression, and the truths of fiction with the truths of religion. The authors he considered included Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison.

Professor Martin’s second course focussed on the poetry, prose and plays of TS Eliot, examining the way he contributed to the relationship between religion and literature. As part of their final examination, the members of the class produced Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party.

The traditional forms in which the arts meet theology have included music, painting, architecture and sculpture, and to an increasing degree in recent decades, film. Writers who have touched theology at its deeper levels have tended to be poets, while the key narrative mode for theology is autobiography.

But few theologians have earned a reputation as writers of popular fiction, and fewer writers of popular fiction have been acclaimed as theologians.

In America, the Church has provided settings and characters for writers such as Graham Greene. But some writers of fiction have been taken seriously as moral and pastoral theologians too. At the 1996 Glenstal Ecumenical Conference, the American theologian Dr Alexandra Brown used Ruby Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation to stress the uniqueness of Christian morality.

Flannery O’Connor, the self-styled “hilly-billy Thomist,” believed that great literature deals with ultimate concerns that are essentially theological. When I was a student, my lecturer in moral theology in moral theology included Dostoevsky and Iris Murdoch on his reading list.

But what about popular fiction?

In Canada, Margaret Craven’s novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, has been long accepted as a sensitive and deeply spiritual work of pastoral theology.

On this side of the Atlantic, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles in the 19h century and Joanna Trollope in recent decades have used church in-fighting and cathedral politics as backdrops and settings. But since John Bunyan published his Pilgrim’s Progress, few novelists have emerged as respected theologians and few theologians have been popular novelists, with the possible exception of CS Lewis.

However, a new generation includes serious theologians who have become serious novelists and popular novelists who are being taken seriously by theologians. Novelists being lauded by theologians include two best-selling English writers, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.

Susan Howatch and the Starbridge trilogies

The author Susan Howatch has won wide acclaim among theologians for her trilogies set in the Church of England. After experiencing a religious conversion, she came moved to Ireland with her daughter in 1976, and lived in Dalkey, Co Dublin, until 1980. These trilogies were written after she returned to England, where she has lived within sight of both Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

After returning to England in 1980, Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it.

She had settled in Salisbury out of love for the beauty of the town, but found herself increasingly drawn to Salisbury Cathedral. According to Professor David Ford of Cambridge University, she developed her interest in the connections between theology and natural science through the influence of Dr John Polkinghorne, the Anglican priest and scientist who is the President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Eventually she began to study Anglican theology and spirituality in earnest. She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.” This personal turning point culminated in her most successful and popular works, the Starbridge series, followed by the Saint Benet’s trilogy, examining the spiritual struggles of the Anglican clergy.

In the Starbridge series of two trilogies in six books, Susan Howatch displays an intimate knowledge of the Church of England, makes deft use of multiple narrators, and ably captures the spiritual dimension of the human endeavour.

These novels set out to describe the history of the Church of England through the 20th century. Each of the six books is self-contained, and each is narrated by a different character. However, the main protagonist of each book also appears in the other books, allowing the author to present the same incidents from different viewpoints.

The narrative in all six books centres around the fictional Diocese of Starbridge, which is supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, a fictional Anglican monastic order. The cathedral and church characters at Starbridge are based on the real-life Salisbury.

The first three novels – Glittering Images (1987), Glamorous Powers (1988) and Ultimate Prizes (1989) – begin in the 1930s and continue through World War II.

They draw on the theology and writings of Herbert Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham; William Ralph Inge, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and later Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London; Bishop George Bell, and his encounters with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and Charles Raven, Master of Christ’s College and Regius Professor Divinity at Cambridge.

Glittering Images is narrated by the Revd Dr Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge theologian who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recovery, and to realise the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed Abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.

This fictional monastic community of Anglican monks, which features throughout the novels, is a Benedictine-style order modelled on the Community of the Resurrection, founded by Bishop Charles Gore, editor of the Lux Mundi collection of essays. David Ford of Cambridge has not failed to notice, with humour that she has changed Gore’s name to Ford to provide a founder for the Fordite Fathers.

Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow as he leaves the Fordite Order at the age of 60 to follow a powerful vision. He then must deal with his adult children’s problems, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings.”

Ultimate Prizes, which unfolds during World War II, is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a working class background in the north of England. After being widowed and remarried, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.

The second set of three novels – Scandalous Risks (1991), Mystical Paths (1992) and Absolute Truths (1995) – take place in the 1960s. In this trilogy, she draws on the writings and theology of Bishop John Robinson, the Cambridge theologian and author of Honest to God (1963); Christopher Bryant, an Anglican monk and spiritual director; and the great spiritual director, Reginald Somerset Ward.

Scandalous Risks follows Neville Aysgarth to Westminster Abbey when he becomes a canon, and back to Starbridge, where he becomes dean and Ashworth becomes bishop. The story is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend.

Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of the Dean Aysgarth.

Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, 31 years after we first encounter him in the first of the books.

The Saint Benet’s Trilogy

The third set of three novels – the Saint Benet’s Trilogy – is set in Saint Benet’s Church London in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a well-known church of the same name in Cambridge. Again, this trilogy illustrates the changes that took place in the Church of England in those years and brings back many of the characters in the Starbridge series. However, while the Church is still at the heart of the books, there is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy. Like the six earlier books, each book in this trilogy is written in the first person by a different narrator.

A Question of Integrity (1997, The Wonder Worker in the US) picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow 15 years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London where he runs a centre for a ministry of healing and deliverance using his psychic powers, and Lewis Hall, his former spiritual director, now lives and works with Nick. Venetia reappears from the Starbridge series also and takes up with Lewis Hall.

Nick’s own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after meeting Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and he is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result. The danger for Nick is in the temptation to become a Wonder Worker. This is where he becomes a charismatic Christian healer who works in pursuit of his own fame and glory rather than God’s.

The High Flyer (2000) tells the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who knows she “has it all.” Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur and reveal that things are not what they seem.

Finally, The Heartbreaker (2004) follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic male prostitute specialising in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Carter Graham and Nick Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.

Academic life

Susan Howatch has been a close friend of David Ford at Cambridge. She used some of the profits from her novels to found a post in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, devoted to linking the fields of science and religion and with the title of Starbridge Lecturer in Natural Science and Theology. The first holder of this post is the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, an Anglican priest, psychologist and theologian.

She has lectured in theology and natural sciences at Cambridge, she is a Fellow of King’s College London, and an Honorary Fellow of both the University of Wales at Lampeter and Sarum College in Salisbury. She now lives close to Westminster Abbey.

She has been compared with Anthony Trollope by Andrew Greeley in the Washington Post and in reviews in the Church of England Newspaper. She has been the subject of analytical profiles in the Church Times and has received serious reviews in journals such as Theology, the Anglican Theological Review, and Search. The Catholic Herald said Mystical Paths was profoundly theological.

Howatch’s standing in the world of theology was further affirmed when she was invited to edit and introduce Mowbray’s four-part Library of Anglican Spirituality, bringing the works of Austin Farrar, Somerset Ward, Dorothy Sayers and H.A. Williams to the attention of a new generation.

Catherine Fox’s trilogy

Catherine Fox lives in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, where her husband, Canon Peter Wilcox, is the canon-chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral. She graduated in English literature from Durham University and then studied post-graduate theology, earning a PhD in church history from King’s College, London, with a thesis on women and early Quakerism. She has written short stories for the Mail on Sunday and the Church Times and writes a weekly column for the Church of England Newspaper. A collection of these columns has been published as Scenes from Vicarage Life (Monarch Books).

But Catherine Fox is also the author of three novels – Angels and Men (Penguin, 1995), The Benefits of Passion (Hamish Hamilton, 1997), and Love for the Lost (Penguin 2000) – in which she explores the themes of the spiritual and the physical with insight, humour, pathos and theological engagement.

Angels and Men, her debut novel, was published to critical acclaim in 1995. The heroine and narrator is Mara Johns. The name Mara means and is the name taken by Naomi in the biblical story of Ruth after the death of her husband effectively left her a beggar in a strange land. It may be a strange name to give a child, especially when her father is a priest, but it is an appropriate name for Mara at the time in her life dealt with in Angels and Men.

Mara is an English graduate who has moved to a theological college of a northern university, not named by Fox but presumably Durham from the descriptions. She is engaged in post-graduate research on women and religious fanaticism in the 17th century, and so we can see how she draws of many of her own personal experiences.

Angels and Men follows Mara through her college life, as she makes friends despite a desire to keep to herself, and earns her the nickname Princess. She has a turbulent background, having rejected the mild Anglicanism of her father for an extreme charismatic cult. She then rejects them, in turn, and is cut off from her twin sister Hester, who remains with the cult.

Angels and Men is simply but effectively structured, with each chapter bringing in a new revelation about Mara’s background and character, so that by the end we have a well-drawn study.

Her second novel, The Benefits of Passion, is set in Coverdale, an Anglican theological college in Durham. Although it is now ten years later, little has changed.

In this book, Annie Brown is an ordinand who is more interested in the novel she is secretly writing than in her theological studies.

At the same time, she is trying to sort out her ambivalent feelings for Will, a friend of one of the other ordinands, and towards her vocation.

Annie puts her real feelings into her novel, her characters act in ways she wants to act does not dares to, and her characters are drawn from the people around her.

In her third novel, Love for the Lost, Catherine Fox tells the story of Isobel Knox, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion, where she was an ordinand in the same year as Annie Brown. She is now a curate in a small Teeside parish in north-east England.

The narrative follows Isobel through her two years as a curate, as she learns a lot about herself and those around her. Content and confident in her new job, she enjoys her simple, single life, stifles her feelings and buries painful memories. Openness is too painful. Then her calm, yet fragile world faces two threats: Davy and Johnny. Davy is a young policeman who falls in love with Isobel despite her aloofness. But Isobel starts to fall for Johnny, a charming priest with a troubled marriage. Her heart begins to open reminding her of the past and the pain. The experiences of loss that have haunted her psyche since childhood manifest themselves physically when she discovers the washed-up body of a child on the beach. The body vanishes with the next wave – did she imagine it?

This third novel is an engaging story of faith, forgiveness, love and loss. The tone of this book is darker than Catherine Fox’s earlier novels, but she continues to combine humour and drama and in it she is both more dramatic and more theological in her style.

While researching and writing her novels, Catherine Fox closely consulted closely Tom Wright, who was then the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. Despite their strong language and graphic sex, these novels wrestle with the deepest theological questions, including the existence of God, the nature of sin, religious obsessions and psychological health, call and vocation, self-sacrifice, passion, death and resurrection.

She makes an insider’s criticism of evangelical dogmatism and charismatic extremes, and is not afraid to tackle topical debates, such as the ordination of women and the Church’s attitude to sexuality.

When Angels and Men first appeared, Fox’s local paper produced stories about the vicar’s wife who wrote dirty books. Then in a double-page feature in the Church Times, she spoke frankly about her Baptist childhood and her growing feelings of marginalisation from mainstream evangelicalism with the rise of movements such as Reform, which opposes the ordination of women.

Margaret Craven and a priest’s death

The American writer Margaret Craven (1901-1980) was born in Montana and grew up in Sacramento, California. After graduating from Stanford, she worked for a time as a journalist and short-story writer. Her first book looked at about the plight of the Kwakiutl First Nations people of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. This experience led to her novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, first published in Canada in 1967.

This novel tells the story of Mark Brian, a young Anglican priest who learns about the meaning of life when he is sent to an aboriginal parish in British Columbia. The book was not published in the US until 1973, and soon reached No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Mark Brian is sent to a Native Indian village called Kingcome in British Columbia, where the people speak the language Kwakwala. He is sent by his bishop, who knows that Mark is suffering from an unnamed, fatal disease which he does not know of because the man that sent him on his journey did not tell him … because he wanted Mark to live the rest of his life to the fullest and not to worry about the future he will never have.

Mark struggles to gain acceptance from the people in the village by stressing the unity between their beliefs and his. Meanwhile, the villagers teach him about living in harmony with nature and accepting his fate. Other themes in the book include the economic disadvantages and graft the village is facing, how the national government outlaws the village’s time-honoured festivals of potlatchs on the excuse that they promote larceny.

The village also owns a gigantic colourful mask, for which the villagers refused a museum offer of several thousand dollars on the basis that it was an insufficient offer. A white man manages to buy the mask for $50 by getting one of the Indians drunk, who then proceeds to write a bill of sale on the mask. In order to ingratiate himself to the village to gain access to the mask, the white man also starts dating an attractive young woman and promises to marry her.

When acquires the mask, he leaves the young Indian woman to fend for herself on the streets of Vancouver. She is taken in at a beer parlour, works as a prostitute, and dies of a heroin overdose.

When a policeman from the Mounties tells Mark of her tragic end, we reach a turning point in the book as Mark ponders the “depth of sadness,” the destitution of the village, and man’s greed and disrespect for women.

Ironically, he does not die from his illness but is killed when a landslide crushes his boat. But his death comes only after he has made an impact on the village and the villagers have had a profound impact on him too.

Above all else, I Heard the Owl Call My Name is about change, time, and the values human beings assign to them. The novel contrasts two cultures: the complex, extroverted white society that meets its needs by manipulating its surroundings, and the secretive, tradition-bound Native American society that lives in harmony with nature and accepts things as they are.

Re-educated by his experience among the Kwakiutl, Mark learns the relative value of time; the peace, happiness, and sense of accomplishment gained from suffering and struggling with others; and, although it is easily overlooked, the unity that exists between his Christian faith and the values of a “primitive” culture.

And this book also reminds me that as priests we often find that the people we are with are priests to us, presenting God in Christ to us, and presenting us in Christ to God.

Theology, spirituality and fiction

According to David Ford, “theology that doesn’t face up to the immense issues of truth and practice isn’t doing its duty. It should be a mind-stretching subject that relates to all current issues.”

It may be a healthy reflection on the state of theology in the Church of England that popular novelists such as Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox can work so comfortably and so critically within this field. Fiction helps construct our view of reality, and popular fiction can help the general reader to enter the reality of theological debates, church life, and contemporary thinking about spirituality.

Further reading:

The novels of Margaret Craven, Catherine Fox and Susan Howatch.
Patrick Comerford, ‘An Irishman’s Diary,’ The Irish Times, 19 April 1993.
Patrick Comerford, ‘Two novel ways of approaching God,’ The Irish Times, 25 March 1997.
D.T. Myers, “Forgiven Sinners: Susan Howatch’s Church Novels,” Anglican Theological Review, Winter 1998.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for seminar in the Year III B.Th. course, Spirituality for today, on Wednesday 28 January 2009.