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.