23 June 2012

1, An introduction to Church History: the Church of Ireland

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin … national cathedral of the Church of Ireland. But who are we today, and how did we get here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

1, An introduction to Church History: the Church of Ireland

Where we are – and how we got here

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

10 a.m., 23 June 2012

Let me begin this morning, as we look at the Church Ireland, by asking:

Who we are today?


How did we get here?

We shall do the same in our next session with the Anglican Communion.

But let us first ask these questions about the Church of Ireland.

The Church of Ireland website describes the Church of Ireland in the following terms:

The Church of Ireland has two archbishops, ten bishops, two provinces and 12 dioceses

The Church of Ireland:

● is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion which has 70 million members in 164 countries.
● is an apostolic church, maintaining an unbroken link with the early apostles and drawing on the apostolic faith in its teaching and worship.
● is a Catholic and Reformed church.
● is able to trace its roots to the earliest days of Irish Christianity.
● is a church with three orders of sacred ministry – Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
● has services which follow an accepted liturgical form and structure.
● has one prayer book – The Book of Common Prayer (2004) – plus other services authorised for use by the General Synod.
● keeps a balance in doctrine and worship between Word and Sacrament.
● has the Holy Communion or the Eucharist as its central act of worship.
● is one church embracing Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
● has 390,000 members – 275,000 in Northern Ireland and 129,039 in the Republic of Ireland (Census 2011).
● has two provinces, Armagh and Dublin, each with an Archbishop.
● has 12 dioceses, over 450 parochial units and over 500 stipendiary clergy
● is a representative church, with each diocese electing those who will represent them at the General Synod, the ‘Parliament’ of the church.
● has in its General Synod a House of Bishops which has 12 members and a House of Representatives which has 216 clergy and 432 laity.
● also has Diocesan Synods where representatives of the parishes meet usually once a year.
● has a parochial system where decisions at local level are made by Select Vestries whose lay members are elected each Easter by the people of the parish.

But that says little about:

● the lived experience or identity of the average Church of Ireland parish or diocese
● how we got from the past to where we are today
● the context in which we find ourselves today
● about how we are perceived by others.

You are as well placed as many to describe the lived experience or identity of the average Church of Ireland parish in this diocese.

So, let us first of us all look at who we are, the context, and then how got from the past to where we are today.

The changing face of Ireland … the crescent and the minaret at the Irish Islamic Centre and mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The latest census returns for 2011 show us how the Republic of Ireland remains a predominantly Roman Catholic society despite large increases in other church or religious affiliations in recent years.

So, 84.2 per cent of people – 3.86 million – define themselves as Roman Catholic, a slight decrease on the 87 per cent in the previous census in 2006.

However, the actual number of Roman Catholics increased by almost 180,000 due to the overall population increase. Much of the increase in that fiver-year period may come from non-Irish nationals, with most coming from other parts of Europe.

Eastern counties had the highest percentage of those who are not Roman Catholics, with the percentage declining towards the west of the island.

Three counties had more than 1 in 5 of the population as not Roman Catholic: Fingal and Dún Laoghaire in Dublin, and Galway City.

Offaly had the lowest percentage of those who are not Roman Catholic, with 8.6 per cent.

After Roman Catholics, the next largest religious grouping is the Church of Ireland, with 129,039 people (2.8 per cent of the population).

The biggest increase was in people describing themselves as Orthodox, which grew by 117 per cent to 45,200 between 2006 and 2011.

Apostolic or Pentecostal churches grew by 73 per cent in five years to around 14,000.

Islam is the biggest non-Christian religion in the state, with 49,200 people defining themselves as Muslim in the census – an increase of over 50 per cent since 2006.

The total figures for religious groupings in 2011 are:

Roman Catholic: 3,861,000
Church of Ireland: 129,039
Muslim: 49,204
Orthodox: 45,223
Other Christian: 41,165
Presbyterian: 24,600
Apostolic or Pentecostal: 14,000
Other: 81,000
No religion: 269,811 (6%)
Agnostic: 3,905
Atheist: 3,521
Not stated: 72,900

A decade and a half of in-migration has altered the religious landscape of this part of Ireland. For example, of the 3.86 million Roman Catholics, 282,799 (7.3%) are non-Irish nationals; 184,066 of these are from EU member states other than the United Kingdom and Ireland. And 39.5% of Muslims in Ireland are Irish nationals, meaning that a substantial minority of the Muslim population in Ireland is composed of Irish nationals.

Jonathan Swift ... reforming dean, satirist and founder of hospitals … the Church of Ireland is the church of Swift and Berkeley, Wolfe Tone and Parnell, Shaw and O’Casey, Yeats and Beckett

The Church of Ireland is the Church of:

● Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and Drapier’s Letters and Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.
● George Berkeley, the philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne.
● Hymn writers such as Henry Lyte from Co Wexford, who wrote Abide with me, and Mrs Cecil Alexander, a bishop’s wife from Derry, who wrote All things bright and beautiful and also translated Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.

The Church of Ireland and its members were intimately associated with the Gaelic revival and the literary renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Church Ireland is the Church of great poets, dramatists and literary figures, including Nobel Prize winners. Think of:

● Sean O’Casey
● George Bernard Shaw
● WB Yeats
● Samuel Beckett

In the past, the members of the Church of Ireland have included:

● 1798: Lord Edward FitzGerald; Archibald Hamilton Rowan; Henry Monroe and Betsy Grey at the Battle of Ballinahinch; the Grogans and the Boxwells in Wexford.
● 1803: Robert Emmet and Thomas Russell.
● Later: William Smith O’Brien; Charles Stewart Parnell.
● 1916: Countess Markievicz and Sean O’Casey were both born into Church of Ireland families. And we should not forget that in 1916 too, the Irish Citizens’ Army took its name at a meeting in the rooms of a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin who was a priest in the Church of Ireland.
● 1921/1922: Ernest Blythe and Erskine Childers were on opposing sides in the Irish civil war.
● 1937: Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland, was the son of a Church of Ireland rector.
● Today, members of the Church of Ireland can be found in all political parties. And, as we are looking in particular at the Diocese of Dublin, I should point out that many of the members of U2 were brought up in Church of Ireland families.

Tallaght’s mediaeval tower and the pinnacles of Semple’s Church seen from the churchyard at Saint Maelruain’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Despite the RTÉ soapbox image of the Church of Ireland, not all of us are plumy rectors in Glenroe, nor do we all come from the landed gentry, nor do we all read The Irish Times on a daily basis. There are strong working class parishes in Finglas, Irishtown and Tallaght, for example; and the backbone of many rural parishes is the same as Roman Catholic parishes: small shopkeepers, small farmers, people like your parents, and people like you.

Getting to know your neighbour is always a good idea. Good neighbours are essential.

Many old parish churches have gone in parish reorganisation, and with church closures. But some of the churches stand on sites that have been in continuous use as places of worship and sacred places since monastic and pre-Norman times, reflected in the names of parish churches in Swords, Santry, Finglas, and other places.

Swords and Tallaght were so important as foundations of Ceilí Dé movement in terms of education and erudition that they were known in the early mediaeval church as the “Eyes of Ireland.”

Many of the Church of Ireland parishes in this diocese have churches with names that show the roots of the Church of Ireland in the post-Patrician, monastic Celtic church, and the early Viking and Anglo-Norman church in the centuries that followed immediately after:

● Holmpatrick traces its roots to a monastic community on the island off Skerries, which in turn claimed to have been founded by Saint Patrick.
● Swords includes Saint Patrick’s in Donabate and Saint Columba’s in Swords, while Saint Brigid’s is in Castleknock – on the north side we have associations with Saint Patrick, Saint Brigid and Saint Columba, traditionally regarded as the three patrons of Ireland.
● Malahide, which includes Portmarnock, associated with Saint Marnock, said to have been one of Saint Columba’s disciples on Iona.
● Santry (Saint Pappan), Finglas (Saint Canice) and Glasnevin (Saint Mobhi), which date back to the monastic foundations of the pre-Viking church.
● Howth, which includes Baldoyle, whose manor and lands were given by King Sitric towards the founding of Christ Church Cathedral.
● Christ Church Cathedral, which was a Viking foundation, with links first to Canterbury and England before it linked in with the Irish Dioceses.
● Saint Michan’s in Church Street, which is the oldest inner city parish in north Dublin. Much older was Saint Michael’s on the south side, tracing itself back to the private chapel of Bishop Donatus, the founder of Christ Church Cathedral.
● Saint Werburgh’s … named after a woman, who was a popular saint in Chester.

Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate … a story that spans the history of the Church of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some of the churches in Dublin that tell the story of the Church of Ireland include:

● Saint Patrick’s, Donabate, with its mediaeval, castle-like tower, its late mediaeval grave slabs in the porch, and the magnificent, stuccoed private gallery of the Cobbe family of Newbridge House, replete with private fireplace.
● Saint Doulough’s in Balgriffin, one of the finest mediaeval churches – not only in Fingal but in Ireland.
● Holmpatrick in Skerries, which is in direct continuity with a church and monastery on the Skerries rocks that claimed a foundation dating back to Saint Patrick. The ruins of Saint Patrick’s Monastery and an interesting mediaeval tower and grave-slabs are in the old churchyard behind the church.
● Saint Columba’s, Swords – with its pre-Norman monastic ruins and round tower. ● Kenure in Rush – a perfect example of an estate church, built by the Palmer family.
● Balrothery and Lusk – now closed but still in two of the most interesting locations in Fingal, and with commanding presences.

The formation of a diocese:

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … the story of the city centre church in Dublin dates back to the small Viking city-kingdom (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As you can see, therefore, the Dublin area was Christian long before Dublin became a distinct diocese.

Following the conversion of King Sitric of Dublin, a Norse or Viking king, his son Godfrey became a Christian in 943.

The traditional date for the foundation of Christ Church Cathedral is 1030, when a Benedictine community was founded on the site. The Kingdom of Dublin first sought to have a bishop of its own later in the 11th century. King Sitric Mac Aulaf, who had been on a pilgrimage to Rome, sent Donat (or Donagh or Donatus), to Canterbury be consecrated a bishop in 1038 and the new bishop formed the Diocese of Dublin as a small territory within the walled city.

This was the first territorial diocese in Ireland, pre-dating by a century or even a century and a half the Synods of Ráith Breasail in 1111 and Kells in 1151-1152 that delineated the boundaries of the dioceses centred on monastic foundations and dependent on territorial areas of local chieftains, but seldom if ever based on cities or large towns.

The Bishop of Dublin answered to the Archbishop of Canterbury and did not attend those first councils of the Irish Church. Donatus was succeeded by Patrick, who was consecrated by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury in London in 1074; Donat, who was consecrated by Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury in 1085; Samuel, who was consecrated by Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury in Winchester in 1096; and Gregory, who was consecrated by Archbishop Ralph of Canterbury in Lambeth in 1121.

It is no surprise then that in 1111 the Synod of Ráith Breasail placed Dublin in the Diocese of Glendalough, ignoring the reality on the ground, and organised the Irish Church into dioceses in two provinces – Armagh and Cashel.

But Bishop Gregory attended the Synod of Kells in 1152, when the island was divided into four provinces, with Archbishops in Armagh, Cashel, Tuam and Dublin, with Gregory as archbishop and with five suffragan dioceses in his province: Glendalough, Ferns, Kilkenny (Ossory) and Leighlin.

The direct link between Dublin and Canterbury seem to have lapsed by the middle of the 12th century. The election of the Abbot of Glendalough, Laurence O’Toole, as Gregory’s successor as Archbishop of Dublin in 1162 symbolised an emerging new unity in the Diocese of Dublin and in the Church throughout the island, and he was consecrated by the Archbishop of Armagh rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Laurence O’Toole remained in office throughout and after the Anglo-Norman invasion.

His Anglo-Norman successor, John Comyn, a Benedictine monk of Evesham, was consecrated in Rome by Pope Lucius III in 1184. He began the building of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral outside the walls of the Viking-Irish city, although he is buried in Christ Church Cathedral.

From the Middle Ages on, Christ Church was the cathedral of the diocese, although for many centuries this status was shared with or contested by Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Reformation and the Church of Ireland

Following the murder of Archbishop John Allen by Silken Thomas in Artane in 1534, the chapters of Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral elected George Browne, a former Augustinian friar, as Archbishop of Dublin in 1536 and he was consecrated at Lambeth Palace by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury.

The majority of the Bishops of the Church of Ireland accepted the Anglican Reformation, including the Act of Supremacy and the suppression of the monastic houses.

In 1541, Christ Church was changed from being a Priory of Regular Canons to being the cathedral church with a dean and chapter, and the status of Saint Patrick’s as a cathedral was abolished in 1547.

The Book of Common Prayer was introduced to the Church of Ireland in 1549. Browne remained archbishop through the reign of Edward VI, but Queen Mary eventually deprived him on the grounds that he was a married man, and he died as a parish priest of Clonmethan, near Swords, probably in 1558.

Trinity College Dublin … founded at the end of the Elizabethan era in 1592 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Elizabethan era saw the establishment of Trinity College Dublin in 1592, initially as a place to train clergy for the Church of Ireland, but it was not until the 17th century that the Bible was translated into the Irish language.

The Church of Ireland suffered through the atrocities of the mid-17th century and Cromwellian wars. Among the martyrs of that era was Bishop Bedell, but the Church also produced some of its greatest and most scholarly theologians in that century, including John Bramhall and Jeremy Taylor.

The reign of James II and the Jacobite wars exposed the weaknesses of the divisions within the Church of Ireland, but the Church recovered in the 18th century, which has been described as the century of the “Protestant Ascendancy.”

The stories of two interesting clerics

Newbridge House ... built in 1736-1737 by Richard Castle for Archbishop Charles Cobbe of Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I could tell two interesting tales about clerics from the 18th century who typified the privileges and the problems of the Church of Ireland in this city in that century.

Archbishop Charles Cobbe (1686-1765), who built Newbridge House in Donabate, first came to Ireland in 1717 as a chaplain to his cousin – the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Bolton. Despite a limited intellectual capacity, he enjoyed rapid promotion through three minor bishoprics and became Archbishop of Dublin in 1742. Some years earlier, he had bought much of the Donabate and Portrane peninsula in 1736 for £5,526 5s 6d.

At one time, it was said, there were only two free-holding families in the Peninsula, the Cobbes of Newbridge House, and my grandmother’s family, the Lynders family of Portrane,

Archbishop Cobbe’s portraits in the hall of Newbridge House and the Chapter House in Christ Church Cathedral show him wearing a long grey wig and the robes of a bishop. His guests at Newbridge House included the great John Wesley. When the archbishop died in 1765 at the age of 79, it was said he was “the eldest bishop in the Christian Church.” He was buried in Saint Patrick’s Church, Donabate.

The Revd Anthony Tanner, who was the Vicar of Holmpatrick and Balscadden at the beginning of the 18th century, came to a sorry end when he was brutally murdered nearby in Loughshinny in 1741.

Tanner is said to have owned most of the land around Loughshinny when he married Alice Cannon from Popeshall in November 1740. Six months later, on 3 May 1741, after dining with his friend, Sir Robert Echlin of Kenure House, Tanner was returning home to his house in Lougshinny and was crossing a stile when he was attacked. The vicar’s younger brother, William Tanner, was accused of employing a poor fisherman, James Cappogue, to carry out the deed. William hoped that with his brother’s death he would inherit his lands in Loughshinny. But he did not know that the vicar’s newly-wed wife, Alice, was already four months pregnant – their daughter, Margaret, was born in October 1741.

William Tanner and James Cappogue were tried and convicted for murder. Cappogue was sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered, and was executed in Saint Stephen’s Green on 4 November, just weeks after baby Margaret was born. However, William Tanner managed to draw out the proceedings. He went to court no less than 10 times until eventually he was discharged and released.

Margaret Tanner later inherited her father’s lands in Loughshinny and married a local lawyer, John Dempsey. As proprietors of Loughshinny, the Dempsey family were involved in developing local copper mines and building a pier at Loughshinny.

Changing times

Saint Patrick’s College Maynooth, founded in 1795 … in an era of new ideas and revolutionary ferment (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The rapid economic and industrial expansion of Dublin in the 18th century brought new problems to a Church that found its inherited parish system was unable to cope with the growth in urban population.

But there were other problems for the Church of Ireland too:

● The bishops spent much of their time – indeed, too much of their time – in the affairs of state, either as members of the House of Lords in Dublin, or as members of the judiciary.
● The Irish-born clergy often resented the promotion to episcopal posts in Ireland of English-born clergy.
● The diocesan structures were over-burdensome and over-cumbersome, with a lavish panoply of cathedral chapter structures in some places where there were few resident members of the Church of Ireland.
● The Church was over-identified with the political system, yet it was obvious that the Anglican Reformation had failed to have a true impact beyond what was once the Pale, and the position of the Church of Ireland as the established church was questioned and challenged by Presbyterians in the North-East and Roman Catholics throughout the rest of the island.
● The implementation of the Penal Laws was identified in many areas with the Church of Ireland.
● There was growing resentment throughout the island that the church appeared to be dependent on the tithes for its income.

But it was a time of creativity, but theologically and socially, and the Church of Swift and Berkeley was also setting up mission agencies, charities, hospitals and schools. Where would Dublin be without the Rotunda or Saint Patrick’s Hospital, the King’s Hospital, Marsh’s Library, or the Mendicity Institute? Where would the Church of Ireland be without APCK, USPG or CMS?

As the revolutionary ideas took hold in America (1776) and in France (1789), the winds of change were blowing through Ireland. The Orange Order and the Royal College of Saint Patrick at Maynooth were founded in the same year … 1795.

And in the ferment of new ideas, members of the Church of Ireland provided the leadership of the United Irishmen in 1798, including Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward FitzGerald in Dublin, Bagenal Harvey, John Kelly, the Grogans and the Boxwells in Wexford and Betsy Grey in Lisburn.

The Act of Union legislated not only for the union of the Dublin and London parliaments, but for the structural union of the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

Dublin Castle … after the Act of Union the Church of Ireland stopped having a grip on power (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But throughout the 19th century, the Church of Ireland was losing its grip on power and privilege. The number of dioceses was reduced, the tithes were commuted and effectively abolished, and the Church of Ireland was disestablished in legislation in 1869 that came into effect at the beginning of 1871.

We were no longer a Church that was identified with the state and the ruling class, and wed had to stand on our own feet.

But Disestablishment may have been crucial to the survival of the Church of Ireland after the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921/1922. No longer were we the Church of the Castle, and we were free to organise ourselves, and free to speak out on what we thought was important.

Archbishop Gregg received assurances from the new government of the place of Protestants in the new Ireland. The Church of Ireland found a voice in the new Senate, and when de Valera came to writing a new constitution in 1937, there was a specific recognition of the Church of Ireland, and the seats in Senate for representatives of Trinity College Dublin were an effort to ensure that the voice of the Church of Ireland would be heard.

The Church of Ireland today
The problems for our parents’ and grandparents’ generation were represented in the divisions over the Ne temere decree or the consequences of the Fethard-on-Sea boycott. But in the Church of Ireland today, we are facing many of the same problems the other churches are facing: maybe not celibacy, but certainly sexuality, vocations and authority. What is the role of the rector today?

It is as pressing a question as: what is the role of the parish priest?

It presents itself in different ways: at one time in the past, villages and towns like Balbriggan, Rush, Lusk and Donabate might have had their own resident rector. Today, their rectors live in Skerries or Swords. A rector shared by many churches and villages finds it difficult to be part and parcel of everyday life in that village. Why have we no parishes in many of our new suburbs in Dublin’s urban sprawl?

But the parishes are not just the churches and the history – they are also the schools One of the largest national schools in in this diocese is attached to Saint George’s Parish in Balbriggan, and has one of the highest proportion of children who are foreign born or born to immigrants.

Exciting times in ministry

We are now at an exciting time in ministry in the Church of Ireland. We have completed the first third year programme in the MTh course in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, preparing students for ordained ministry.

They are male and female, from a diverse social background, from North and South. It is a healthy situation.

But it does not leave room for complacency. We have a large number of people who leave the full-time ministry of the Church of Ireland each year.

Nor does our healthy situation, and the fact that are clergy are male and female and are free to marry, mean that we have no problems about sexuality, or problems about the behaviour of clergy.

Problems, challenges and issues:

Some of the problems, challenges and issues we are dealing with in the Church of Ireland at present include:

● Unemployment and domestic debt
● The impact on families of the collapse of businesses and the changes in the economy and in farming
● Immigration, integration and racism
● Secularisation and antipathy
● Church attendance and commitment
● Loss of denominational identity
● Loss of a sense of community

Reporting last Sunday [17 June 2012] on the news that Archbishop Alan Harper is to retire on 1 October next, the Church of England Newspaper identified the following challenge, problem and opportunity facing the Church of Ireland:

● The challenge growing secularisation.
● Not doing enough to reach out to immigrants.
● Slowly rising church attendance.

What challenges, problems and opportunities can you identify?

And do you think our history prepares or equips us for dealing with these?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Reader Training Course in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough on Saturday 23 June 2012.

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