08 December 2012

Anglican Studies (part-time) 2.1: Early Irish Christianity and the Anglican reformations in the 16th century

Church history and the sands of time ... learning lessons from the past for today and the future (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context

MTh Part-Time:

Saturday, 8 December, 2012:

Weekend 1
(Saturday 8 December 2012):

2.1, Early Irish Christianity and the Anglican reformations in the 16th century.

2.2, The Tudor, Stuart and Caroline Settlements.

2.1, Early Irish Christianity and the Anglican reformations in the 16th century.

Part 1: Early Christianity and its spread:
Pentecost (El Greco) … Pentecost is seen as the Birth of the Church

As you probably now realise, it is a truism that Jesus preached the Kingdom, and that the Church was founded on his teachings. The early history of the Church is still part of the New Testament story, and the canon of the New Testament and Church doctrines did not take their present forms until long after the Apostolic Age.

Traditionally, Pentecost is seen as the Birth of the Church. But despite the reports in the Acts of the Apostles of early conversions after Pentecost, the followers of Christ remained a small group or sect within Judaism – alongside the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes – until two decisive events turned their faith into a mass movement: the conversion of Paul, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Conversion of Saint Paul ... a window in Saint Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray

Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is such a decisive event that in a real sense he can be said to be the founder of the Church. The name Christian was first applied to a group of believers in Antioch, and Christianity spread quickly through Damascus and Antioch, the capital of Syria and the third city of the Empire, and on through Syria, Cilicia and Asia Minor.

Later tradition would associate many churches with the early Apostles: Alexandria with Mark, both Antioch and Rome with Peter, Byzantium and the Scythians with Andrew, and Phrygia in Asia Minor with Philip. Even the Church in Persia and on the Malabar coast in India would claim it was founded by the Apostle Thomas.

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki, a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki … his missionary journeys saw the Church expand throughout the Eastern Mediterranean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The spread of Early Christianity was due in part to the exodus of Jewish Christians to Asia Minor during the Jewish War in the years AD 66 to 70. But the first real missionary endeavours of the new movement were launched by Paul, whose journeys saw the Church expand throughout the Eastern Mediterranean in what we know today as Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, into Malta, present-day Italy, and (perhaps) as far west as Spain.

The earliest followers of ‘The Way’ were recruited in the synagogues, among the Jews of the Diaspora, and among the ethical, monotheistic Gentiles who worshipped with Jews. For both groups, koine Greek was the common language, and their thoughts were shaped by the thinking of Plato and Aristotle. The sack of Jerusalem in the year AD 70 marked the end of the dominance of Jewish Christians in the Church. Gentiles, who had achieved equality in the Church through Saint Paul’s endeavours, now became the dominant Christians, and the focus switched from Jerusalem to the capital of the Gentile world, Rome.

The bridge between the New Testament story and Church history is provided by the writers known collectively as the Apostolic Fathers, including Justin Martyr and the author of Clement at the end of the first century, and Polycarp of Smyrna and the authors of the Didache at the beginning of the second century.

Justin Martyr, who was born of Greek parents in Palestine, saw continuity between his Christian faith and his Greek philosophical past, and anchored his Christian faith in his Greek heritage. Polycarp, who is said to have known Saint John the Divine, the author of the Book of Revelation, was the last living link between the Apostolic Church of the New Testament and the historic church of the Apostolic Fathers.

With the letter known as ‘I Clement,’ written from Rome to Corinth around the year AD 96, we begin to glimpse common patterns emerging in the liturgy, life and ministry of the Church at the end of the first century. A clearer pattern of Church order and ministry is defined in the early second century by Ignatius of Antioch in his writings. As he was being taken to Rome to be martyred, he write seven letters setting out the threefold pattern of bishop, priest and deacon, with the local bishop as the focus of unity in the face of schism and heresy.

By the beginning of the second century, Christianity was under attack, internally and externally, from a number of diverse, competing sects known collectively as Gnostics, who claimed access to secret knowledge (gnosis). For Gnostics, the spirit was good and the flesh was evil, and they believed in a remote, supreme god, sometimes identified with the God of the Old Testament but who was disengaged from the world.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons ... offered first firm challenge to heresy within the early Church

The first firm challenge to heresy within the early Church came from Saint Irenaeus, the author of Against Heresies. A Greek who had learned at the feet of Saint Polycarp before moving to Lyons, he became the first bishop in Gaul (France).

The challenge from Gnosticism and other heresies also led to the Church agreeing on the canon of Scripture, deciding which books were to be included and which excluded from an accepted Bible. Saint Irenaeus was the first to talk about a New Testament scripture alongside the Old Testament. Apostolic teaching, handed down through successive generations, and apostolic structure, in the agreed books, amounted to the common apostolic tradition shared by an increasingly diffuse and diverse Church, now scattered throughout the Empire and beyond.

The challenge of heresy and schism also marks the beginning of theology, and Tertullian the North African who died in AD 220, is regarded as the father of Latin, western theology, although he later became disillusioned with the mainstream Church. North Africa produced other great theologians at the turn of second and third centuries, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen (also born in Alexandria), and Cyprian, the martyr Bishop of Carthage.

Apart from heresy and schism, the Church also faced regular persecution, often for the refusal of Christians to take part in the emperor cult, to swear oaths or serve in the imperial army, but also because of widespread vulgar charges, originating in Eucharistic practice and the teaching of Christian love, that Christians indulged in cannibalism and incest. During the severe persecution under Marcus Aurelius in AD 177, Tertullian could comment, with sarcasm: ‘If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low, the cry is “The Christians to the lion”. All of them, to a single lion?’ Despite persecution and martyrdom, Tertullian observed, ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.’

The Church was thriving, and missionary, social and intellectual advances were preparing the way that would lead to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century, the accommodation of the Church with temporal power, and the consolidation of Church teachings at the great ecumenical councils in the decades that followed.

But the old heresies, schisms and battles would not go away. The theories and beliefs of Gnostics and Arians would continue to resurface in the Church in successive generations, and they continue to appear today. The rift between the Greek East and Latin West would widen throughout the remaining centuries of the first millennium, so that the Church, despite winning the internal battle for orthodoxy, could never succeed in maintaining its unity or a common Church order. The divisions of the 21st century can be traced back to the seeds sown in the first, second and third centuries of Church history.

The rift between East and West:

The Church Fathers … in a Greek Orthodox icon

With the conversion of Constantine in AD 312, and his subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge near Rome 1,700 years ago, the imperial persecution of Christians came to an end. Christians were guaranteed freedom of religion, Church goods and property were restored, Sunday became a special day, the Church was free to expand its mission work, and there was a rapid growth in Church membership. But the new freedoms also allowed the growth of internal dissensions and heresies, more complex Church structures were demanded to cope with both expansion and dissent, and the new footing for Church-State relations also gave the State more say in Church affairs.

The first major doctrinal controversy arose in the debate over the Trinity and the teachings of a Libyan theologian, Arius, who taught that the Son was not co-equal and co-essential with the Father, but merely the chief of his creations, that the two persons were substantially similar rather than of the same substance. In an attempt to settle the dispute, Constantine used his powers as emperor to call and preside over the first of the great Councils of the Church. The Council of Nicaea, attended by 300 or so bishops, agreed on formulas that later gave us the Nicene Creed.

Meanwhile, as the Church was reaching a new understanding with the state and the world, Anthony of Egypt and other leading Christian intellectuals and writers were leaving the cities and towns to live on their own in the desert. The Greek word monos (alone) gave us the words monk and monastery to describe how these hermits lived, and the monastic tradition would become a mainstay of Church life and mission for centuries to come.

A perfume brazier in the form of a domed building, from Constantinople ... the creed agreed at Constantinople, now known as the Nicene Creed, remains the standard test of orthodox teaching and doctrine (Photograph © Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice)

In the Eastern Church, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil and Gregory Nazianzus came to be counted as the four Doctors of the Eastern Church or great founding theologians. Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria, but was forced into exile on a number of occasions by the Arians. Unbowed, he was the biographer of Anthony of Egypt, and so introduced monasticism to the West at a time when the rift between east and West was increasing. For the first time, he listed the contents or canon of the New Testament as we know it. Two years after his death, his supporters and the Cappadocian Fathers, including Basil and Gregory, eventually triumphed in 381 in the doctrinal debate at the Council of Constantine. The creed agreed at Constantinople, now known as the Nicene Creed, remains the standard test of orthodox teaching and doctrine.

The first breach between Rome and the four other patriarchal sees in the East came when John Chrysostom (347-407) was deposed as Patriarch of Constantinople in 403. For eleven years, between 404 and 415, there was no communion between Rome and Constantinople – a foretaste of future, deeper divisions in later centuries.

During that time, the Goths sacked Rome in 410. With the collapse of the Roman Empire at the start of the fifth century, new foundations were needed if Christianity were to be a world force. Jerome (342-420), who moved to Bethlehem, produced a readable Bible translated into the common language, Latin (hence the Vulgate). In North Africa, Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, addressed the doubts of a shaken Church with his Confessions and The City of God, and provided the West with a theology that could survive the centuries. Jerome and Augustine, along with Ambrose and Gregory, would be counted among the Four Doctors of the Church. Later, a rediscovery of Augustine would inspire both the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus ... the Council of Ephesus finally defined the Creed in 431, a year before Saint Patrick began his mission in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Having dealt with Arianism at Nicaea and Constantinople, the Church called another great council at Ephesus in 431 to deal with the arguments about the Virgin Mary and her role as Theotokos or ‘Bearer of God’. The deposed Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, was condemned as a heretic. In the face of efforts by the Emperor Theodosius to reverse the decision, the monks of Constantinople marched through the streets to support the bishops of the council, and the decision was endorsed in Rome by the Pope.

Today, the arguments of the four great councils may appear to be obscure philosophy, but they identified the fundamental issues central to the Christian faith: Jesus Christ is not merely a super creature or the last great prophet sent by God, but in his deity is the foundation of all true Christian faith, and he is the one, unique revelation of God.

Amid the gloom prevailing in the middle of the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great (440-461) assumed the imperial title of Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Priest), declared his words to be the word of Peter, influenced the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and set to putting the Church of Rome on a new footing.

Leo the Great was a contemporary of Patrick, who is said to have arrived in Ireland as a missionary bishop in 431 and continued his mission until his death (ca 460). Patrick and the early Celtic Church built on the pre-Patrician Church in Ireland, and then, beginning with the foundation of a monastery by Colmcille (Columba) in Iona in 563, the first Celtic missionaries brought new life first to Scotland and a dwindling Church left behind in Britain after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and then into northern Europe. The Celtic monks were breathing new life into the Church in northern Europe, while in southern Europe Benedict was drawing up a Rule that would reform monastic life throughout the West.

In the East, the Emperor Justinian (527-565) had re-established Byzantium’s territorial control, combated a resurgent Arianism followed by the barbarian kings, and the space of six years built the great church of Aghia Sophia, the supreme expression of Byzantine genius. In the West, a recovering papacy under Gregory the Great sent Augustine as the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597. But Christianity in the East and West was ill-prepared for the newest challenge about to face it: the rise of Islam.

Part 2: The Church of Ireland, Early beginnings

Glendalough, the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” ... but where do we find the origins of Irish Christianity? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


The Round Tower in the churchyard in Kells, Co Meath ... the Church of Ireland parish church stands on an early monastic site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brendan Behan once crudely named which part of the anatomy of Henry VIII he thought the Church of England had been founded on. And many of your neighbours probably persist in the popular misperception that the Church of Ireland, in some way, is none other 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 the 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 only 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, which we looked at two weeks ago, described 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.”

Pre-Patrician Christianity

Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford ... but what was his role in early Irish Christianity? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, during the reign of Diocletian.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407 to defend Italy during the attacks by the Visigoths. Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the aftermath, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal sees, with their own traditions and practices.

In romantic tradition, Saint Patrick converted the entire island of Ireland in a short period from 432 to 461. But this is not an article of faith, and we know there were Christians in Ireland before Patrick arrived as a missionary, and we know he laboured and ministered in only part of the island.

Christianity probably first arrived Ireland by the fourth and early fifth centuries, in a slow and gradual process, from Continental Europe – Gaul (France) and perhaps the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and from Britain too.

The sea united rather than divided people. Tacitus (ca 55-120 AD) tells us that British or Gallic merchants knew Ireland’s “harbours and approaches.” Ptolemy, writing about AD 150, speaks of Brigantes in south-east Ireland, similar to the inhabitants in the north of Roman Britain of the same name, and of Menapii on the coast of Wexford, whose name associates them with the Belgic people on the Continent.

Evidence shows Roman traders reached the coastal harbours and points well inland along large rivers like the Nore and the Barrow. Roman coins have been found at Newgrange and all along the northern and eastern coasts of Ireland: at the Giant’s Causeway, Coleraine, Limavady, Rush, and so on.

Irish traders had trading relations with Roman Britain, Gaul, Spain and so on, and Irish coastal raiders were taking captives from the west coasts of England and Wales. From the end of the third century, there were colonies from Ireland in north-west and south-west Wales, Cornwall and west Scotland. We can imagine well-read refugees from continental Europe fleeing the barbarian invasions by the fifth century, bringing Christianity with them to Ireland.

Patrick tells us he was captured in a great raid that netted “many thousands of people” [Confessio 1], some of whom were lukewarm Christians. If so, some of his fellow captives were committed Christians too, perhaps even a small number were priests. Patrick’s account of his flight from slavery as a young 22-year-old suggests an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, presumably in Leinster, more than 20 years before he began his own mission [Confessio 17 and 18]. We can have no doubt about the presence of Christianity in Ireland by the early fifth century, before Patrick began his mission in 432.

The first bishop in Ireland, Palladius, arrived in 431. However, there is a tradition that some Irish saints predated Saint Patrick – including Ciaran of Seirkieran (near Birr, Co Offaly), Declan of Ardmore (Co Waterford), Ibar of Begerin Island (near Wexford), Ailbe of Emly (Co Tipperary), and Multose of Kinsale (Co Cork). But there is no reliable evidence that they were pre-Patrician figures, and claims to their antiquity rather reflect a battle of ancient autonomous parts of the Church against the claims to dominance or primacy in Armagh, bolstered by claims to Patrician foundations.

TF O’Rahilly made a sweeping claim that “Irish Christianity owes its origin to Britain,” that “already before 431 no small part of the population of the south-east and south of Ireland must have been converted by British missionaries,” that British evangelists continued to arrive in Ireland during the next three decades, and that after 461 British influence had the field to itself.

EA Thompson supposes British Christians in Ireland formed the nucleus of his Church in Ireland. Certainly, British Christians, directly or indirectly, influenced the spread of Christianity in Ireland and this influence may have been active before 431.

Pelagius (355-425) caused a great doctrinal controversy in early fifth century, denying the necessity of grace for salvation and emphasising God’s gift of freewill. But was Pelagius Irish? Saint Jerome vilifies him as a “most stupid fellow, heavy with Irish porridge,” and claims that Pelagius, or his companion Coelestius, had “his lineage of the Irish race, from the neighbourhood of the Britons.” But perhaps Jerome was merely insulting his opponent, in the way someone might be dismissed as a “Philistine.”

To combat Pelagianism, Rome sent Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in 429, and this was followed in 431 by the mission of the “Palladius, ordained by Pope Celestine … to the Scotti who believe in Christ, as their first bishop” – evidence perhaps that from at least the third decade of the fifth century there were enough Irish Christians to justify the appointment of a bishop for them by Rome.

Professor Patrick Corish of Maynooth locates the mission of Palladius in Leinster, and in particular with three ancient churches in Co Wicklow, and that his work was supplemented or continued by missionary figures like Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus –who appear to have had little or no contact with Patrick.

It has been argued that the missions of Palladius and Patrick have become confused and conflated, and that much of the work of Palladius has been attributed wrongly to Patrick. Palladius may have laboured in Ireland until 461, but many Patrician scholars agree that his mission in Ireland was short and that he died within a year.

Patrick Corish believes Patrick played no part in framing the document that now bears his name and that it “is not hard to see circumstances in which his name came to be added later.” Whatever its origins, his Confessio [51] shows Patrick is aware of other episcopal activity in Ireland and the independent administration of baptism, confirmation and ordination.

Although the Palladian and Patrician missions may have coincided, Patrick was working in new territory, while Roman missionaries in Leinster consolidated the work of Palladius and other early missionaries.

It is a well-known aphorism that the field of Patrician studies is a field in which no stone has been left unturned.

We can assume that Patrick was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest in a part of Roman Britain that was on the edges of a fraying and disintegrating Roman Empire, but we cannot with certainty even identify his place of birth, Bannavem Taburniae. Indeed, we know little about Patrick’s life or his mission, about the dates for his life – there are at least four different suggested dates for his death – or even how many Patricks there were: The Annals of Ulster speak of the elder Patrick, who died in 457, leading some to suppose there was also a younger Patrick, so that O’Rahilly put forward the idea of two Patricks in 1954. Apart from Patrick’s own writings, his Confessio and his Letter to Coroticus, we have few sources for his life which we can say definitely date back to the fifth century: the earliest lives date from the seventh century or later.

‘Celtic’ Christianity and missionaries’:

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Whatever the origins of early Irish Christianity, and no matter how many missionary bishops had been sent from Rome or Auxerre, by the mid-sixth century Irish Christianity was no longer dependent on episcopal structures but was a thorough-going monastic church ruled by abbots from key monastic centres. The Irish church had become one in which bishops had retained their sacerdotal and sacramental functions but were seemingly without any real authority and without any diocesan structures.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland set out to evangelise them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus, exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory had sent a mission to the English, led by Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity.

Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity were distinctive or gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included the monastic tradition, fixing the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monks and priests had become fully integrated with Latin culture. Apart from their Latin texts, these Irish monks also developed a written form of Old Irish.

Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high crosses.

The episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from the one prevailing in the sub-Roman world. Apart from parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities, and so different ecclesiastical structures were needed, especially in Ireland. This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities and their abbots.

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, using a calculation similar to one approved by Saint Jerome. Eventually, most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new methods for calculating Easter, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby until 716.

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting their hair, to distinguish their identity as monks. The “Celtic” tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.

In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and performed privately as well. Handbooks, called “penitentials,” were designed as a guide for confessors and to regularise the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual. But the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul at a time when they had come to be neglected.

By 1215, the Celtic practice had become the European norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council issuing a canonical requirement for confession at least once per year.

So Early Celtic Christianity in Ireland cannot be separated from the beginnings and the development of Christianity in neighbouring Scotland, Wales and England. There was a two-way flow between both islands, and those early forms of Christianity mutually sustained each other and were inter-dependent.

Not just Celts

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... founded in the heart of Viking Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But if the Church in Ireland was not the only expression of Celtic Christianity, then it was not an exclusively Celtic Church either. In 943, the future King of Dublin, Amlaíb (Óláfr) Cúarán was baptised in England. He was king from 945-980, and later after his defeat would retire to Columba’s monastery on Iona.

We know that Vikings in Ireland had converted to Christianity in great numbers by the middle or late tenth century at the latest, for in 1028 King Sitric (Sigtryggr) Silkbeard of Dublin made a pilgrimage to Rome, and by 1030 Dúnán was Bishop of Dublin. The foundation of Christ Church Cathedral must predate both these events, although the traditional date given is 1038. Similar processes were taking place in in the Scandinavian homelands – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – and in other colonial contexts such as north-eastern England, Iceland, Normandy and the Scottish islands.

At the Synod of Ráith Bressail in 1111, when the diocesan boundaries were drawn up, the area of Dublin was subsumed in the Diocese of Glendalough – perhaps Dublin was ignored because of its allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it was not until 1052 that the Bishop of Dublin was acknowledged as having metropolitan status.


The beginning of Saint Luke’s Gospel in the Saint Chad Gospel or Lichfield Gospels … Saint Chad was trained in an Irish monastery and the work in this book shows clearly the combination of Celtic and Saxon culture in the eighth century

Christianity came to these islands at early stage, and long before the collapse of the Roman presence in Britain. The mutual trade and commerce between these two islands, including the slave trade, was responsible for the first early presence of Christianity in Ireland, including the arrival of Saint Patrick.

Many of the myths surrounding the life of Saint Patrick may have been created to support the claims of Armagh to primacy. Many of the myths about pre-Patrician Christianity may have been created to challenge that primacy. But while Christianity in Ireland predates Patrick, the Patrician mission, in whatever form it came, consolidated Christian presence in Ireland.

The Staffordshire Hoard, found in a field near Lichfield, shows the intimate links between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon worlds

Christianity in Ireland – and in Britain – brought new life to Christianity on Continental Europe after the collapse of the Roman Ireland. But Celtic Christianity was not exclusively Irish and Irish Christianity was never exclusively Celtic. An exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral last year of the treasures found in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Staffordshire Hoard’ shows intricately-worked ecclesiastical and civilian objects that illustrate the inseparable and intimate inter-connection between the Celtic and Saxon worlds.

Our story is the story of Christianity in Ireland, the story of Christianity on these islands, and the shared story of Christianity throughout Europe.

Part 3: State-sponsored reform of the English and Irish churches in the 16th century.

When the Irish missionaries spread across the European continent, they contributed to the revival of Christianity in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the onslaught of the Barbarian invasions and the Dark Ages.

Throughout the Middle Ages, there were many movements to reform the Church, including the growth of the monastic orders, beginning in particular with the Benedictine movement, but also spearheaded by reforming popes in Rome, such as Gregory the Great.

But, why, we may ask:

● If the early Middle Ages were marked by revival, reform and mission, did the Church reach the stage that the demand for Reform was unstoppable?
● What happened to the life of the Church?
● And was there a move for Reform in the Church of Ireland?

It would be wrong to see the Reformations of the 16th century as one, single, focussed movement – there were many Reformations, including the Anglican, Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian and Anabaptist Reformations ... and the Tridentine Reformation. And there were major demands for efforts at reform that preceded, that acted as forerunners to, those movements.

Early reforms in the Irish Church

Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome … increasing contact between the Irish Church and Rome was a stimulus for reforms in the 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 12th century, the Church in Ireland experienced a major transformation known to historians as “the 12th century reform movement.” This was a far-ranging, radical reform process, reforming existing practices and structures, and radical in its substitution of new institutions and observances, transforming the institutional structures, the liturgy and the prevailing culture of the Irish Church.

The reforms and changes were inspired and motivated by a number of factors, including:

● Increasing contact between the Irish Church and Rome, expressed in pilgrimages and visits by both kings and bishops, and followed later by pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Canterbury;
● The recognition by church and political leaders of the need for change;
● The development of city-dioceses outside the traditional territorial areas of rule, particularly Dublin, often more closely identified with Canterbury than with the monastic bishops in the provincial, rural hinterland.

Three key figures in the 12th century reform movement were: Saint Malachy, who was successively Bishop of Connor, Archbishop of Armagh, Bishop of Down and Papal Legate; Saint Laurence O’Toole (died 1180), Abbot of Glendalough, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1162; and Gelasius of Armagh (died 1174). The canonisation of Malachy in 1190 and Laurence in 1225 can be regarded as two indicative illustrations of the Europeanisation of the Irish Church.

One of the most important areas of structural change was in the realm of bishops and dioceses. Until then, bishops did not necessarily have a fixed seat or cathedral church. Instead, they often had territorial, political designations (such as Meath and Ossory), and were an intimate part of monastic life and culture.

The first major attempt at reforming the administrative structures of the Church in Ireland came in 1111 at the Synod of Rathbreasil in Co Tipperary, which we discussed briefly last week. The primary structural reforms introduced at that synod were new diocesan structures with territorial boundaries and fixed seats or cathedral churches for bishops, 24 dioceses within two provinces (Armagh and Cashel), a new understanding of the canonical responsibilities of bishops, and providing pastoral services for the laity.

The ‘Market Cross’ in Kells, Co Meath … most of the diocesan structures and cathedral sites agreed at the Synod of Kells in 1152 remain to this day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Then in 1152, the Synod of Kells (Co Meath) was called, the first church council that was convened in Ireland at the behest of a papal legate. Two additional provinces, Dublin and Tuam, were formed, and the Archbishop of Armagh was acknowledged as Primate, and structurally the Irish church became more like its European continental counterparts. Most of the diocesan structures and cathedral sites agreed in 1152 remain to this day.

Archbishop Laurence O’Toole called the Synod of Clonfert to condemn the lay domination of the episcopate and the succession of the sons of clergy to their fathers’ benefices.

The new structures and agreement on cathedral locations led to new building programmes, the new cathedrals were endowed with large landholdings, and the election of bishops was freed from the control of local potentates, by-and-large. The dioceses were further divided into networks of local parishes, tithes and the offerings of first fruits became standardised, and the secular clergy, as opposed to the regular clergy or clergy in religious orders, received a new importance in the parochial and diocesan life of the Church.

The Latin language was reinstated as the language of the liturgy and public worship, enabling the liturgy in Ireland to conform to the standard liturgical practices found across Europe.

These reforms were accompanied by the introduction of the great monastic orders from Continental Europe, particularly the Augustinians and the Cistercians.

The first Cistercian monastery was established at Mellifont, Co Louth (Diocese of Armagh) in 1142, and by 1170 there were 13 Cistercian houses in Ireland.

The rule of Saint Augustine was introduced to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 1162 by Laurence O’Toole when he became Archbishop of Dublin, by 1170 there were 40 Augustinian houses in Ireland, and many Augustinian communities functioned as cathedral chapters, with the prior fulfilling the role of dean. Together, the Cistercians and Augustinians radically transformed Irish monasticism.

Another indication of change is provided by the new dedications of cathedrals and churches – moving away from the native-born Irish saints to dedications such as Holy Trinity, Christ Church and Saint Mary’s, following a European pattern.

There was a transformation of church architecture too, with the introduction first of the Romanesque style and then of Gothic architecture, and Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, could be cited as one of the most visible evidences of the architectural innovations of the 12th century.

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … one of the most visible evidences of the architectural innovations of the 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A lasting result of these reforms was that the Church in Ireland, once marked by its regional customs and particularist practices, was brought into closer harmony with western Latin Christianity.

The 12th century was a high point in the Europeanisation of the Irish church in the mediaeval period, so that the Irish Church was no more a regional, outlying expression of Christianity. It is impossible to judge how the Church may have developed after the arrival of the Anglo-Norman and English influences. Certainly, the English presence ensured the Europeanisation of the Irish Church was Anglicisation in many parts of the island, so that in the late Middle Ages we had a church inter Hibernicos and inter Anglicos.

The “12th century reform movement” in Ireland may mark the most important turning point in the history of Christianity in Ireland. It was certainly the most important watershed between the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century and the advent of the Reformation in the 16th century.

Further reform

Saint Nicholas’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Dundalk, is the burial place of Saint Richard FitzRalph (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A subsequent impetus for reform in the Irish Church was created by the arrival of the four mendicant orders – the Dominicans (Blackfriars), Franciscans (Greyfriars), Carmelites (Whitefriars) and the Hermits of Saint Augustine (Austin Friars). They did not fit into the established order of the day, were not monks in the traditional understanding of monasticism and monasteries, and worked parallel to – if not outside – the by-now consolidated diocesan structures.

These orders arrived in Ireland, through England, in the mid to late 13th century, bringing with them a revolutionary religious life.

They could be difficult and truculent, despite their vows of poverty soon amassed properties and fortunes, and as they attracted men of intellect and learning also became associated with the universities. Those later successes then tarnished their ideals, as we can see from the conflicts between one Archbishop of Armagh, Saint Richard FitzRalph of Dundalk, and the mendicant friars in his diocese.

The need for reform

Saint Francis of Assisi before the Sultan in Damietta (Giotto) … why did his movement for reform find a place within the Church?

Successive popes at various stages made brave efforts to reform the Western Church. This is why Innocent III called the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

Some of the popular movements for reform and their leaders found a place within the Church – notably Francis of Assisi and his friars. But others did not – such as John Wycliffe and the Lollards.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Bonaventure (1221-1274) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) represent three new forms of monastic life that continue to shape the spirituality of the church: Bernard was instrumental in the spread of the Cistercians, who sought to reform the Benedictine traditions; Thomas was a member of the order of Preachers or Dominicans; Bonaventure was Minister General of the Franciscans. However, not all the great spiritual writers of the day were men: in recent years there has been a renewed interest in the writings of the English mystic Julian of Norwich (ca 1342-after 1413).

Julian of Norwich … All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well … but was she safe as long as she remained “outside the walls of the Church”?

Despite the cruelty of the Crusades, and the relentless pursuit of dissent in the shape of the Albigensians and the Waldensians, the spirituality of Julian, and of Thomas à Kempis, the theology of Aquinas and the poverty of Dominic and Francis point to a Christianity that continued to develop new riches and thinking.

Although the integrity of the Western Church was weakened by the Crusades and its claims further weakened by the Avignon captivity of the Papacy (1309-1377), Western Christianity was alive intellectually and spiritually.

The questioning faith of Peter Abelard in France in the 12th century, the Waldensians in Italy and further afield in the 13th century, and of John Wycliffe and the Lollards in England in the 14th century were nurtured in a Church that would soon find itself ripe for the challenges of the Reformations and the Counter-Reformation.

Duns Scotus and the early Cambridge Franciscans commemorated on a plaque in Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge ... the Irish Franciscans were integrated into the intellectual life of European Christianity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So why were some reformers acceptable, and others not? Despite the efforts of Francis of Assisi and others to call the Church to reform, by the 15th century the Western Church had become totally identified with the interests of the State and power, and the very notion of Christendom made the powers of Church and State inseparable. Those who challenged the status quo faced being marginalised or condemned as heretics.

The 15th century Church could live with a visionary like Julian of Norwich, so long as she lived (symbolically) outside the walls of the Church, but not with a visionary like Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft and heresy in 1431.

Among the common people, a popular religion had developed with the veneration of saints (particularly the Virgin Mary), relics, shrines and pilgrimages. But the vast majority of people were excluded from taking part in the central sacramental life of the Church – when they were present at the Mass, they were present as spectators, excluded by and large from the Communion or the Eucharist – and from any role in administering Church affairs.

No longer was the Bible available in the common language, and many received their religious education only through the street plays, the carvings, paintings and stained glass windows in churches, or the popular cycles of folk religion. While the early primitive Church could benefit from Saint Jerome’s translation of the Bible into the common Latin of daily commerce, the Vulgate, the Church in later centuries was unable to accept the demands for translation.

John Wycliffe in a window in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford … initiated a new translation of the Bible into English (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Wycliffe (ca 1329-1384) initiated a new translation of the Vulgate into English, but was soon deserted by his friends in high places, and his followers, the Lollards, were suppressed. However, the demands to have the Bible translated continued apace in England and on the Continent, and the move to return to the original texts and meanings would become an essential part of the scholarship of the Renaissance.

Unlike Francis and Dominic, later critics, including the Waldenisans and Hussites, were less successful in seeking to reform the Church from within. In France and Italy, the Waldensians were hunted down. In Central Europe, John Hus (1374-1415), a priest and teacher at Charles University in Prague, stressed the authority of scripture and gave greater emphasis to preaching. He criticised with equal vigour the superstitions that had crept into popular folk religion, the corrupt lives of his clerical contemporaries, the authority assumed by cardinals and the papacy, and the withholding of the cup of wine from the people during the Communion.

At the Council of Constance in 1415, Wycliffe was condemned for heresy and an order was made that his body be disinterred from holy ground; Hus too was condemned as a heretic, and without an opportunity to defend his ideas he was burned at the stake. On the other hand, Thomas à Kempis (ca1380-1471) was able to remain within the Church, and influenced many through his preaching, counselling and books, particularly The Imitation of Christ, which opened the hearts and minds of many to receive the teachings of the Reformers.

Certainly, by the beginning of the 16th century there was a widespread understanding, even in Rome, that the Church was need of reform, structurally, liturgically and in the monastic houses.

The quality of leadership provided throughout the Church by the Popes, at diocesan level by the bishops and at parochial level by the clergy was a long-standing source of complaint. The office of the papacy was in disarray in disrepute as two and sometimes even three rival claimants were proclaimed as Pope, the main claimant living not in Rome but in Avignon in France, and other pretenders to the papacy living in Florence and elsewhere. With the deposition of rival popes in 1409, 1415 and 1417, the Councils of Pisa and Constance established an important principle: a council could deprive a pope of his claims to supremacy.

The wealth of the Church was being used for private and personal gain and profit, and the liturgy of the Church was no longer accessible to the vast majority of Church members.

And so, the spread of the Reformation was facilitated by the preconditions for change across northern Europe.

Liturgical reform

During the early centuries of the Church, the central emphases of the Eucharist were on doing what Christ had done, and a fellowship meal. The congregation, together with their president, had together prepared a meal of Thanksgiving; the people brought forward the gifts of bread and wine, and received them again in the sacrament.

By the late Middle Ages, however, these emphases had shifted so the average mediaeval parishioner was removed from the centre of the action, and had become an onlooker or spectator, watching and witnessing the performance of a mysterious rite, a role emphasised in the architecture of mediaeval churches and cathedrals, and their emphasis on sacred space and on what is above.

The emphasis had shifted to from a meal at which God was thanked for the whole of the salvific story, centred on the life of Christ, to merely remembering, commemorating and almost, as it were, re-enacting his sacrifice on the Cross.

Most people in Church no longer understood the miming actions or the words recited by the priests at the Eucharist, which had become known as the Mass – from the words of dismissal at the end: Ita missa est (‘Go, it is sent,’ or ‘Go, the dismissal is made’), to which the response was: Deo Gratias (‘Thanks be to God’).

This ought to have been a weekly celebration and fellowship meal, but by the late Middle Ages, most people communicated once a year or, perhaps even, once in a lifetime. The emphasis had shifted to the priest ‘saying Mass’ and on the laity ‘hearing Mass.’ Only the celebrating priests had the texts for the prayers, readings and liturgy, so the people were reduced not only to the role of spectators, but also to praying their own private prayers rather than praying collectively.

Even the priests found all this too difficult to cope with. So many books were needed, and so many variations had to be taken account of, a priest needed a manual or handbook to pick his way through them skilfully. One such book was known as The Pie and is referred to in the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

“Moreover the nombre and hardnes of the rules called the pie, and the manifolde chaunginges of the service, was the cause, yt to turne the boke onlye, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more busines to fynd out what should be read, then to read it when it was faunde out.”

In addition, matters were made more intricate and more complicated because from the 12th and 13th centuries onwards – despite the unifying influence of Rome – there were five principle ‘uses’ or variations of the Western liturgy in these islands. The most widespread of these was the Sarum Use, named after Salisbury Cathedral. The other four were: the Use of Hereford, the Use of Bangor (Wales), the Use of York and the Use of Lincoln.

As the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer notes, there was ‘great diversity in saying and singing.’

And so two of the great impulses for the Anglican Reformation were: a yearning to return to the simplicity in worship of former days; and to overcome the barriers created by diversity so that the people of these islands could truly have a Common Prayer.

The dawn of the Reformations:

The moon dial at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where Erasmus lived while he taught Greek in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The intellectual milieu that preceded the Reformations was created to a degree by the great Christian humanists, intellectuals such as Erasmus, who moved easily between England Continental Europe. The emphasis of the humanists on returning to the foundations of Christianity came as the exodus of scholars from Byzantium following the collapse of Constantinople in 1453 brought fresh knowledge of patristic sources and Greek philosophy through Venice and into the rest of Europe. With the invention of printing, books were more accessible – including the Bible, the great philosophical works, and the writings of the Early Fathers of the Church.

The age of discovery coincided with the Renaissance, which gave the Church great artists, including Michelangelo and Titian, and the wisdom and erudition of scholars such as Erasmus (1467-1536) and Rabelais (1494-1553). This was also a time when national languages were taking identifiable shape: Chaucer’s English developed into the English used by Tyndale, and later by Shakespeare, the compilers of The Book of Common Prayer and the translators of the King James Version (Authorised Version) of the Bible; Dante is seen as the creator of modern Italian; Martin Luther’s Bible would play a similar role in standardising German.

Martin Luther … posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517

A year after Erasmus published his Greek New Testament, the Reformation began on 31 October 1517, when the Professor of Biblical Studies at Wittenberg University nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church. Decay and decline left the Church too weak to accept or to meet the demands for reform.

The reformers had to be dealt with brutally – as the Dominican friar Savonarola had been burned at the stake in Florence – or marginalised and cut off by excommunication.

But the demands for reform were coming from within the Church, and those leading the demands were among the most able and loyal members of the church: the Augustinian friar Martin Luther (1483-1546), the French ecclesiastical lawyer John Calvin (1509-1564); a French Dominican friar Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who tried to mediate between Calvin and Luther; and their English contemporary, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), a quiet and reluctant scholar from Cambridge who was summoned to become Archbishop of Canterbury as late as 1532, and who would shape the English language through The Book of Common Prayer, the Psalms and his collects.

When it came, the Reformation ought to have been a breath of fresh air through the whole Church; instead, it threatened to bring down the whole edifice.

Martin Luther’s reforms initially attracted widespread popular sympathy, but ultimately his success and the continuation of his ideas were guaranteed because of the support of secular princes and city magistrates.

The Reformation in England:

Henry VIII … initially opposed the reforms championed by Luther

In England, and in English-speaking Ireland, the Church was, by-and-large, in a fairly good condition at the end of the early Middle Ages: ant-clerical attitudes were contained among lawyers and theologians; Christian humanists were generally supportive of the Church; parish life was flourishing and vibrant; and the most cogent critique of Luther came from the king. For his tract, Assertio Septem Sacramentum (A Defence of the Seven Sacraments), written in 1520, Henry VIII was honoured by Pope Leo X with the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, on 11 October 1521.

The unity of Church and State was maintained in England when Henry VIII became entangled in a dispute with Rome after failing to receive papal sanction for his planned divorce. Part of the process of generating support for Henry’s campaign involved creating public anger against the excesses of clerical power and the wealth of the monastic orders.

The excommunicated Henry remained a Catholic in doctrine and in practice until death in 1537, and it was only during the reign of his son Edward VI (1537-1553) that the Reformation was effectively introduced.

The English reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, Bishop Nicholas Ridley (ca1500-1555) and Bishop Hugh Latimer (ca1485-1555), fused Lutheranism and Calvinism in a State Church that retained Catholic order and much of Catholic liturgy.

Introducing the Reformation to Ireland

Thomas Cranmer ... instrumental in producing the Book of Common Prayer

Ireland was largely untouched by the intellectual and cultural upheavals introduced during the Renaissance. Only the Pale kept apace with developments in England, and so the Church in Ireland was effectively divided into two zones of the ecclesia inter Anglicos and the ecclesia inter Hibernicos. In the former, diocesan and parish life was now functioning in a very similar way to its counterpart in England, with very little expressed anti-clericalism or anti-papalism. In the Gaelic Church, Church life was very different, with a largely hereditary clergy presiding over large rural parishes and deaneries.

As in England, the Tudor Reformation was an act of state in Ireland, implemented by parliamentary legislation, so that Ireland experienced the Reformation by extension, and was part of the process of centralising English government control in Dublin in the aftermath of the fall of the Kildare Geraldines in the 1530s.

The Reformation was accepted by most of the bishops in 1536, when papal supremacy was replaced by the supremacy of the State. However, the bishops made no changes in doctrine, liturgical change was minimal and many of the first reforming bishops are counted in the diocesan lists of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.

The names of the early Reformers in Ireland show they were drawn from the mainstream of Irish life – names such as Browne, Butler, Cullen, Devereux, Nugent, Purcell or Walsh – and the episcopal succession continued uninterrupted.

Many of the monasteries were supressed, but their communities continued living among the people. The Prior and canons of the Augustinian community in Christ Church Cathedral became the dean and chapter, for example, and by and large parish life continued as before.

During the reign of Edward VI (1537-1553), a reformed liturgy was introduced from England and the Book of Common Prayer, first used in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Easter Day 1551, was the first book printed in Ireland.

The first Book of Common Prayer (1549) was authorised for use in Ireland, but the second Book of Common Prayer (1552) was never legislated for in Ireland. John Bale insisted on using the second book when he was consecrated Bishop of Ossory in 1552, but his reception in Kilkenny was so hostile that he was forced to leave his diocese on the death of Edward VI in March 1553.

Under Queen Mary (1553-1558), some Reforming bishops were deposed and married clergy punished, but the Reformation returned under Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603), and was accepted by all but two of the bishops.

In 1560, the Irish Parliament again repudiated the authority of the Pope and passed the Act of Uniformity, making Anglicanism the state religion in Ireland.


Why did the Reformation fail to take hold in Ireland in the same way as it did in England?

Supplemental reading:

John R. Bartlett and Stuart D. Kinsella, Two thousand years of Christianity in Ireland (Dublin: Columba Press, 2006).
Patrick Corish, The Irish Catholic Experience (Dublin, 1985).
Liam de Paor, Saint Patrick’s World (Blackrock, Co Dublin, 1993).
James P. Mackey, An Introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).
Rowan Williams, Why study the past? The quest for the historical church (2005).


The Tudor, Stuart and Caroline Settlements.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture was part of the Module EM8825, Anglican Studies in an Irish context, with part-time MTh students on 8 December 2012.

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