26 January 2017

Anglican Studies (2016-2017) 2.2: the
challenges facing Anglicanism today

The Anglican Primates at their meeting in Canterbury last year (Photograph: ACNS)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Thursdays: 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon, The Hartin Room.

Thursday 26 January 2017

The challenges facing the communion of global Anglicanism today, including the Anglican Covenant.

Part 1: The present challenges:

Paul Avis, in his recent book, The Identity of Anglicanism, concludes his chapter on ‘Anglican Ecclesiology in the Twenty-first Century’ with this assessment of the state of Anglicanism today:

‘Anglicanism does indeed attempt to hold together elements that are opposed in other traditions – though not without strains. It defines itself as catholic and reformed; orthodox in doctrine yet open to change in its application. Its polity is both episcopal (and its bishops have real authority) and synodical – an unusual combination in a church that has maintained the historic episcopate. It acknowledges an ecumenical council as the highest authority in the Church, but is not opposed in principle to a universal primacy and virtually never has been. It confesses the paramount authority of Scripture, but reveres tradition and harkens to the voice of culture and science. It tries to be neither centralized nor fragmented, neither authoritarian nor anarchic. It is comprehensive without being relativistic. This interesting experiment has endured and evolved for nearly five centuries; in spite of the present difficulties, I believe it is worth persevering with.’ [Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark, 2007), pp 168-169.]

But given the present difficulties, can Anglicanism persevere?

Indeed, we might ask, can it survive?

And what is holding Anglicanism together at this present moment?

Last week [19 January 2017] we looked at the present state of the Anglican Communion, and outlined the four ‘Instruments of Communion.’ Traditionally there have been four instruments of unity, now known as the ‘Instruments of Communion’:

● The Archbishop of Canterbury, who calls and convenes the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ meetings, and who presides at the meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council – although the ACC has its own chair and vice-chair. He is often referred to as a ‘focus of unity.’

● The Lambeth Conference, first called in 1867 and now meeting every 10 years – the last meeting was in Canterbury in 2008, and the Archbishop of Canterbury intends to call the next meeting in 2020.

● The Anglican Consultative Council, formed in 1968. Its last meeting, ACC-15, was last year [8-20 April 2016] in Lusaka, Zambia. The Church of Ireland members are the Revd Dr Maurice Elliott (Director of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute) and Mr Wilfred Baker, the former Cork Diocesan Secretary.

● The Primates’ Meetings, which take place every two or three years. They last met a year ago [11-15 January 2016] in Canterbury. Their previous meeting was in the Emmaus Retreat Centre in Swords, Co Dublin, in January 2011, and the three meetings before that were in Alexandria, Egypt (February 2009), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (February 2007), and Dromantine, near Newry (2006).

Let us look at each of these instruments of communion, and see what are the challenges facing the communion of global Anglicanism today, and then discuss the Anglican Covenant.

The challenges

At their meeting in Canterbury a year ago [11 to 15 January 2016], the Anglican primates issued the following statement:

Communiqué from the Primates, 15 January 2016


Walking Together in the Service of God in the World

The meeting of Anglican Primates, the senior bishops of the 38 Anglican Provinces, joined by the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America, took place in Canterbury between Monday 11 January and Friday 15 January at the invitation of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first morning was spent in prayer and fasting.

We came knowing that the 2016 Primates’ meeting would be concerned with the differences among us in regard to our teaching on matters of human sexuality. We were also eager to address wider areas of concern.

The meeting started by agreeing the agenda. The first agreed item was to discuss an important point of contention among Anglicans worldwide: the recent change to the doctrine of marriage by The Episcopal Church in the USA.

Over the past week the unanimous decision of the Primates was to walk together, however painful this is, and despite our differences, as a deep expression of our unity in the body of Christ. We looked at what that meant in practical terms. We received the recommendation of a working group of our members which took up the task of how our Anglican Communion of Churches might walk together and our unity be strengthened. Their work, consistent with previous statements of the Primates’ meetings, addressed what consequences follow for The Episcopal Church in relation to the Anglican Communion following its recent change of marriage doctrine.

The recommendations in paragraphs 7 and 8 of the Addendum A below are:

“It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

“We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.”

These recommendations were adopted by the majority of the Primates present.

We will develop this process so that it can also be applied when any unilateral decisions on matters of doctrine and polity are taken that threaten our unity.

The Primates condemned homophobic prejudice and violence and resolved to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation. This conviction arises out of our discipleship of Jesus Christ. The Primates reaffirmed their rejection of criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted people.

The Primates recognise that the Christian church and within it the Anglican Communion have often acted in a way towards people on the basis of their sexual orientation that has caused deep hurt. Where this has happened they express their profound sorrow and affirm again that God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and that the church should never by its actions give any other impression.

We affirmed the consultation that had taken place in preparation for the meeting by Archbishop Welby and commended his approach for future events within the Communion.

The consideration of the required application for admission to membership of the Communion of the Anglican Church of North America was recognised as properly belonging to the Anglican Consultative Council. The Primates recognise that such an application, were it to come forward, would raise significant questions of polity and jurisdiction.

In the wake of the climate change conference in Paris last month, the meeting heard about a petition of almost two million signatures co-ordinated by the Anglican Environment Network. Reports were made about moves to divest from fossil fuels, the expansion of the African Deserts and the struggle for survival of the peoples of the Pacific as island life is threatened in many places by the rise of sea levels.

The meeting discussed the reality of religiously motivated violence and its impact on people and communities throughout the world. Primates living in places where such violence is a daily reality spoke movingly and passionately about their circumstances and the effect on their members. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself has taken important initiatives in bringing people together from a range of faith communities globally for discussion and mutual accountability.

The Anglican Primates repudiated any religiously motivated violence and expressed solidarity with all who suffer from this evil in the world today.

The Primates look forward to the proposal being brought to the Anglican Consultative Council for comprehensive child protection measures to be available throughout all the churches of the Communion.

In a presentation on evangelism, the Primates rejoiced that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming power of the love of God in Jesus Christ. The Primates were energised by the opportunity to share experiences of evangelism and motivated to evangelise with their people.

“The Primates joyfully commit themselves and the Anglican Church, to proclaim throughout the world the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.”

(See Addendum B.)

The Primates supported the Archbishop of Canterbury in his proposal to call a Lambeth Conference in 2020.

The Primates discussed tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and patronage networks, and the deep evil of corruption. They reflected that these issues become inextricably connected to war and violence, and derive from poverty. They agreed to ask the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion to commission a study for the next Primates’ meeting. The Primates agreed to meet again in 2017 and 2019.

The Primates owe a debt of gratitude to the staff of the Anglican Communion Office, and especially the Secretary General, to the staff at Lambeth Palace and at Church House Westminster. The Primates were especially grateful for the warm welcome, generous hospitality and kindness offered by the Dean of Canterbury and all at the Cathedral. Their contribution was very important in setting the mood of the meeting in prayer and mutual listening. Thanks to the Community of St Anselm for their prayer, help and support, Jean Vanier for his inspiring addresses, and the Community of St Gregory for the loan of the crosier head to sit alongside the St Augustine gospels.

The Primates received their time together as a gift from God and experienced many signs of God’s presence amongst us. They appreciated the personal care and humility shown by the Archbishop of Canterbury especially in his chairing of the meeting. We leave our week together enriched by the communion we share and strengthened by the faithful witness of Anglicans across the world. The Primates deeply appreciate the prayers of many throughout the world over our time together.

Addendum A

1. We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.

2. Recent developments in the Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.

3. All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.

4. The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.

5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.

6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.

7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years TEC no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

8. We have asked the ABC to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.

Addendum B

We, as Anglican Primates, affirm together that the Church of Jesus Christ lives to bear witness to the transforming love of God in the power of the Spirit throughout the world.

It is clear God’s world has never been in greater need of this resurrection love and we long to make it known.

We commit ourselves through evangelism to proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically, inviting all to embrace the beauty and joy of the Gospel.

We rely entirely on the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us speech, brings new birth, leads us into the truth revealed in Christ Jesus thus building the church.

All disciples of Jesus Christ, by virtue of our baptism, are witnesses to and of Jesus in faith, hope and love.

We pledge ourselves together to pray, listen, love, suffer and sacrifice that the world may know that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Come Holy Spirit.


The Anglican Primates at their meeting in Swords, Co Dublin, six years ago (Photograph: Orla Ryan/ACNS)

At their meeting in Swords six years ago [January 2011], the Anglican primates issued a number of statements or open letters expressing concerns about the situations in Zimbabwe, the Middle East, Egypt, Haiti and the Korean peninsula, and about global warming, the circumstances surrounding the murder of a gay activist in Uganda, gender-based violence, and other issues.

Many external matters received serious consideration at that meeting. But it is often internal matters – the question marks that hang over the future of the Anglican Communion – that draw the most attention. These include the following:

● The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the focus of unity for the Anglican Communion.
● Whether the Anglican Communion needs a central, structured institution.
● The future of the Lambeth Conference as a purely Episcopal gathering.
● The status, role or authority of the resolutions passed at the Lambeth Conferences.
● The tension between maintaining theological diversity and unity in communion.
● The possibility of a future Anglican Congress that is representative of the laity.
● Whether the future of the Anglican Communion is as some looser form of alliance or federation, what the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, described once as a World Alliance of Anglican Churches?

Part 2: The ‘Instruments of Communion’ today

The tensions within the Anglican Communion, and the questions over its future shape or survival, are also created, to a large degree, by new demographic realities.

In many ways, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church (TEC) appear to dominate the agenda, the budgets and the ethos of the Anglican Communion. But, as Professor Alister McGrath pointed out at a conference in Oxford on the ‘Future of Anglicanism’: ‘On any given Sunday there are more Anglicans attending church in the west African state of Nigeria than in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia, taken together.’

Anglican Churches are thriving and growing in many parts of Africa and Asia. But Anglicanism appears to be in decline, numerically, in the traditional Anglican heartlands such as England, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In the US, the decline of Anglicanism or Episcopalianism is in sharp contrast to the rise in membership of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. Alister McGrath claims: ‘The implications for the future direction of Anglicanism are momentous.’

1, The Archbishop of Canterbury:

The Most Revd Justin Portal Welby ... enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013

Archbishop Justin Portal Welby was enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury four years ago [21 March 2013]. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he is the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, and he will probably crown the next British monarch.

He has placed poverty at the heart of his priorities. He has been critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, been supportive of the Occupy protests at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and has not been fooled by the smooth talking of bankers. He has asked whether companies can sin, and has sat on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. He favours women bishops, but supports ‘the Church of England’s opposition to same-sex marriage.’ However, he has spoken out strongly against homophobia and says he is ‘always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams … hopes for ‘a church that is honest about its diversity – even when that diversity seems at first embarrassing and unwelcome’

You may agree with Paul Avis that ‘in spite of the present difficulties,’ Anglicanism ‘is worth persevering with.’ I certainly hope you do!

In his farewell letter to the Anglican Primates, Archbishop Rowan Williams said the member churches of the Anglican Communion must live with some diversity but not become like ‘distant relatives who sometimes send Christmas cards to each other.’

He told the primates that the loose association of 38 member churches ‘has endured much suffering and confusion and still lives with this in many ways.’ But he added: ‘Our Communion has never been the sort of Church that looks for one central authority… We have to have several points of reference for the organising of our common life.’

‘As I leave office … there will of course be some self-questioning for me at the thought of much left undone and unresolved,’ he said.

In his letter, he described the Anglican Communion as a ‘halfway formal model of a global community of prayer’ that links Anglicans around the world through common work on projects such as spreading the faith, promoting healthcare and defending rights of women and children. ‘What we aspire to as Anglicans is not to be a federation of loosely connected and rather distant relatives who sometimes send Christmas cards to each other, but a true family and fellowship.’

Nine years ago, at the General Synod of the Church of England, Archbishop Williams expressed the hope that as Anglicans ‘we want to be part of a family still. And that means some dreams of purity and clarity are not going to be realised. Both [sides] have turned their backs on the fantasy of a church that is pure in their own terms, in favour of a church that is honest about its diversity – even when that diversity seems at first embarrassing and unwelcome.’ [The Guardian, 11 February 2008.]

Some years earlier, in an interview with Paul Handley [The Church Times, 6 December 2002, pp 14-15], the former archbishop was asked about the future of the Anglican Communion, and whether it needs ‘a stronger pull at the centre, that it has been too diffused and disorganised,’ he answered: ‘I don’t think it [the Anglican Communion] needs to have a more centralised executive. That would be a mistake; it would be following a model that, on the whole, in Anglican history, we have not followed. We have seen ourselves as a federation of essentially local churches.’

Lord Williams went on to say: ‘We are now faced with an unprecedented challenge about how much of a Communion we want to be.’ And he asked: ‘If, in ten years’ time, we were the World Alliance of Anglican Churches – an assemblage of local bodies that didn’t acknowledge these different theologies, priorities, policies – would that be a loss? And what to do about it?’

‘In ten years’ time ...’ Where do you think we have got to then by 2017?

2, The Lambeth Conference:

Canterbury Cathedral ... the Lambeth Conferences are called by the Archbishop of Canterbury

Over the generations, bishops at the Lambeth Conferences have debated many of the real social and pressing issues of the day, often issuing radical statements, for example on Socialism in the Victorian age, or on war at the height of the Vietnam war. They were able to change their views, for example on contraception and family planning, moving from an outright disapproval of contraception to openly encouraging planned parenthood.

The Lambeth Conference is a gathering of bishops, meeting every 10 years under the presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury. There have been 13 conferences to date, between 1867 and 2008. Until 1978, the conferences were for bishops only, but in 1988 the full membership of the Anglican Consultative Council was invited too, as well as representative bishops of the Churches in Communion (the Churches of Bangladesh, North and South India, and Pakistan) joined with the bishops in the discussions, as did bishops of the Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht.

But Lambeth Conferences remain essentially gatherings of bishops only, they are deliberative and, while they claim teaching authority, they were without canonical authority and their composition does not reflect the synodical structures of individual Anglican churches or provinces.

From the beginning, Lambeth Conferences have been marked by tensions and divisions. The first Lambeth Conference was called because of crisis and division among Anglicans in Southern Africa, the Province of York refused to take part in the first conference, Dean Stanley refused to make Westminster Abbey available for the first conference, and there were later divisions over, for example, the ordination of women to the priesthood, the consecration of women bishops, and, in 1998 and again in 2008, sexuality and more particularly homosexuality.

The 14th Lambeth Conference took place from 16 July to 4 August 2008 at the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. Before the conference, Archbishop Williams issued a pastoral letter to the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion and Moderators of the United Churches, indicating that the emphasis should be on training, ‘for really effective, truthful and prayerful mission.’ He ruled out (for the time being) re-opening the debate on Resolution 1.10 on human sexuality from the 1998 Lambeth Conference, but emphasised the so-called ‘listening process’ which was to encourage diverse views and experiences of human sexuality being collected and collated under the terms of that resolution, and he said it ‘will be important to allow time for this to be presented and reflected upon in 2008.’

The traditional plenary sessions and resolutions were reduced, with a bigger number of more focused groups.

Attendance at the Lambeth Conference is by invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury. When he sent out his invitations to Lambeth 2008, Archbishop Williams reminded bishops: ‘the Lambeth Conference has no ‘constitution’ or formal powers; it is not a formal Synod or Council of the bishops of the Communion.’

More than 880 bishops were invited to the 2008 Conference. Those notably absent from the invitation list were Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and Bishop Marty Minns, a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) until his retirement in 2014.

Bishop Gene Robinson … not invited to Lambeth 2008 (Photograph: Donald Vish)

Bishop Robinson was the first Anglican bishop to exercise the office of diocesan bishop while in an acknowledged same-sex relationship. Many see him as being at the heart of the current controversy in the Anglican Communion.

Marty Minns, a former rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Virginia, became the leader of the ‘Convocation of Anglicans in North America,’ a splinter group of American Episcopalians. On the other hand, the (Anglican) Church of Nigeria saw him as its own missionary bishop to the US, despite protests from Canterbury and TEC.

Six (out of the total of 38) Anglican Primates decided not to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference because of their opposition to TEC actions in relation to homosexual clergy and same sex unions. Those Primates represent the Anglican provinces of Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, the Southern Cone of the Americas, Uganda and West Africa. In addition, Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, who was talking about the end of the Anglican Communion, and the other bishops in Sydney in Australia, stayed away. However, the bishops of Uganda insisted that they remain part of the Anglican Communion.

The Global Anglican Future Conference, a meeting of conservative bishops in Jerusalem in June 2008, took place a month before the Lambeth Conference. Some observers saw this as an ‘alternative Lambeth’ for those who opposed to the consecration of Gene Robinson.

The GAFCON conference primarily attracted Anglican leaders who say they are in impaired communion with much of Anglicanism, including Archbishop Jensen, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and other bishops who saw themselves as in ‘impaired communion’ with TEC and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as Canon Dr Vinay Samuel of India; and Canon Dr Chris Sugden of England. No bishop from the Church of Ireland attended, although the late Ian Smith of CMS Ireland was there.

GAFCON met most recently in Nairobi over three years ago [21-26 October 2013]. Archbishop Welby visited Nairobi immediately beforehand to meet the leaders and organisers. A number of members of the Church of Ireland were present.

The Church leaders who identify with GAFCON claim to represent 30 million of the 55 million ‘active’ Anglicans in the Anglican Communion. However, this figure assumes the support of all Anglicans in central sub-Saharan Africa, and it is calculated on a low estimate of the numbers of Anglicans in the rest of the world. The official figure for Anglicans worldwide is 80 million.

Archbishop Williams said GAFCON did not signal disloyalty, but also said the meeting ‘would not have any official status as far as the [Anglican] Communion is concerned.’

The first GAFCON conference and the absence of GAFCON’s leadership from Lambeth 2008 was criticised significantly, even by some conservatives. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said: ‘If the Jerusalem conference is an alternative to the Lambeth Conference, which I perceive it is, then I think it is regrettable. The irony is that all they are going to do is weaken the Lambeth Conference. They are going to give the liberals a more powerful voice because they are absent and they are going to act as if they are schismatics.’

At the same time, Archbishop Carey once again called on the House of Bishops of TEC to commit itself to the Windsor Report, which sought a moratorium on the consecration of homosexual bishops and blessing of same-sex unions.

The Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop [now Archbishop] Suheil Dawani, in whose diocese the conference took place, said: ‘I am deeply troubled that this meeting, of which we had no prior knowledge, will import inter-Anglican conflict into our diocese, which seeks to be a place of welcome for all Anglicans. It could also have serious consequences for our on-going ministry of reconciliation in this divided land. Indeed, it could further inflame tensions here. We who minister here know only too well what happens when two sides cease talking to each other. We do not want to see any further dividing walls!’

The Provincial Primate, the Bishop of Cairo, Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, was concerned about GAFCON taking place in a diocese in his province. He advised the organisers that it was not the right time or place for such a meeting, but his advice was ignored.

Ahead of the meeting, Archishop Suheil Dawani of Jerusalem met the GAFCON organisers, including Archbishop Jensen and Archbishop Akinola, and explained his objections to the conference taking place in his diocese, and his fear for the damage it would do to his local ministry of welcome and reconciliation in the Holy Land. He insisted that the Lambeth Conference was the correct venue for internal discussions.

As an alternative, he proposed, ‘for the sake of making progress in this discussion,’ that GAFCON should meet in Cyprus, followed by a ‘pure pilgrimage’ to the Holy Land. Despite those requests, the conference went ahead. And, while the House of Bishops of TEC had apologised in 2007 for their part in the current divisions within Anglicanism, it was evident from the principal participants in GAFCON, and even from the structure of Archbishop Carey’s remarks, that this apology was not good enough for many conservatives.

To continue the work of GAFCON, many of those involved in it or who supported in set up the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

Meanwhile, the number of bodies set up to mediate within the Anglican Communion continues to confound outside observers; parishes and dioceses within TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada continue to secede and to ask for Episcopal oversight from other Anglican Churches, including the Southern Cone, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria. In England, the Church Society – whose Vice-President was the then Bishop of Lewes, the Irish-born Wallace Benn – wrote to the ‘Global South’ Primates calling on them to break fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury because of what they see as his false teaching on homosexuality.

At the end of 2008, theological conservatives estranged from TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada formed a separate province, the Anglican Church in North America. The bishops involved in setting up this new church included Martyn Minns and Robert Duncan, although those new groupings are currently facing disarray and internal divisions.

3, The Anglican Consultative Council:

The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) is an international assembly of the Anglican Communion, bringing together bishops, priests, deacons and lay members to work on common concerns.

The ACC was formed following a resolution of the 1968 Lambeth Conference which discerned the need for more frequent and more representative contact among the member churches than was possible through a once-a-decade conference of bishops. The constitution of the council was accepted by the general synods or conventions of all the member churches of the Anglican Communion.

The council came into being in 1969, and it is the only one of three collective instruments of communion to have a legal identity and constitution. But is remains consultative, it has no canonical authority, and at times there have been tensions with the other instruments, as when the primates suggested the TEC and Canadian members should absent themselves from the ACC.

4, The Primates’ Meeting:

The two archbishops with Bishop Pat Storey at her consecration … the Archbishop of Armagh is part of the primates’ meeting, but not the Archbishop of Dublin

The Primates (the senior archbishop or presiding bishop) of the autonomous Churches of the Anglican Communion have been meeting every two or three years since 1979 in consultation on theological, social, and international issues, for fellowship and for prayer.

They do not include all archbishops, and they have no constitution. Their meeting is called by the Archbishop of Canterbury for consultation, and there is no consensus yet among the primates about the nature and exercise of primacy.

The fact that the primates at their meetings have no canonical authority to act collectively on decisions explains some of the responses to last year’s meeting (January 2016), particularly Professor Norman Doe’s comments reported in the Church Times.

Patrick Comerford with Archbishop Rowan Williams at the Primates’ meeting in Dublin in 2011

Part 3: The Anglican Covenant

Ridley Hall, Cambridge, founded in 1881 … the Ridley Cambridge Draft of the Anglican Covenant was finalised there in April 2009 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The idea of an Anglican covenant was first put forward in the Windsor Report (pars 113-120), which prosed a Covenant that would become ‘foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion.’ Signatories would agree that ‘recognition of, and fidelity to, the text of this Covenant, enables mutual recognition and communion.’

Does this means that Provinces that do not sign the Covenant no longer count as part of the Communion? Until now, “mutual recognition and communion’ have applied across all Anglican provinces. Would the Covenant mean withdrawing recognition and communion from non-signatories? And, if so, would the Anglican Communion cease to consist of the 38 provinces and instead consist of the new international structure, composed only of the Provinces that sign the Covenant.

Archbishop Robin Eames of Armagh presenting the Windsor Report in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 2004

The Anglican Covenant was first proposed by the Windsor Report after the Diocese of New Hampshire in the US elected an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, and the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada approved a same-sex blessing.

Opponents had no legal way to expel TEC or the Canadians. The subsequent debates led to the Windsor Report and eventually to the Anglican Covenant, which is now being debated by Anglican Provinces. The debate raises questions about whether the Covenant can achieve Anglican unity or is redefining the Anglican Communion.

The Windsor Report was produced by a commission chaired by the then Archbishop Robin Eames, was published in October 2004, and was a major topic at the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Dromantine, Co Armagh, nine years ago (2005).

The Windsor Report:

● Censured TEC for proceeding with the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
● Censured the Diocese of New Westminster for sanctioning same-sex blessing.
● Criticised bishops in provinces such as Uganda and the Southern Cone for intervening in US dioceses during the crisis.
● Recommended new procedures for dealing with disagreements, including an agreed covenant to restrain unilateral decision-making.
● Recommended the arbitration of disputes by the Archbishop of Canterbury and an advisory panel.

In the responses, it was said the Windsor Report:

● Represented worldwide Anglican consensus, ‘rooted in scripture, engaging with tradition, while facing new challenges, thought through with as much reason as our collective and prayerful wits could muster’ (Bishop Tom Wright in the General Synod of the Church of England, February 2005).
● Relied ‘too much on law as a solution to our problems. It would mean any province of the Anglican Communion could veto anything [the Church of England General] Synod wanted to do’ (Professor David McClean).
● ‘Is part of a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation’ (Archbishop Eames).

The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council commissioned a study paper on the idea in 2005, Towards an Anglican Covenant.

At its meeting in 2006, the Joint Standing Committee asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish a Covenant Design Group to further the project. This group presented its preliminary report to the Primates in Dar es Salaam in 2007.

In Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 2007, the primates continued this process. Seven primates there were unhappy with what they saw as the failure to censure TEC or even force its withdrawal from the Anglican Communion. On the other hand, there were those within the Anglican Communion who are unhappy with the terms of the invitation issued to the TEC primus. In 2007, the Primates produced a draft covenant for the Anglican Communion – the Nassau Draft – and initial consultations took place in 2007.

A second report – the Saint Andrew’s Draft – took into account many of the submissions to the group. That draft was then sent to the member churches for further reflection, ahead of last year’s Lambeth Conference.

The Saint Andrew’s Draft, drawn up by the Covenant Design Group, proposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury would oversee a mediation process between provinces that disagree on issues such as homosexuality. It suggested that if mediation failed, contentious matters would be referred to the ACC, which would then have the power to expel a province whose policies might threaten a schism. This proposal gave the ACC more prominence in resolving disputes than the Primates, a move which has been opposed by some groups.

The draft was discussed at the Lambeth Conference in 2008 and then sent to the member Churches of the Anglican Communion.

When the Anglican primates met eight years ago (2009) in Alexandria, they discussed the draft covenant, and abandoned proposals for the primates to be ex-officio members of the ACC. Interestingly, five African primates who had boycotted Lambeth 2008 were present, and both the Presiding Bishop of TEC and the Primate of Uganda shared a platform with three other primates as they contributed reflections.

The primates also asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to initiate early mediation and talks with all the disaffected Anglican represented in the Common Cause Partnership aimed at seeking reconciliation. When they discussed the draft covenant, the primates reportedly came to ‘a realisation of what a covenant can and can’t do about sanctions and ‘teeth’.’ They agreed that punitive action was less appropriate than a framework with a clear emphasis on koinonia, and a Church’s agreement to accept limitations on its self-autonomy.

Ridley Hall, Cambridge … the Covenant Design Group met there in 2009 and finalised the Anglican Covenant now being debated throughout the Anglican Communion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Covenant Design Group, which included the then Archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop John Neill, met again in April 2009 in Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and sent another draft, An Anglican Covenant - Ridley Cambridge Draft Text, for review to the ACC at its meeting in Jamaica that year. The ACC then sent that version of the Covenant to the provinces for their adoption. In 2011, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland agreed to ‘subscribe’ to the Covenant, but it was rejected in the diocesan synods of the Church of England in 2012, and it looks like the General Convention of TEC has ‘kicked for touch’ but is unlikely to adopt it.

The covenant gives the ‘Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and of the Primates’ Meeting, or any body that succeeds it,’ the responsibility of overseeing the functioning of the Covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion (4.2.1).

The Joint Standing Committee may make ask any covenanting Church to defer a planned course of action (4.2.2). If a member church refuses to defer a controversial action, the Joint Standing Committee may recommend consequences such as a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension from, one of the Instruments of Communion (4.2.3).

The committee may suggest that the decision of a covenanting Church continues with an action that is ‘incompatible with the Covenant’ that this impairs or limits the communion between that Church and the other Churches of the Anglican Communion, with consequences for participation in the life of the Anglican Communion and the Instruments of Communion (4.2.5).

Each Church should put into place mechanisms, agencies or institutions to oversee the maintenance of the affirmations and commitments of the Covenant in the life of that Church, and to relate to the Instruments of Communion on matters pertinent to the Covenant (4.2.6).

Any covenanting Church may withdraw from the Covenant. Although withdrawing would not imply an automatic withdrawal from the Instruments of Communion or a repudiation of its Anglican character, it raises questions about the meaning of the Covenant, and of compatibility with its principles (4.3.1).

More recently, Archbishop Williams admitted the covenant is seen in some quarters as trying to create an Anglican executive and ‘for seeking to create means of exclusion. This is wholly mistaken. There is no supreme court envisaged, and the constitutional liberties of each province are explicitly safeguarded,’ he said.

The current status of the Covenant

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh ... the General Synod of the Church of Ireland agreed in Armagh in 2011 to “subscribe” to the Covenant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland agreed in Armagh six years ago [13 May 2011] to ‘subscribe’ to the Covenant, but made it clear that the Covenant does not supplant existing governing documents of the Church of Ireland.

What about the reception of the Anglican Covenant in other member Churches of the Anglican Communion?

Lichfield Cathedral ... the Diocese of Lichfield was one of the dioceses of the Church of England to approve the Anglican Covenant (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

The Church of England: The General Synod of the Church of England sent the Covenant to the diocesan synods for consideration. The measure was supported by Archbishop Williams but could only come back to the General Synod for a final vote in 2012 if it was accepted in the dioceses. Bishop Michael Perham of Gloucester expressed concern that it could be used to take ‘punitive action’ against certain Anglicans, but he voted in favour of it out of loyalty to Archbishop Williams. Bishop John Saxbee of Lincoln said the Covenant represented ‘factory-farmed religion rather than free range-faith’ and would only lead to a two-tier Communion.

It was finally defeated in the diocesan synods in April 2012 and was not brought back to the General Synod. The tally of dioceses was 26 against the Covenant and 18 for.

The Anglican Church of Australia: Three years ago [30 June 2014], the General Synod adopted a resolution affirming openness to considering a covenant but without mention of the covenant currently on offer.

Burma (Myanmar): has accepted the covenant.

The Anglican Church of Canada: The Covenant has been sent to the dioceses and parishes for study, and a vote by the General Synod, which was expected three years ago [2013], but this vote has now been postponed until last year [2016].

Japan: In May 2010, the General Synod agreed to move forward with considering the covenant, over-ruling a recommendation from the theological committee of the House of Bishops.

Mexico: adopted the Covenant in June 2010.

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia: On 9 July 2012, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia declared that it was unable to adopt the Covenant.

The Philippines: The bishops rejected the Covenant in May 2011.

The Episcopal Church of Scotland: On 8 June 2012, the General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church voted decisively against a resolution to adopt the Covenant in principle.

The Church in Wales: The Governing Body passed a motion on 18 April 2012 indicating its willingness to consider the Covenant but asking the Anglican Consultative Council to clarify the status of the Covenant in the light of its rejection by the Church of England.

South-East Asia: The Church “acceded” to the Covenant in May 2011 and published an explanation of its understanding of the action, which seems to go beyond the Covenant text itself.

Hong Kong: The Hong Sheng Kung Hui, the Hong Kong Anglican Church, adopted the Covenant in June 2013.

Southern Africa: The Provincial Synod approved the Covenant in October 2010. The decision was ratified four years ago [2013].

Sudan: At a meeting in May 2014, the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan adopted the Covenant.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town (left), and the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of TEC (centre) at a USPG conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Episcopal Church (TEC): In July 2012, the Episcopal Church considered the Covenant at the General Convention, which voted to ‘decline to take a position on the Anglican Covenant’ and ‘to continue to monitor the progress of the Covenant until the next General Convention in 2015.’

West Indies: The Provincial Synod voted to accept the Covenant in December 2009, and the Standing Committee did so in November 2010.

Melanesia: the Church of the Province of Melanesia adopted the Covenant in November 2014.

The debate about the Covenant:

But many questions still remain:

Will any intervention by the Joint Standing Committee, now known as the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion, help heal the divisions or simply delay them?

Is the Standing Committee likely to become a new ‘Instrument of Communion’ within the Anglican Communion?

Will we end up with a more-closely bound Anglican Communion or a looser Anglican Federation?

Or will we end up with a two-tier Anglican Communion with two categories of membership?

When Inclusive Church and Modern Church together placed a large advertisement in the Church Times and the Church of England Newspaper, the Revd Dr Andrew Goddard replied with a lengthy, 15,000-word defence of the Anglican Covenant, ‘How and Why IC & MCU Mislead Us On the Anglican Covenant.’ He says: ‘The IC/MCU statement ... pays little or no attention to the text of the covenant itself.’

Critics say they judge the covenant in the light of its potential and how it could be used once it is in place.

The most obvious disagreement is whether provinces will be subordinated to the international authorities and threatened with punishment if they do not obey.

Andrew Goddard considers this a ‘highly implausible spin,’ but does not say why. The Windsor Report said it was a stated aim was that a covenant ‘would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion’ (para 118).

But how can we enforce true ‘loyalty and bonds of affection’?

Whether or not the text of the Covenant claims to be punitive, whether its framers intend it to be, or whether it can be used in a punitive manner, a province that rejects recommendations can be excluded from the Covenant’s ‘enhanced’ relationship with other provinces and international committees. Is this enhanced relationship not the relationship most provinces already have with each other? Will there be a third tier for the truly disobedient provinces, those nearly, but not quite beyond the pale?

Does the Covenant redefine Anglicanism?

Would the Covenant make Anglican Churches more inward-looking?

Every time the Standing Committee upholds an objection it will establish a new ruling, another doctrine Anglicans are expected to believe. Over time, Anglicanism may become less inclusive and more dogmatic.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference declared homosexuality ‘incompatible with Scripture’ and the Windsor Report, faced with threats of schism, took this to mean that there is an Anglican consensus on this matter. On the basis of this presumed ‘consensus,’ it was declared that the North American churches were out of order in consecrating a gay bishop and permitting the blessing same-sex unions.

But Lambeth conference resolutions have never had legislating powers. Yet the Windsor Report treated Resolution 1.10 as binding on Anglicanism – in effect, another component part of Anglican belief to add to the Bible, the Creeds and the Thirty-Nine Articles.

A resolution and a report quickly came to be treated as dogma. Bishop Martin Barahona, the retired Primate of Central America, said: ‘The Windsor Report, it’s just a report. When did it become like The Bible. The Covenant. Why do we need another covenant? We have the Baptismal Covenant. We have the creeds. What else do we need?’

The bitter controversies of the last decade or more have indeed been most unfortunate. The presenting issues have been ethical and theological disagreement. Can they be resolved by patient, informed ethical and theological dialogue? Or do they need to be dealt with through what some see as ‘ecclesiastical politics and threats of exclusion’?

What would the Anglican Covenant do?

Opponents says the covenant would enable objectors to forbid new developments.

Each of the 38 Provinces in the Anglican Communion was asked to sign the Anglican Covenant. By signing the Covenant, a province undertakes not to introduce any new development if another Anglican province anywhere in the world opposes it – unless granted prior permission from a new international body, the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.

It would redefine Anglicanism.

The Covenant does not mention either the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson or the decisions in the Diocese of New Westminster. But it imposes restrictions on any future church developments that another province opposes.

Would the Covenant establish an authoritarian leadership in the Anglican Communion?

What is to happen now that the Church of England has indefinitely postponed signing up for the Covenant?

Would the Covenant subordinate once-autonomous provinces to a new international body?

The Covenant text states it affects only the relations provinces have with each other, without any effect on their internal governance. However, provinces would be to subordinate a province to the decisions of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion.

If the Covenant is approved, would this mean that every time the Standing Committee upholds an objection it will establish a new ruling, which then becomes another doctrine Anglicans are expected to accept and believe?

Is there a danger that over time Anglicanism will become less inclusive and more dogmatic?

What about those parishes and clergy who disagree, or who simply prefer a more open-minded approach?

Classical Anglican theology seeks to balance scripture, reason and tradition, and this balance allows for new developments. However, the Covenant reduces Anglicanism’s authorities to ‘the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches,’ making it more difficult to justify changes.

The Covenant would oblige provinces ‘to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion.’

Who would decide which decisions meet these criteria? Would it encourage opponents to exaggerate the strength of their objections?

Does the Covenant subordinate provincial decision-making to the new Standing Committee and the four Instruments of Communion?

Would it hinder mission? Think of how many people say they are put off the Church by our apparent reluctance to change and what they see as the Church’s backward-looking stance on many issues. If the covenant slows down change and development, would we have created an additional hindrance to mission?

Could local ecumenical initiatives become subject to objections from Anglicans in other places who do not know or understand the local situation?

If the Covenant goes ahead, provinces not signing up to it will govern themselves in the same way as now. But signatories may, at worst, no longer count them as part of the Anglican Communion, and at best as second-class members, they would be excluded from the Instruments of Communion, and they would become ‘Churches in association’ with the Anglican Communion.

Opponents of the covenant say that if the Covenant had been there in the past, then over the centuries there have been few changes. Think of how the Church no longer approves of slavery, but permits divorce and contraception. We have introduced new prayer books and liturgies, approved the ordination of women as priests and bishops, but some provinces still do not have women as priests and bishops. If the Covenant had been in force when these changes were introduced, other provinces would have objected.

Is there a better way to resolve disagreements?

Refusing to allow reason a role, disagreements have often led each side to accuse the other of not being true Christians.

But are disagreements within the Church always a threat to the unity of the Church?

Anglicans traditionally value the role of reason and expect to learn from other people. We have been better at staying united because we have debated our disagreements openly within the Church, without threatening schism, until a time when we reach consensus.

Can differences of opinion be freely and openly debated within the Church, in the interests of seeking truth, without invoking powers of censure or threats of schism?

Part 4: current theological developments

If there is too much emphasis on law and legalism, perhaps we could take a more optimistic approach to the future by suggesting the future of Anglicanism rests not only on these debates, but on the vitality of its worship, spirituality and theology.

There have been exciting developments in Anglican theology recently.

In the Missiology module, you have already debated ‘Fresh Expressions’ and its implications for the mission of the church. But what does this development mean for Anglican theology? Later, when we look at Anglican ecclesiology, we shall ask about what it means for Anglicanism and Anglican identity.

But you should also be aware of the work of critics of ‘Fresh Expressions’ too, and what they say this movement means for Anglican identity. The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge and before that he was tutor in doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge (2010-2014), tutor in doctrine at Saint Stephen’s House, Oxford, and junior chaplain of Merton College (2006-2010).

In pastoral theology, he is known for Care for the Dying: A Practical and Pastoral Guide (written with the physician Sioned Evans, Canterbury Press, 2014). In the Liturgy module, many of you have read his Why Sacraments? (London, SPCK, 2013). For some of you I have recommended his The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians (London, SCM, 2013) as a way of helping to frame clear thinking and rational thought in writing theological essays.

Andrew Davison and the Revd Dr Alison Milbank have made a compelling critique of ‘Fresh Expressions’ in their study of mission and the church, For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions (SCM, 2010). This book provoked widespread debate as the most significant theological critique of this trend in contemporary Anglican ecclesiology.

Another important school of thinking to develop in Anglican theology in recent years is Radical Orthodoxy. This theological and philosophical school of thought makes use of postmodern philosophy to reject the paradigm of modernity. The movement was founded by John Milbank and others and takes its name from the title of a collection of essays published by Routledge in 1999: Radical Orthodoxy, A New Theology, edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward.

Alex Wright, in his Why Bother with Theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002) – while making strong criticisms of current theology – offers positive criticism and hope for Anglicanism, and singles out, for example, Radical Orthodoxy.

Some other important, relevant, recent publications contributing to exciting new developments in Anglican theology include:

Duncan Dormer, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick (eds), Anglicanism the Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum 2003) (right). Duncan Dormer is Dean of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, and this collection of essays is an attempt by eight Cambridge college deans and chaplains to tackle the questions of religious identity that they believe are central to the way that the 21st century unfolds, and they regard their book as a bold attempt to address the future of Anglicanism in a confident way.

Robert Hannaford (editor), The Future of Anglicanism (Canterbury Press/Gracewing, 1996). This is another collection of essays looking at the future of Anglicanism and the serious challenges facing our communion.

Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2007). This is the most comprehensive contemporary study of Anglicanism today that is both rigorous and provocative, exploring and explaining the identity of Anglicanism.

Mark D Chapman (ed), The Anglican Covenant: Unity and Diversity in the Anglican Communion (London: Mowbray/Continuum, 2008). This is a collection of essays from a wide range of perspectives on the proposed Anglican Covenant, with a clear examination of the structures of authority within Anglicanism.

Philip Groves (ed), The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality (London: SPCK, 2008). Canon Groves is the Facilitator for the Listening Process at the Anglican Communion Office. He has been a CMS mission partner in Tanzania and is on the council of Saint John’s College, Nottingham. In this book, bishops, clergy and lay people with a diversity of views discuss the topic that has become the focus of divisions within Anglicanism. The book was sent to all bishops ahead of last year’s Lambeth Conference.

Jonathan Clark, The Republic of Heaven (London: SPCK, 2008) ... the chair of Affirming Catholicism makes an honest assessment of his own tradition and challenges that Catholic tradition within the Church of England and within Anglicanism to face the future.

Some questions for discussion:

Is the Church of Ireland vital at the moment?

Has the revision of The Book of Common Prayer helped to instil new vitality in parishes and congregations?

Is the current debate in Anglicanism about sexuality or about authority?

What is the appropriate balance between the competing claims for the authority of scripture, tradition and reason?

Do you have a vision for the future of Anglicanism and the Anglican Communion, and the place of the Church of Ireland within that?

Resources and supplemental reading:

The Anglican Communion Covenant – final text.
The Windsor Report.

Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2007).
Mark D. Chapman (editor), The Anglican Covenant: Unity and Diversity in the Anglican Communion (London: Mowbray/Continuum, 2008).
Jonathan Clark, The Republic of Heaven (London: SPCK, 2008).
Andrew Davison, Alison Milbank, For the Parish, a Critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM, 2010).
Norman Doe, An Anglican Covenant: theological and legal considerations for a global debate (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008).
Duncan Dormer, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick (eds), Anglicanism, the Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum 2003).
Philip Groves (editor), The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality (London: SPCK, 2008).
Robert Hannaford (editor), The Future of Anglicanism (Canterbury Press/Gracewing, 1996).
Bruce Kaye, An Introduction to World Anglicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Kevin Ward, A History of Global Anglicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).


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

3.2: Contextual understandings (1): the emergence, role and authority of The Book of Common Prayer, the Homilies, Articles of Religion.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a seminar on 26 January 2017 as part of the MTh Year II course, TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context

Anglican Studies (2016-2017) 2.1: The mission
of Patrick and early Irish Christianity

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

MTh Year II

TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Thursdays: 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon.

Thursday, 26 January 2017.

2.1: The mission of Patrick and early Irish Christianity

Part 1: Church history: the hows and the whys

Many of you may wonder about the hows and whys of Church History, and where it fits into any programme of theological, spiritual, pastoral and liturgical training. But let me first begin by challenging some of our understandings of history:

Is the present economic, political and constitutional crisis in Ireland an historic moment for us, socially, politically or economically?

Was the papacy of Pope John Paul II historic?

Did Bertie Ahern make an historic contribution to Irish politics?

It may be too soon, too judge any of these, it may be too early. I know a Byzantine historian who says that everything that happened before 1453 is history, everything after that is politics and current affairs

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

Group work:

Most of us have learned history in a way that has been routine, boring, and irrelevant, with dates and lists.

Think of how some of us may have learned lists of monarchs, with names and dates from 1066 to 1952. If the dates went back earlier, we hardly ever knew why Ethelred was Unready. Who did William conquer?

We are well into a decade of centenaries and dates, events and names are being thrown around like feed before chickens, without asking why we are consuming them, and questioning their relevance. History serves no purpose without considering both cause and effect.

As an exercise, let us take the years 1912-1922, and ask which dates are relevant.

What do you think was the most momentous event of that year?


What caused it?

What were its consequences?

What legacy has it left for you?

The decade of centenaries … Which events would you name for each year? How would you fill in the blank spaces for causes and consequences? (Patrick Comerford)

Did you come up with any of these events?

For example, in the run-up to the centenary of World War, the Guardian three years ago [15 January 2014] looked at the legacy of World War I and provided a list of 15 ways in which 1914-1918 ‘changed the world for ever’ under the following headings:

1, Poisonous gas

2, Shell shock

3, Conscription

4, Military technology

5, Pacifism

6, The Middle East legacy

7, Nation states

8, Filmed propaganda

9, Workers of the world

10, The planned economy

11, The broken faces

12, Blood banks

13, The decline of aristocracy

14, Christian democracy

15, Women’s emancipation

An American soldier lies dead, tangled in barbed wire on the western front (The Guardian, 16 January 2014)

Why do Church history?

Why should we study Church history on course such as this?

The simple answer that is usually is that we learn lessons from the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church history and theology:

Church history and theology … learning about the sands of time from walks on the beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

You probably know by now that I try to enjoy a walk on a beach once a week ... until recently, these have been places such as, Skerries, Donabate, Portrane, Bray, Bettystown or Kilmuckridge.

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

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

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

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

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

Let me share some examples:

The Book of Common Prayer … how does Church History inform our understanding of the development of Christian doctrine?

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

Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle,Staffordshire, one of Pugin’s great architectural masterpieces … how does Church History help us understand the arts? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history and art: How can we understand the great works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rembrandt, the collections in the Uffizi in Florence, icons in Orthodox history, or the architecture of great cathedrals – or Pugin churches – without understanding what the artist or architect was trying to say? How can we appreciate these works without an awareness of how they shape our images of God and of Biblical figures, or culturally form our expectations of sacred space?

The Ladder of Divine Ascent … how does Church History make the great works of spirituality accessible to us today?

Church history and spirituality: Church history opens and makes accessible the writings of the Desert Fathers; the development of monasticism; how early Irish monasticism, in a short time, drew on the tradition of the East – from Pachomius, Basil and Anthony, and then spread to Europe. But how many of us know how to own much of this as Anglicans?

History and spirituality have often come together for me in my pilgrimage or retreats in a monastery, such as Glenstal, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai or Patmos. But think of the opportunities of being enriched spiritually and in the tradition of the early Church on a retreat with the Augustinians in Orlagh, or with the Benedictines in Rostrevor or Glenstal.

The Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral … how does Church History explain our different understandings of the Cross and Salvation? (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

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

The Eastern Church is without that emphasis on original sin, and so does not have the same emphasis on personal salvation, nor asks the same questions about justification. In the East, salvation is to be found in the Church, and so people associate salvation with going to Church and taking part in the liturgy. In that sense, Western Protestant and Catholic questions about sin and salvation have more in common with each other than we ever admit or accept. Church history helps us understand that.

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

How does Church History help us to understand the connection between music and theology?

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

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

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

Church history and our Christian neighbours:

Achill Island … how can we reconcile Catholic memories of ‘souperism’ with the positive legacies of Nangle’s mission? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

History is read differently by different Christian communities.

The Presbyterian memory of the Church of Ireland is that we marginalised them at the Caroline Restoration in 1660, that we displaced them from churches in the north-east, and that we kept all the church endowments for ourselves. Yet the Presbyterian memory of being the true Ulster-Scots is also untrue.

When it comes to Roman Catholic memory, we are often seen as an Irish branch of the Church of England, or remembered for the Penal Laws and the landlords and tithes, and we are linked with their sense of disinheritance. Catholics and Presbyterians together believe that they were the only ones to take part in the 1798 Rising.

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

Think of Catholic memory of ‘souperism’ and the Achill Mission in Co Mayo and the Ventry Mission in Co Kerry. How can Nangle and mission in Achill be seen in a positive light today?

Church history and interfaith dialogue:

The crescent and the minaret at the mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin … Church History helps us understand the possibilities, potentials and pitfalls in interfaith dialogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Church history reminds us that Byzantium was the longest-lasting Christian kingdom, that what we call Turkey was a Christian country – the Christian country – for longer than it has been a Muslim country. On the other hand, Spain was a Muslim country for longer than it has been regarded as a Christian country. And so, it is surprising the Carmelite spirituality of Saint John of the Cross or Saint Theresa of Avila has echoes of Sufi spirituality?

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

Church history and our understanding of the political world:

Church History and politics … how do you think Muslims reacted to George Bush’s use of the word ‘Crusade’?

Christianity played a key, formative role in shaping European cultural identity. For too long, there was a coincidence of Europe and Christendom. Church history explains the development of principles such as the just war theory. In terms of political science, church history like no other branch of history allows us to compare Savonarola (1498) with Machiavelli. Was Savonarola essentially a political opportunist or a religious fanatic?

In terms of imperialist expansion, Church history helps to explain a great deal of what was happening in Europe for the last 500 years or so, and its legacy.

Just think of a movie such as The Mission, and how the Pope carved up Latin America between Portugal and Spain. The churches played a key role in shaping North America. Think of how they shaped Puritan Massachusetts, Catholic Maryland, Anglican Virginia, or Quaker Pennsylvania. The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church at its worst as against a monarchy that was propped up by the church teaching and preaching the Divine Right of Kings.

We cannot understand evangelicalism without taking account of its political impulses, including demands to end the slave trade, slavery, and child labour. We understand Karl Marx in a new light when we understand that his Jewish parents converted to Christianity during his childhood. When it comes to assessing recent American political history, will it be possible for historians to understand the Bush and the Obama presidencies without understanding the religious beliefs of their closest advisers or apocalyptic theology?


Bad church history is merely a summary of dates and domineering figures. Good church history relates to the rest of theology, and to the rest of society. If we do not do it properly, people will think we are irrelevant, or covering up. And because we have done it so badly in the past, I think, explains in part the reason why many people are attracted to The Da Vinci Code. They know it is a novel, but at the same time many really do believe Dan Brown that the book is based on facts and on real history.

Over these few weeks, as part of this module, let us throw aside your old ideas about history, and let us ask searching questions about the Church of Ireland and Anglicanism in general: how were we shaped, and how did we get to where we are today?

Part 2: 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 Christ 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 modern icon

Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, which we celebrated here at the Community Eucharist in the chapel yesterday [25 January 2017], 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 Saint Mark, both Antioch and Rome with Saint Peter, Byzantium and the Scythians with Saint Andrew, and Phrygia in Asia Minor with Saint 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 over 1,700 years ago in AD 312, and his subsequent victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge near Rome, 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)

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 Saint Patrick, who is said to have arrived in Ireland as a missionary bishop in 431 and continued his mission until his death (ca 460). Saint Patrick and the early Celtic Church built on the pre-Patrician Church in Ireland, and then, beginning with the foundation of a monastery by Saint 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 3: The Church of Ireland, Early beginnings

The monastic site at Monasterboice dates from the sixth century ... 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 in a stained-glass window in the porch of Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin … 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 graves were found in the 19th century in Bray, Co Wicklow, Roman coins have been found at Newgrange and all along the northern and eastern coasts of Ireland: at the Giant’s Causeway, Coleraine, Limavaddy, 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 pre-dated Saint Patrick – including Saint Ciaran of Seirkieran (near Birr, Co Offaly), Saint Declan of Ardmore (Co Waterford), Saint Ibar of Begerin Island (near Wexford), Saint Ailbe of Emly (Co Tipperary), and Saint 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, who died four years ago [10 January 2013], 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 Saint Patrick.

It has been argued that the missions of Palladius and Saint Patrick have become confused and conflated, and that much of the work of Palladius has been attributed wrongly to Saint 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, Saint 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 Saint 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 six years ago [2011] 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.

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).


Seminar: The challenges facing the communion of global Anglicanism today, including the Anglican Covenant.

(Revd Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on 26 January 2017 was part of the MTh Year II course, TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context