31 May 2018

Celebrity clerics and
carousing bishops
meet in one new book

Patrick Comerford

I missed the recent launches of Life in the Church of Ireland 1600-1800, a new edition of a book by the late Robert Wyse Jackson, former Bishop of Limerick.

This enticing 250-page book, published in recent weeks by Ballinakella Press, Whitegate, Co Clare, is the result of painstaking research into the turbulent life of clergy and laity of the Church of Ireland during political upheavals, the influences of plantation and of ecclesiastical establishment. Robert Wyse Jackson, one-time lawyer, country priest and eventually Bishop of Limerick, had a deep understanding of both rural and urban life in the Church in the 17th and 18th century Ireland. In this book, he writes with confidence and uses contemporary quotations to present a true, amusing — even compulsive — read.

John Wyse Jackson, who runs the fascinating Zozimus bookshop and café in Gorey, Co Wexford, had invited me to write the introduction to this new book, which received an interesting notice in The Irish Times last Saturday [26 May 2018].

In my introduction to this book, I write:

Robert Wyse Jackson was a barrister before he was ordained and Dean of Cashel before he was returned to Limerick as the diocesan bishop. He is remembered half a century later for his humorous approach to history and as a raconteur. These experiences in their unique combination mark the very individual approach to his stories and vignettes in this book.

It is not all about priests and bishops, for he also introduces us to some curious preachers, parish clerks and churchwardens; nor is this solely a series of tales within the Church of Ireland, for he introduces us to a variety of ‘non-conformists,’ from Limerick Quakers to Cork Huguenots and Waterford Presbyterians.

Nor, is this all about men either: the letters of Mrs Delaney provide a taste of society life in Georgian Ireland, and the autobiography of Elizabeth Pilot is an introduction to the values that shaped an evangelical enthusiasm for mission, at home and abroad.

Of course, the Church of Ireland had more than its share of notorious clergy in the centuries we are looking at. Miler Magrath may have been picturesque, and his pluralism is smiled today, but the consequences were grave, and it was said that the ‘people in his dioceses scarcely knew if there was a God.’

Jackson is kind to the gaming and carousing prelates he introduces, and historians would be less willing to accept his judgment that Adam Loftus was ‘good and conscientious.’ But he admits that in the days of patronage and preferment, long before formalised theological education, many of these men were unsuited for their primary tasks in life of administering the sacraments, preaching the Gospel and providing pastoral care. An overwhelming number seldom took services, and even fewer celebrated the Holy Communion or performed Baptisms or were literate enough to pick their way through the pages and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, leaving their churches in a pitiful state of neglect.

When the celebrated William Bedell became provost of Trinity College Dublin in 1626, he found to his horror that Holy Communion had not been celebrated in the college chapel for 11 years. John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, wrote with equal horror to the Bishop of London to complain that the altar in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, was used as a ‘common seat for maidens and apprentices.’ But this is also the story of a church that suffered and survived the massacres of 1647 and suppression by Cromwell in the 1650s.

Later, we come across detailed accounts of the military roles of chaplains during the Jacobite or Williamite wars, and corrupt bishops such as Thomas Hacket of Down, who skilfully combined simony and forgery with almost continuous non-residence in London. Yet, here is a compellingly instructive image of a damaged Church making great efforts to pull itself together. This is the Restoration Church of Johan Bramhall and Jeremy Taylor, erudite church of William Bedell, Narcissus Marsh, Jonathan Swift and George Berkeley … and of Oliver Goldsmith’s parson.

Here are the tales of Devereux Spratt, captured by Algerian pirates and ransomed by Italian merchants; and of John Berridge, who remonstrated against the use of ‘omnipotence’ and ‘omniscience’ — pointing out wittingly, ‘if you had said that God was almighty and knew everything, they would have understood you.’

There are ‘entirely crazy divines’ like Frederick Lord Hervey, Bishop of Derry, who for 20 years startled Europe, and heretics such as Bishop Robert Clayton of Clogher, accused of Arianism and Unitarianism. But they are more than counterbalanced by conscientious figures such as the nonjurors Henry Dodwell and Bishop William Sheridan who preferred exile to betraying a solemn oath.

Jackson draws creatively from tales heard in his own diocese. Archdeacon John Brown, who was one of my predecessors in Rathkeale, was a conscientious archdeacon of Limerick, but equally conscientious as Rector of Rathkeale, where he also paid a curate £40 a year.

There are the visits to Limerick of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, and the rector who preached against Charles Wesley as ‘an impostor, incendiary and messenger of Satan.’ John Wesley’s work among the Palatines has left an indelible mark on life in Co Limerick, and, as the bishop notes, families with Palatine names and heritage ‘to this day form the backbone of the rural part of the Diocese of Limerick.’

These are the centuries of revival, and times when new churches and cathedrals were built, new libraries were founded and endowed. These are times that saw the 1798 Rising, the French invasion at Killala, and the Act of Union, and these were the experiences that prepared the Church of Ireland to survive Disestablishment too. As Bishop Jackson tells us, ‘For good or bad, these ponderous dignitaries were typical of an aspect of the Georgian Established Church in Ireland. As symptoms of an age that is past for ever they have their curious interest.’

Patrick Comerford

A vision for a new spiritual
awakening on Achill Island

Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort … Edward Nangle’s lasting legacy on Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Last week I was invited to speak at the launch in Limerick of Patricia Byrne’s new book on Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission, The Preacher and the Prelate.

But the debates stirred up by Nangle and his Achill Mission and their protagonists often detract from the good news and developments that are taking place around Saint Thomas’s Church in Dugort, which is Nangle’s lasting legacy on Achill Island.

At the General Synod in Armagh earlier this month, Maedbh O’Herlihy shared with me her vision for the Sacred Path, a Centre for Spirituality that is an initiative of the Church of Ireland in the Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry.

Maedbh, who is the co-ordinator of the Centre for Spirituality, says the ‘Sacred Path offers place and time to reconnect with nature in all its magnificence, and through this re-connection, come to a deeper awareness of the divine presence within each individual which is, in turn, a true gift to all creation.’

As a centre for spirituality, the Sacred Path is planning to offer a programme of retreats, workshops and pilgrimages.

In her promotion of the Sacred Path, Maedbh says the centre is offering ‘the quiet space, the hospitality of welcome, the meditative atmosphere, the friendship in the practice of the Anam Cara – the Friend of the Soul, and the opportunities to both reawaken, and refresh, the spiritual within each of us.’

She continues: ‘These quiet encounters with Christ through prayer, reflection, workshops, pilgrimages, meditation – both indoors and out in the beauty of nature, and in retreats are stepping stones of opportunity.’

‘The retreats may be silent, individual or group, facilitated, or simply accompanied through gentle direction,’ she promises.

So something new is coming out of Achill this summer. It promises to be a new spiritual awakening in a way that Edward Nangle could have imaged a century and half ago, and a blessing reaching far beyond the parish and diocese in the Church of Ireland.