23 March 2009

Being a member of the Church of Ireland today

Patrick Comerford

Dublin City University,
23 March 2009,
Lenten series of lectures,
Interfaith Centre, DCU

Think Time:

Questions for opening discussion:

How many of you have been in a Church of Ireland parish church or cathedral?

How many have Protestant family connections?

How many of you have Protestant friends or neighbours you know well?

Can you name three famous Irish Protestants, living or dead?


Many of you may have grown up thinking of Protestants as a people set apart. But this is not so any more. The traditional system of separate education is collapsing within both groupings. For example, many of the pupils at Dublin schools such as the High School or Wesley College have at least one Roman Catholic parent, and this is true in many Church of Ireland national schools too; while, in provincial Ireland, an increasing number of Church of Ireland families, including clergy families, are sending their children to the nearest local schools.

Inter-church marriage is no longer seen as the same threat it once was once perceived to be to “Protestant identity” and so the reasons used to defend separate educational and youth bodies are beginning to collapse. Indeed, in recent years, the two separate scouting organisations have merged to form one body.

Those of you who go on to become teachers will find Protestant children in your schools, and will need to know what to do when it comes to prayers, major festivals, and rites such as First Communion and Confirmation.

Those of you studying history and other arts subjects will benefit from being aware of the contribution of Irish Protestants to creating Irish identity, and the cultural and political contribution Protestants have made to Irish society.

Who we are today:

The census statistics show the following figures for the members of the main churches outside the Roman Catholic tradition in the Republic of Ireland:

Church of Ireland (including Protestant): 118,948
Christian (unspecified): 28,028
Presbyterian: 21,496
Methodist: 10,768

The smaller groups that are usually classified as “Protestant” include Quakers, Baptists, Brethren, Lutheran and Moravian, but it is difficult to extrapolate any statistics and trends on their membership from the census figures.

Christians not fitting into either of these categories include:

Orthodox: 19,994

Compare these figures with the figures for other groups:

Muslims: 31,779
Others: 54,033

The “Others” may include Jews, Buddhists and Baha’is, but they may also include smaller Protestant groups too.

The census returns show some phenomenal rises since 1991:

Orthodox (+2814%); Muslims (+394%) Jews (13%).

Similarly, there have been rises in the statistics for the other Protestant churches or traditions, such as: Church of Ireland (+29%); Presbyterian (+55%). The popular perception of a Protestant decline has been arrested if not reversed. But, to be honest, we do not know why.

Three main groupings:

The three main traditions usually included with the definition of “Protestant” in Ireland are the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterians and the Methodists. Smaller groups include the Lutherans, Quakers and Baptists.

This evening, we are looking at the Church of Ireland. I am a priest of the Church of Ireland, and we and the members of the other Churches we are in full communion with are often known as Anglicans.

You will have heard in Irish history of the phrase “Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter,” which was a unifying rallying call of the United Irishmen in the 1790s, and for other nationalists in later generations.

Traditionally, the term Protestant was used originally to describe the Church of Ireland, while Dissenter was used for Presbyterians, and Methodists grew out of the Church of Ireland.

Cultural contributions:

The Church of Ireland is the Church of:

● Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and Drapier’s Letters and Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

● George Berkeley, the philosopher and Bishop of Cloyne.

● Hymn writers such as Henry Lyte from Co Wexford, who wrote Abide with me, and Mrs Cecil Alexander, a bishop’s wife from Derry, who wrote All things bright and beautiful and also translated Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

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

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

● Sean O’Casey

● George Bernard Shaw

● W.B. Yeats

● Samuel Beckett

Political contributions:

Can you name some members of the Church of Ireland involved in political and public life today?

In the past, they have included:

● 1798: Lord Edward FitzGerald; Archibald Hamilton Rowan; Henry Monoroe and Betsy Grey at the Battle of Ballinahinch; the Grogans and the Boxwells in Wexford.

● 1803: Robert Emmet and Thomas Russell.

● Later: William Smith O’Brien; Charles Stewart Parnell.

● 1916: Countess Markievicz and Sean O’Casey were both born into Church of Ireland families. And we should not forget that in 1916 too the Irish Citizens’ Army took its name at a meeting in the rooms of a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin who was a priest in the Church of Ireland.

● 1921/1922: Ernest Blythe and Erskine Childers were on opposing sides in the Irish civil war.

● 1937: Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland, was the son of a Church of Ireland rector.


Today, members of the Church of Ireland can be found in all political parties. And, given the location of Dublin City University, I should point out that many of the members of U2 were brought up in Church of Ireland families on the north side of Dublin.

Despite the RTÉ soapbox image of the Church of Ireland, not all of us are plumy rectors or from the landed gentry. There are strong working class parishes in Dublin in Finglas, Irishtown and Tallaght; and the backbone of many rural parishes is the same as Roman Catholic parishes: small shopkeepers, small farmers, people like your parents.

The differences:

I am often asked about the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, especially when it comes to our members, our beliefs and our practices.

Many of you may have heard terms such as “non-Catholic,” or perhaps have even spoken of people of “different faiths.”

Just as some people find it difficult when we speak of Roman Catholics, can I say that many members of the Church of Ireland bristle at term “non-Catholic”? Why? Because we too – certainly in the Church of Ireland – see ourselves as Catholic too.

We are both Catholic and Protestant, we confess the same Creeds – the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. In other words, we have the same faith, we are not a different faith, and we do not see ourselves as having “broken away” from Catholicism. We see ourselves as being part of the same church that dates back to those early Irish saints, Patrick, Brigid and Columcille.

Instead of emphasising the differences, let me emphasise what we have in common:

Scripture, Reason and Tradition:

We have the same Bible. Even those parts of the Bible that are called the Apocrypha, and which are often excluded from Protestant versions of the Bible, are recommend for reading in the Church of Ireland, and are included in our Lectionary.

We have the same sacraments, Baptism and Holy Communion.

Our baptism is the same as in all the other mainstream Churches. It is with water, poured on the child’s head, and invoking the Holy Trinity. It is recognised by all the other Churches, and we too recognise baptism in all the mainstream churches. We say that it should normally take place on Sunday morning in Church, at the main service, because this involves being baptised into the Church, and is not merely a formality or naming ceremony.

We recommend that Holy Communion is celebrated every Sunday, although this does not always happen. We also call it the Eucharist; and even, in some “high church” churches, the Mass.

The priest will wear similar vestments. In the south, it is normal to see the priest in an alb and stole, in the north, and for other services here, it is normal for the priest to wear a black cassock, a long white surplice, and a stole or black scarf. But you can also find full vestments in some cathedrals and some “high church” parish churches.

What is the difference? If you were present you would recognise many of the prayers at the rituals or actions at the celebration of the Holy Communion or the Eucharist. Those who receive Holy Communion receive both the elements of Bread and wine. My neighbours notice that there is more reverence, perhaps because people are slower as they come forward, and perhaps because the people usually still knell at the altar rails.

What do we believe is happening? We believe Christ is really present, not merely remembered or commemorated. But usually we avoid saying how, and certainly avoid saying how down to the last crumb.

We invite all believing Christians who normally take Holy Communion in their own churches to receive in our churches.

The other five of the seven sacraments as known in the Roman Catholic tradition are also found in similar ways in the Church of Ireland:

● Confirmation: In the Church of Ireland, this normally takes place at the age of about 14 or 15, and the young person then normally receives or takes Communion for first time. Confirmation is administered by the bishop, and usually in the parish church on a Sunday. Increasingly, we also use the renewal of baptismal vows.

● Penance: there is a general absolution after Confession every Sunday. But sometimes you will also hear of private confession.

● Holy Orders: The ordained ministry in the Church of Ireland includes Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Traditionally we have insisted that a bishop is consecrated by at least three other bishops. Our clergy are trained for three years in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and then spend one further post-graduate year as deacons before being ordained priest.

For almost 20 years, we have agreed that women can become not only priests but also bishops. Although we have no women bishops yet, it could happen, and women occupy every other position among the clergy: cathedral deans and canons, parish rectors and curates, hospital and school chaplains.

A large proportion of the clergy work in secular employment. For two years after my ordination, I continued working as a journalist with The Irish Times. Others are teachers, vets, doctors, shopkeepers, schoolteachers, housewives and homemakers. About one-third of the clergy are what you might call “worker priests”.

● Matrimony: Weddings normally take place in church. It is regarded as – and we teach it to be – a life-long commitment. But we see it as facing up to reality, and meeting pastoral needs, when we allow remarriage after divorce. However, this does not make us “pro-divorce” and it is always up to a bishop to have a final no.

● Anointing with oil: This takes place about as regularly as the remarriage of divorced people in church: in other words, seldom. But it is a practice that is encouraged. In the Diocese of Dublin, each year when the clergy renew our ordination vows in front of the Archbishop in Christ Church Cathedral in Holy Week, we receive a new amount of specially blessed oil. Although I am seldom asked to anoint someone who was dying, it is a practice, like private confession, that I let people know is available as part of the ministry and pastoral care offered by the Church of Ireland.

All of these services and offices of the Church of Ireland are to be found in the Book of Common Prayer, which has been revised over the years, and the latest version we use is one approved at our General Synod in 2004.


We observe the same festivals as the rest of the Church: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, all on the same day. We celebrate the principal seasons, such as Lent at present and Advent, and many of the same saints’ days. We also mark some observances that you may not be familiar with, such as Harvest and Remembrance. Although these fit more neatly into the area of folk religion, harvest would never be a success in most parishes without community support, and I have stopped being surprised at who turns up for Remembrance Sunday.


The Church of Ireland is organised in a similar way to the Roman Catholic Church, with bishops and with dioceses that have the same names. Although many of the dioceses have been amalgamated, we have kept the same names with a few exceptions: Kerry is Ardfert and Aghadoe, the old name, in the Church of Ireloand; there is no Diocese of Galway, which is anew creation in the Roman Catholic Church; and while the Pope is the Bishop of Kilmacduagh in the Roman Catholic and the diocese is administered for him by the Bishop of Galway, in the Church of Ireland the Bishop of Kilmacduagh is the Bishop of Limerick.

There are 12 bishops, including two Archbishops, the Archbishop of Armagh and the Archbishop of Dublin.

The bishops remain independent in their own dioceses, so the archbishops’ positions are ones of honour rather than authority.

They meet as the House of Bishops, but the highest authority rests with the General Synod, which is composed of all the bishops, and representatives of the clergy and the laity, with the proportion laity:clergy 3:1.

Similarly, in the dioceses, each diocesan synod is chaired by the bishop, includes all the clergy, and three lay persons (men or women) for every member of the clergy.

At a parish level, there is a select vestry, made up of the parish clergy, the two principal lay officers in the parish, known as churchwardens, one of whom is elected by the parishioners and the other appointed by the parish priest or rector, along with 12 elected lay members.

So the voice of the laity is not only listened to at every level in the Church – it is decisive.

And many of the organisations that keep the Church going are effectively run by the lay members of the Church: mission societies, social agencies, policy committees, school boards. And, of course, the laity have a clear voice in the election of bishops in all the dioceses, except Armagh, where the Archbishop is elected by the other bishops of the Church.


There are 26 post-primary or secondary schools and colleges under Protestant management, and at least 18 of these have direct Church of Ireland links. In addition, one is Methodist-managed (Wesley); one is Presbyterian (Saint Andrew’s); and two are Quaker-managed (Newtown and Drogheda). The others include two comprehensives in Dublin (Newpark and Mount Temple) and two are more difficult to define but have a general Protestant ethos or tradition (Sutton Park and Sandford Park).

Most parishes have their own primary schools. Primary school teachers are trained at the Church of Ireland College of Education, where they are TCD students and receive TCD degrees.

Traditionally the clergy were trained at TCD, but they are now trained at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where most of them study for a bachelor’s or master’s degree from TCD.

In addition, one of the main ways of handing on the faith is through Sunday schools and confirmation classes, which are normally organised in the parish rather than in the schools.

Some of the obvious differences:

● Mary: This difference is not as obvious as you might think: We use the Magnifcat in Evening Prayer as one of the traditional canticles. Many churches are called Saint Mary’s, she appears in many stained glass windows, and I know at least one church in Dublin with a statue.

What we don’t accept: The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (8 December) and the Assumption (15 August) were proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

Why do we not accept them?


Remember that these dogmas are not taught either by the Orthodox Church, so this is not a point of heresy.

The reasons include:

1, They are not found in Scripture;

2, They are not taught in the Creeds;

3, The way they were proclaimed by Popes without consulting councils of the Church is an additional problem.

We are Ffee to believe them, but not to proclaim them or to teach them in a way that might imply others have to believe them.

On the other hand, we observe a number of Festivals for Mary in the Church of Ireland: 8 September as “the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and in other Anglican churches 15 August is marked, as in the Orthodox Churches, as the day of her death or “Dormition”.

So, you will find no Rosary, no Angelus, no pilgrimages to Lourdes or Knock, and no May processions in the Church of Ireland. However, you might find some Anglicans comfortable with some of these private devotions, and one parish has made pilgrimage to Marian shrine at Walsingham in England.

● Saints: we honour the saints – just look at the names of our churches. But we don’t pray to them. On the other hand do not be surprised to find icons in churches, including Saint Nicholas, Galway, Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and one I left in the vestry in Whitechurch Parish.

● The Pope: our major difference is over infallibility. Like the Orthodox churches, we might be willing to acknowledge the Pope’s special place as the Western Patriarch, but like them our real problem would be how this office is exercised.

● Monks and nuns: There are few monks or nuns in the Church of Ireland. There is small convent in Donnybrook, and there was a Franciscan community in Belfast, although only one member is left. But there is a strong tradition of Franciscan and Benedictine orders in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

Who are we most like?

But there also differences between Church of Ireland and Methodists and Presbyterians.

The different Protestant Churches have different traditions. The Church of Ireland sees itself as both Catholic and Reformed, and in continuity with the Celtic, Norman and mediaeval church on this island. The Reformation in Ireland dates from the 16th century, and had the support in Parliament of the majority of bishops of the day.

Indeed, I came across one bishop who both attended the Council of Trent, and supported the Reformation. The divisions between who was Catholic and who was Protestant did not become totally clear, in many areas, until the 17th century, in some instances in the very late 17th century, and sometimes even later.

The Presbyterian Church has historical, cultural and emotional ties with the Calvinist wing of the Reformation in Scotland; and we should remember that Presbyterians too suffered severely under the Penal laws in the 18th century.

Methodists date from the preaching of John Wesley, who lived and died an Anglican priest. The problem for him arose when Anglican bishops fussed too much about ordaining enough clergy for North America, and the break only came when a frustrated John Wesley decided to go ahead and approve the ordination of his preachers in North America. The fault lies with us, and I can see the divisions between Anglicans and Methodists being healed within my own lifetime.

We are in Communion with other Anglican Churches, such as the Church of England, but retain our independence. The Archbishop of Canterbury has no role in the Church of Ireland, and, despite popular misconception, there is no role for the English monarch in the Church of Ireland.

Being in communion with those churches means that their priests and our priests can move from parishes in one church to the other.

But we are also in communion in the same way with those Lutheran churches of Northern Europe that have bishops, such as the Churches of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, and the Lutheran churches in the Baltic member states of the EU.

Who do feel closest to in Ireland? We have a special arrangement with the Methodist Church, a Covenant or agreement that commits us to seeking unity. Some of our bishops come from Methodist families and backgrounds, but an interesting number of priests in the parishes come from Roman Catholic backgrounds.

In the south, many Church of Ireland clergy will feel closest theologically and emotionally to their Catholic neighbours. Indeed, there are many doctrinal agreements over the last few decades between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, worked out through the process known as ARCIC. Every family has an experience, usually a positive experience, of inter-church marriage. And we all have our own preferences. I know some clergy will go on retreat to Catholic monasteries or convents: I have stayed in Benedictine and Augustinian houses for retreats, and have preached in a convent chapel and in parish churches. But in my own spiritual life, I have been deeply enriched by the Greek Orthodox tradition.

You can find out more by becoming familiar with how we worship. Why not visit a Church some Sunday? And you can become familiar with us not just through the Book of Common Prayer, but also our weekly newspaper, the Church of Ireland Gazette, and local diocesan and parish magazines.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This lecture was delivered in Dublin City University on 23 March 2009, as part of the Lenten series of lectures in the Interfaith Centre, DCU, organised by the DCU chaplains.


Anonymous said...

I love the fact that there is more understanding rather than superstition between the churches today,and I'm an Agnostic btw.Its about time that CoI folk came out and asserted themselves in all aspects of Irish society because I believe that the contribution has been too enormous to Irish life to be wasted by keeping low.I grew up in Killarney in the 70s & early 80s when things were barely beginning to open up in Ireland and suspicion was giving way to fasination.I left Ireland and thats when I realised that being Irish was a much more complex thing than I thought.

Alain Rodi said...

You are doing quite a useful job.I am a Frenchman and I have been a member of the Anglican communion since 1983.People who were born into that communion should realise how important it is to be both Catholic and Reformed.That should be where Western Christianity should tend.
God bless you.
Alain who lives in the Paris area.

Anonymous said...

I have found this so easy to read and very helpful. I am researching my Irish ancestry, and didn't know the differences and similarities between the different religions, for example I thought that only Roman Catholics did confirmation! I have so much to learn. Thank you.
From an Agnostic from England

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Patrick Comerford said...

This morning I have removed a comment that is sectarian and that links to a deeply sectarian site. I continue to reserve the right to remove as quickly as possible any comments or postings to this blog that I regard as sectarian, racist, sexist, or offensive in similar ways. I am open to robust debate, but I am not willing to facilitate or allow my space to be used for hatred and bigotry. I find it additionally offensive when the poster hides behind anonymity, but wants to publish on my space, and tarnish my name.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Patrick Comerford said...

I have just removed another anonymous comment that is loaded with sectarian bigotry. This poster might as well give up, because I am going to continue to remove all bigoted comments on any posting on this blog.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Is there a difference between the church of Ireland and the Anglican church

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed reading this post, Patrick. it could easily be adapted into a little booklet that we give to anyone new to the CoI.

Mianne said...

All beautifully put Patrick. Thank you Mianne

Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick, this is first class in its openness and honesty. I am a member of a mixed marriage and although I am from a RC background, I can say with confidence that I have always felt comfortable, without confusion, when attending a COI Church. It offers balance and in many ways, the best of both worlds, whilst respectfully paying cognisance to many key players within the Bible, which other churches put simply, do not. Although described as a reformation church, It borrows heavily and as stated, has many undeniably close links to the RC Church, which is a wonderful thing. Although it has many of the same supposed "flaws" as the RC Church in terms of the rules you'll not find within the infallible word, it cannot be glossed over that many of the more established and well known of the estimated 4000 different global denominations of protestantism also appear to worship in their own inimitable ways. In many cases but particularly terms of the COI and RC churchs, to me, a house of God is a house of God. Michael.

Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick, this is first class in its openness and honesty. I am a member of a mixed marriage and although I am from a RC background, I can say with confidence that I have always felt comfortable, without confusion, when attending a COI Church. It offers balance and in many ways, the best of both worlds, whilst respectfully paying cognisance to many key players within the Bible, which other churches put simply, do not. Although described as a reformation church, It borrows heavily and as stated, has many undeniably close links to the RC Church, which is a wonderful thing. Although it has many of the same supposed "flaws" as the RC Church in terms of the rules you'll not find within the infallible word, it cannot be glossed over that many of the more established and well known of the estimated 4000 different global denominations of protestantism also appear to worship in their own inimitable ways. In many cases but particularly terms of the COI and RC churchs, to me, a house of God is a house of God. Michael.

Anonymous said...

what is the relevance of Protestantism in todays society and is it currently represented in RE programmes in schools in Ireland

Unknown said...

Thank you Patrick this a very informative read I recently started to attend coi service and like it alot went first out of curiosity and it took years to do that I had my eyes and ears opened, alot of what I was told about coi was complete lies by people who should have known better so went to see and hear for myself and stay going you answered alot my questions tks again.

Shaun Davies said...

My problem as a former member of the Church of Ireland (baptized,confirmed and accepted for training for the Ministry) is that there was never any clear teaching about the meaning of the Eucharist. I remember my confirmation classes and there was absolutely no doctrine.I have read pieces by individual Irish Anglicans (the late Dean John Patterson) about the meaning of Holy Communion but there was never any united "one" belief - even within my own Irish family there was no clear consensus of belief, but lots of argument and discussion. Even if we had been taught a simple doctrine of the Real spiritual presence in the elements I would have been relieved and contented - but nothing.I think the same was true of Holy Baptism. It pushed me to conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, but I still have great respect and admiration for many people I knew in the C of I, especially of the Old Style clergy and laity.