In 1869, the Westminster parliament passed legislation to bring about the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland – this year we mark 150 years since that momentous moment in our history. The Act came into force on January 1 1871 – on that day the Church of Ireland was separated in legal terms from the Church of England and ceased to be a church ‘established by law’. Thereafter it became a voluntary body, dependent for its support on the contributions of its own members and responsible for its own governance. Many church members at the time were filled with gloom – they feared that the Church as they had known it might not even survive this cataclysm at all.
It seems so long ago now, and yet it is not. We live in a country with long memories, and the dramatic yet also formative events of 1869 – 1871 still have a great influence over how we understand ourselves and do our business. My own father once told me that when he was first ordained in 1931 there were still serving clergy who had themselves been ordained before Disestablishment. Across the church, centrally and locally, there will be many events in the coming months and years marking the anniversary – conferences, services, publications and so on. I am giving thought to what might be done locally so as to mark the moment here in a manner that is both imaginative and relevant.
Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, while we can understand the anxiety and even gloom of those who were alive in 1871, Disestablishment proved to be in fact a considerable blessing. The Church of Ireland, always a church of the minority in this land, was in effect freed from a false position in order to concentrate on authentic witness to the Gospel and on making its own distinctive contribution to the life of a nation about to undergo political transformation. It is hard to imagine how the Church of Ireland would have fared had, for example, Disestablishment been delayed until 1922. As I look at the portraits of my pre-Disestablishment predecessors who continue to adorn the walls where I live, I find it almost impossible to place myself in their world – appointees of the crown, obliged to take their turn in the House of Lords, possessors of enormous rights of ecclesiastical patronage. Such thoughts do not really make me wistful at all!
The really significant consequences of Disestablishment with which we continue to live derive from the manner in which the Church chose to organise itself in those years. The bulk of the church’s property was vested in the new Representative Church Body as a single perpetual corporate trustee. The General Synod, a large bi-cameral body, in its size and procedures largely mimicked the House of Commons of the day and also became something of a prototype for synodical government across Anglicanism. The Book of Common Prayer, previously a schedule to an Act of Parliament, became a Book which the Church itself could alter and revise. The first post-Disestablishment Irish Prayer Book appeared in 1878 and gave birth to a process of ongoing liturgical revision and renewal which continues to this day. The newly-autonomous church was anxious through its worship to emphasise its catholic order and historical credentials, but it has to be said that the nervousness surrounding all things Roman which prevailed at the time imposed a certain monochrome drabness upon the ceremonies of the church from which it took many decades to recover. In 1869 no one had really heard of the term ecumenism with its implication that we should, while cherishing our identities, view each other positively and be willing to learn from the gifts and strengths of others.
It is important that we recall the events of 1869 for two reasons. First of all, we simply cannot understand the governance or even the worship of the church of Ireland without knowing something of what happened then. Secondly, we should never forget our debt to the committed people who steered the church through what were dark days and ensured that we could in our time experience the joy and the spirituality that should go with being authentic Irish Anglicans. A multitude of generous lay people gave unstintingly of their skill to see to the finance and the governance of the church. Virtually all the serving clergy of the time chose to abandon their entitlement as pre-1871 office-holders to life annuities from the State, and this allowed the likely total value of these annuities to be calculated so that the resultant substantial capital sum could be entrusted by the State to the new Representative Body as a foundational endowment. The faith and generosity of those clergy, who were willing to entrust their own financial future to the as yet untried RCB as their new paymaster, should never be forgotten.
In short, we can look back at what seemed like a potential disaster and be instead grateful for so much evidence of the working of Providence through the agency of determined and visionary people. These events deserve not just a few academic lectures and publications – they deserve real public celebration across the church. The challenges we face today are as nothing to those faced and overcome in 1869! And, as has been said by a leading Roman Catholic ecumenist, the manner in which the disestablished Church of Ireland was able to discover the value and the potential of being a minority (no longer legally attached to the majority Church of England), may have much to teach other Irish Christians today in a context where the regular practice of faith in this land may be becoming a minority matter, but where minorities can still have good reason to be confident about their values and their contribution. Often it is liberating and renewing to be released from the shackles of more worldly power and influence.
I would remind readers of the Institution of Canon Brian O’Rourke to Tullow Group in St Columba’s Church at 8 pm on Friday February 22. I would also, on behalf of the diocese, wish to thank the Revd Ivan Dungan for his great contribution particularly as priest-in-charge of New Ross and Fethard Union from which he retires at the start of February.
Ivan has brought to ministry, especially in the Ferns district, the skills of a musician and educator, the fervent zeal of one driven by the power of the Gospel, and also the pastoral heart of a diligent caring minister. In a geographically and demographically challenging parish with much responsibility for buildings and heritage, he has nevertheless built community and positivity. We look forward to his continuing contribution to our common life and wish him and Mary ad multos annos.
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory