‘God, Kings and Commissioners’ was the title given to a one-day conference held recently at the Royal Irish Academy on Dawson Street in Dublin. It was part of the Dublin Festival of History and was sponsored by Dublin City Council.
The aim of the event was to examine the approaches taken to the research and preservation of landscapes and places of faith across Ireland following the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. The contributors were all academics, archivists and historians but I was privileged to be asked to chair the first part of the conference and contribute some opening remarks on the history of the Church of Ireland through its buildings, records and people, from the perspective of a relatively new bishop.
The session I then chaired included an excellent paper on Church of Ireland records, by examining what has been lost or destroyed over the centuries as well as the nature of the material that has survived.
Another superb paper focused on the Rock of Cashel and its transition from episcopal palace and cathedral to the iconic ruin we all know today.
I found a third paper particularly fascinating, perhaps in part because it was by an historical geographer, and that is a subject I studied and loved when I was at university, but also because I have lived in church owned properties all my life. In this paper the author examined the valuation of the benefices held by the Church of Ireland in 1871 on the eve of disestablishment, before its dismantling and reorganisation under the terms of the Irish Church Act passed two years previously.
At the time the Church of Ireland was one of Ireland’s largest institutional landowners. The clergy resident in their individual parishes enjoyed their rectories and the income from the use and letting of the glebe land in their parish. All this was to change. The ownership of most of this land was transferred to former tenants under the agency of the Commissioners of Church Temporalities. However, under favourable terms, the new Representative Church Body was facilitated in acquiring those glebe houses that were in use, as well as much of the land that had been around those houses. As a result, the built heritage and landscape presence of the Church of Ireland remained largely intact after disestablishment, providing a welcome sense of continuity and stability at a local level during this period of upheaval. In other words, while much of the wealth of the Church of Ireland was redistributed to others, the clergy, church buildings, schoolhouses and other property used by the Church of Ireland remained as before.
The legacy of this is still evident across this Diocese. Splendid old rectories can be seen across the countryside, though many now have new owners. Often the current clergy live in smaller more modern homes no doubt much to their relief when it comes to paying the heating bills. While some schools have been amalgamated or moved to newer premises and some parish halls have been sold, we still have a huge portfolio of historically significant properties. Indeed, many of the churches active in 1871 remain in use in our parishes today.
Over the past year, before I visit a parish on a Sunday morning, I often put up a picture of the church or cathedral I will visit on social media. I have heard from some people that they enjoy seeing these pictures. On several occasions recently, I have been to parishes to dedicate memorial gifts or rededicate church buildings following refurbishment and restoration work. I salute all that is being done by parishioners and select vestries to keep many of our churches in good condition, though I don’t underestimate the time and expense involved by so many volunteers in this work.
At the end of the history conference I attended last month, the final paper was by Professor Alan Ford of the University of Nottingham. Its title was From ‘Holding On’ to ‘Letting Go’: The Church of Ireland and its Property.
That of course is the nub of the issue for so many of us at parish, diocesan and central church level. There are no simple answers to this issue, but the responsible stewardship of our heritage requires us to consider this from time to time on a case-by-case basis. Where our church buildings are still the focus of active communities of worshippers, they provide a visible landmark of spirituality and focus for outreach and engagement with the wider community. In such circumstances they should be maintained and I’m glad to note that I see much evidence of this in Cashel, Ferns and Ossory. However, when buildings become a burden rather than a blessing, then creative solutions for their continued use need to be examined.
As the hymn writer Brian Wren reminds us in his hymn ‘In Christ, our humble head,’
‘Our walls of soaring stone,
and tales of old renown,
can send us out and spur us on,
or drag and weigh us down.’
There is much wisdom in knowing the difference.
Yours in Christ,