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Church of Ireland

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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The ancient Church of Ireland (described in the Irish Church Act 1869 by this its historic title) has a long and chequered history, which it will be interesting to trace in outline. The beginnings of Christianity in Ireland are difficult to trace, but there is no doubt that the first Christian missionary whose labours were crowned with any considerable success was Patrick (fl. c. 450), who has always been reckoned the patron saint of the country. For six centuries the Church of which he was the founder occupied a remarkable position in Western Christendom. Ireland, in virtue at once of its geographical situation and of the spirit of its people, was less affected than other countries by the movements of European thought; and thus its development, social and religious, was largely independent of foreign influences, whether Roman or English. In full communion with the Latin Church, the Irish long preserved many peculiarities, such as their monastic system and the date at which Easter was kept, which distinguished them in discipline, though not conspicuously in doctrine, from the Christians of countries more immediately under papal control (see Ireland: Early History). The incessant incursions of the Danes, who were the scourge of the land for a period of nearly three hundred years, prevented the Church from redeeming the promise of her infancy; and at the date of the English conquest of Ireland (1172) she had lost much of her ancient zeal and of her independence. By this time she had come more into line with the rest of Europe, and the Synod of Cashel put the seal to a new policy by its acknowledgment of the papal jurisdiction and by its decrees assimilating the Church, in ritual and usages, to that of England. There was no thought of a breach of continuity, but the distinctive features of Celtic Christianity gradually disappeared from this time onwards. English influence was strong only in the region round Dublin (known as the Pale); and beyond this district the Irish were not disposed to view with favour any ecclesiastical reforms which had their origin in the sister country. Thus from the days of Henry VIII. the Reformation movement was hindered in Ireland by national prejudice, and it never succeeded in gaining the allegiance of the Irish people as a whole. The policy which directed its progress was blundering and stupid, and reflects little credit on the English statesmen who were responsible for it. No attempt was made to commend the principles of the Reformation to the native Irish by conciliating national sentiment; and the policy which forbade the translation of the Prayer Book into the Irish language, and suggested that where English was not understood Latin might be used as an alternative, was doomed to failure from the beginning. And, in fact, the reformed church of Ireland is to this day the church of a small section only of the population.

The Reformation period begins with the passing of the Irish Supremacy Act 1537. As in England, the changes in religion of successive sovereigns alternately checked and promoted the progress of the movement, although in Ireland the mass of the people were less deeply affected by the religious controversies of the times than in Great Britain. At Mary's accession five bishops either abandoned, or were deprived of, their sees; but the Anglo-Irish who remained faithful to the Reformation were not subjected to persecution such as would have been their fate on the other side of the Channel. Again, under Elizabeth, while two bishops (William Walsh of Meath and Thomas Leverous of Kildare) were deprived for open resistance to the new order of things, and while stern measures were taken to suppress treasonable plotting against the constitution, the uniform policy of the government in ecclesiastical matters was one of toleration. James I. caused the Supremacy Act to be rigorously enforced, but on political rather than on religious grounds. In distant parts of Ireland, indeed, the unreformed order of service was often used without interference from the secular authority, although the bishops had openly accepted the Act of Uniformity.

The episcopal succession, then, was unbroken at the Reformation. The Marian prelates are admitted on all hands to have been the true bishops of the Church, and in every case they were followed by a line of lawful successors, leading down to the present occupants of the several sees. The rival lines of Roman Catholic titulars are not in direct succession to the Marian bishops, and cannot be regarded as continuous with the medieval Church. The question of the continuity of the preReformation Church with the Church of the Celtic period before the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland is more difficult. Ten out of eleven archbishops of Armagh who held office between 1272 and 1439 were consecrated outside Ireland, and there is no evidence forthcoming that any one of them derived his apostolic succession through bishops of the Irish Church. It may be stated with confidence that the present Church of Ireland is the direct and legitimate successor of the Church of the 14th and 15th centuries, but it cannot so clearly be demonstrated that any existing organization is continuous with the Church of St Patrick. In the reign of James I. the first Convocation of the clergy was summoned in Ireland, of which assembly the most notable act was the adoption of the "Irish Articles" (1615). These had been drawn up by Usher, and were more decidedly Calvinistic in tone than the Thirty-nine Articles, which were not adopted as standards in Ireland until 1634, when Strafford forced them on Convocation. During the Commonwealth period the bishoprics which became vacant were not filled; but on the accession of Charles II. the Church was strengthened by the translation of John Bramhall (the most learned and zealous of the prelates) from Derry to the primatial see of Armagh, and the consecration of twelve other bishops, among whom was Jeremy Taylor. The short period during which the policy of James II. prevailed in Ireland was one of disaster to the Church; but under William and Mary she regained her former position. She had now been reformed for more than Too years, but had made little progress; and the tyrannical provisions of the Penal Code introduced by the English government made her more unpopular than ever. The clergy, finding their ministrations unacceptable to the great mass of the population, were tempted to indolence and non-residence; and although bright exceptions could be named, there was much that called for reform. To William King (1650-1729), bishop of Derry, and subsequently archbishop of Dublin, it was mainly due that the work of the Church was reorganized, and the impulse which he gave it was felt all through the 18th century. His ecclesiastical influence was exerted in direct opposition to Primate Hugh Boulter and his school, who aimed at making the Established Church the instrument for the promotion of English political opinions rather than the spiritual home of the Irish people. In 1 Boo the Act of Union was passed by the Legislature; and thenceforward, until Disestablishment, there was but one "United Church of England and Ireland." Continuous agitation for the removal of Roman Catholic disabilities brought about in 1833 the passing of the Church Temporalities Act, one of the most important provisions of which was the reduction of the number of Irish archbishoprics from four to two, and of bishoprics from eighteen to ten, the funds thus released being administered by commissioners. In 1838 the Tithe Rentcharge Act, which transferred the payment of tithes from the occupiers to the owners of land, was passed, and thus a substantial grievance was removed. It became increasingly plain, however, as years passed, that all such measures of relief were inadequate to allay the dissatisfaction felt by the majority of Irishmen because of the continued existence of the Established Church. Her position had been pledged to her by the Act of Union, and she was undoubtedly the historical representative of the ancient Church of the land; but such arguments proved unavailing in view of the visible fact that she had not gained the affections of the people. The census of 1861 showed that out of a total population of 5,798,967 only 693,357 belonged to the Established Church, 4,505,265 being Roman Catholics; and once this had been made clear, the passing of the Act of Disestablishment was only a question of time. Introduced by Mr Gladstone, and passed in 1869, it became law on the 1st of January 1871.

The Church was thus suddenly thrown on her own resources, and called on to reorganize her ecclesiastical system, as well as to make provision for the maintenance of her future clergy. A convention of the bishops, clergy, and laity was summoned in 1870, and its first act was to declare the adherence of the Church of Ireland to the ancient standards, and her determination to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, while reaffirming her witness, as Protestant and Reformed, against the innovations of Rome. Under the constitution then agreed on, the supreme governing body of the Church is the General Synod, consisting of the bishops and of 208 clerical and 416 lay representatives of the several dioceses, whose local affairs are managed by subordinate Diocesan Synods. The bishops are elected as vacancies arise, and, with certain restrictions, by the Diocesan Synods, the Primate, whose see is Armagh, being chosen by the bishops out of their own number. The patronage of benefices is vested in boards of nomination, on which both the diocese and the parish are represented. The Diocesan Courts, consisting of the bishop, his chancellor, and two elected members, one clerical and the other lay, deal as courts of first instance with legal questions; but there is an appeal to the Court of the General Synod, composed of three bishops and four laymen who have held judicial office. During the years 1871 to 1878 the revision of the Prayer Book mainly occupied the attention of the General Synod; but although many far-reaching resolutions were proposed by the then predominant Evangelical party, few changes of moment were carried, and none which affected the Church's doctrinal position. A two-thirds majority of both the lay and clerical vote is necessary before any change can be made in the formularies, and an ultimate veto rests, on certain conditions, with the house of bishops.

The effects of Disestablishment have been partly good and partly evil. On the one hand, the Church has now all the benefits of autonomy and is free from the anomalies incidental to state control. Her laws are definite, and the authority of her judicial courts is recognized by all her members. The place given to the laity in her synods has quickened in them the sense of responsibility so essential to the Church's progress. And although there are few worldly inducements to men to take orders in Ireland, the clergy are, for the most part, the equals of their predecessors in social standing and in intellectual equipment, while the standard of clerical activity is higher than in pre-Disestablishment days. On the other hand, the vesting of patronage in large bodies like synods, or (as is the case in some districts) in nominators with little knowledge of the Church beyond the borders of their own parish, is not an ideal system, although it is working better as the dangers of parochialism and provinciality are becoming more generally recognized than in the early years of Disestablishment.

The finances are controlled by the Representative Church Body, to which the sum of £7,581,075, sufficient to provide life annuities for the existing clergy (2043 in number), amounting to £596,913, was handed over by the Church Temporalities Commissioners in 1870. So skilfully was this fund administered, and so generous were the contributions of clergy and laity, at and since Disestablishment, that while on 31st December 1906 only 136 annuitants were living, the total assets in the custody of the Representative Church Body amounted at that date to £8,729,941. Of this sum no less than £6,525,952 represented the free-will offerings of the members of the Church for the thirty-seven years ending 31st December 1906. Out of the interest on capital, augmented by the annual parochial assessments, which are administered by the central office, provision has to be made for two archbishops at £2500 per annum, eleven bishops, who receive about £1500 each, and over 1500 parochial clergy. Of the clergy only 338 are curates, while 1161 are incumbents, the average annual income of a benefice being about £240, with (in most cases) a house. The large majority of the clergy receive their training in the Divinity School of Trinity College, Dublin. At the census of 1901 the members of the Church of Ireland numbered 579,385 out of a total population of 4,456,546.

See R. Mant, History of the Church of Ireland (2 vols., London, 1840); Essays on the Irish Church, by various writers (Oxford, 1866); Maziere Brady, The Alleged Conversion of the Irish Bishops (London, 1877); A. T. Lee, The Irish Episcopal Succession (Dublin, 1867); G. T. Stokes, Ireland and the Celtic Church (London, 1888), Ireland and the Anglo-Norman Church (London, 1892), Some Worthies of the Irish Church (London, 1900); T. Olden, The Church of Ireland (London, 1892); J. T. Ball, The Reformed Church of Ireland (London, 1890); H. C. Groves, The Titular Archbishops of Ireland (Dublin, 1897); W. Lawlor, The Reformation in Ireland (London, 1906); Reports of the Representative Church Body (Dublin, 1872-1905). (J. H. BE.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Church of Ireland'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​c/church-of-ireland.html. 1910.
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