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Irish Anglicanism 1969-2019, edited by Kenneth Milne and Paul Harron

13 March 2020

David Chillingworth reflects on the Church of Ireland’s history

THE disestablishment — and disendowment — of the Church of Ireland under the terms of the Irish Church Act of 1869 is described by Dr Kenneth Milne, one of the editors of this volume, as “a prime example of an event that was regarded at the time as little short of a catastrophe for the Church but can now be seen as having been its salvation”.

While this book marks the 150th anniversary of the 1869 Act, contributors were asked to focus on the diversity of the life of the Church of Ireland during the 50 years since the centenary in 1969, and to reflect on the all-Ireland nature of the Church.

Those 50 years have brought unprecedented change and challenge in both parts of Ireland. Most obviously, the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland has, as Dr Milne suggests, had “considerable political and security implications for the whole island”.

The Republic has experienced little short of a political transformation in the removal of the territorial claim over Northern Ireland and the progressive liberalisation through a series of referenda of laws on divorce, contraception, same-sex or equal marriage, and abortion. The position of the Roman Catholic Church is utterly changed. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic have increased rapidly in ethnic diversity.

The contributions to this book tell a story of deep faithfulness and, at times, extraordinary vision. In the spirit of a disestablished Church, there is a remarkable level of dedicated voluntary effort on the part of the laity of the Church.

courtesy of the national inventory of architectural heritage, Ireland“An ambitious gesture of defi­ance to the impending Dis-establishment of the Church of England”: thus writes Frank Keohane of the Church of Ireland cathedral, St Fin Barre’s, in Cork, in Cork: City and county in the Buildings of Ireland (Pevsner) series (Yale, £45 (£40.50); 978-0-300-22487-0). It was de­­signed by William Burge between 1865 and 1879 in the Early French Gothic style, and he created a “complete work of art”, including the stained glass and other decor­ative elements

Even a brief survey of the material must note changes such as the ordination of women as priests and bishops — and a reluctance to make any special provisions that would compromise the integrity of that move. Bishop Harold Miller charts the process of liturgical change which led towards the publication of the 2004 Book of Common Prayer. Of particular interest is the process that led to the Covenant with the Methodist Church in 2002. Here, a pathway has been creatively found through which issues around episcopal ordination can be resolved.

Beyond those, there are important chapters on education, youth work, ecumenism, communications, pastoral care, theological training, the Anglican Communion, and others. Those with an interest in church administration will want to read of the significant impact on the life and finances of the Church of Ireland of the financial crash of 2008 and the collapse of the Irish banks.

The segmental “book of record” approach to this task tells the story in a fascinating way — and there is much to celebrate. But I was drawn to the more thematic and holistic material.

In “The Church of Ireland: Politics and social change”, the Bishops of Clogher and Cashel draw attention to the way in which the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland had the “peculiar consequence” of reducing the empathy of the southern Church with the northern Church — particularly in their responses to their very different contexts. Around the issues of human sexuality, this came to a head at the General Synod of 2012, which was “for many the most divisive synod in living memory”. There are challenges ahead.

Frank KeohaneBridgetown (Ballindrohid) Priory: refect­ory, early C13, from Cork (The Buildings of Ireland).

They also ask whether the changes in southern society now allow the southern Church to be the “confident minority” of which Bishop Arthur Butler spoke in 1963. Their judgement of the prophetic contribution of the Church of Ireland to the dominant issues in society is — kindly stated — that it has been “so negligible as to be microscopic”.

Archbishop Michael Jackson’s contribution on “The Church of Ireland and dialogue with other faiths” reminds the Church of Ireland that “we are the ‘other faith’ to more and more people in Ireland today.” The Church of Ireland needs to become a more “apologetic Church” — willing to “give an account of ourselves in the places where we live and work”. He also puts his finger on one of the big questions — which the Hard Gospel project has attempted to address. This is the “decades of experiencing unexamined sectarianism, inside and outside the Church of Ireland”.

The contributors to this fascinating volume have given us the story of the Church of Ireland living through extraordinary times and coping with a remarkable pace of change. Those who read it will be astonished at what has been accomplished when, at times, “day-to-day coping” would have been enough. I am reminded again of Milne’s comment that, for the Church of Ireland, disestablishment can now be seen as “its salvation”.

The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.


Irish Anglicanism 1969-2019: Essays to mark the 150th anniversary of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland
Kenneth Milne and Paul Harron, editors
Four Courts Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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