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Disestablishment

Disestablishment. The 19th cent. saw the questioning of the right and propriety of a church which represented only a minority of Christian believers to be the established church, its clergy supported and maintained by law by parishioners who did not sympathize with or belong to it.

The Irish church, with its two Anglican provinces of Armagh and Dublin, was the first to be disestablished. For some years an alliance of Irish nationalists and Roman catholics had campaigned for the removal of the privileged position of the minority Anglican church, and in 1868 this cause was espoused by Gladstone. As prime minister in 1869 he introduced a parliamentary bill to disestablish the Church of Ireland, and although strongly opposed by some—including Queen Victoria—it passed into law.

In Wales similar cultural nationalism, allied less with Roman catholicism than with nonconformity (which in the mid-19th cent. held the allegiance of almost 80 per cent of worshippers), produced a similar campaign. The growth of the Liberal Party and the widening of the franchise encouraged the movement, and after 1891 Liberals became formally committed to it. Several parliamentary bills from 1870 onwards either failed or were withdrawn, until one was passed in 1914. The First World War delayed its implementation, but the Act came into force in 1920.

The 1869 Irish disestablishment left the Church of Ireland a shadow of its former self, particularly in the overwhelmingly catholic rural areas—a fact to which the numerous derelict Anglican church buildings still dotting the landscape bear eloquent witness—though it remained strong in some towns and cities. In Wales the long delay saw a different outcome. By 1920 nonconformity was losing its dominant place in Welsh life, and the Church in Wales was able to maintain its widespread presence throughout the principality.

Revd Dr John R. Guy

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