Church of Ireland: Since 1690

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Church of Ireland: Since 1690

As the official state church in the period 1690 to 1870, subject to parliamentary control, and as an independent, self-governing body since 1871, the Church of Ireland has preserved its polity as a Protestant Episcopal church, while conscious of its catholicity—its adherence to the ancient Catholic creeds and historic episcopate. By destroying the Jacobite threat, the Williamite military victory of 1690 to 1691 ensured the church's survival; the penal legislation of the next two decades, by defining the Protestant Ascendancy, guaranteed its security. The church's external power thus consisted of both legal privilege and property—the twenty-two Protestant prelates were substantial landed proprietors. Church life was vibrant initially. The charismatic Caroline tradition (after Carolus, or Charles) outlived the Stuarts and persisted into the Hanover era. Its vitality in the period of 1690 to 1710 especially found expression in scholarship, popular religious societies, charity schools, attempts to evangelize the native Irish, and a devotional spirit best personified in James Bonnell (1653–1699), the accountant general of Ireland. Leadership was provided by Primate Narcissus Marsh, who founded the Dublin library that bears his name, and the energetic William King, archbishop of Dublin (1703–1729), who built churches to provide for Dublin's rapidly growing population and administered his province with exemplary zeal.

The Georgian Church, 1730 to 1822

Among the heirs of the Carolines was the philosopher George Berkeley, bishop of Cloyne (1735–1753). The contrast between the saintly Berkeley and the profligate Frederick Hervey, earl of Bristol, the bishop of Derry (1768–1803), epitomized the decline of the church, which was dominated by an "English interest" and permeated by the latitudinarian spirit of the age. Faced with a largely Tory clergy and gentry, Whig governments were dependent on the votes of bishops in the Irish House of Lords and therefore nominated politically reliable and mostly English-born prelates to Irish sees. Jonathan Swift, dean of Saint Patrick's, Dublin (1713–1745), inveighed against this Erastianism (control of the church by the state in the state's own interest) and its injurious consequences. By the end of the century, the combined influences of absentee bishops, nonresident clergy, lack of material resources, and widespread lethargy endangered the established church. Ruined churches, want of ecclesiastical discipline, and pastoral negligence drove Protestants to the Roman Catholic Church in Connemara and other neglected areas.

This depressing picture was, however, modified by positive influences in church life, particularly works of private benevolence. Primate Richard Robinson (1765–1794) was an imaginative benefactor of Armagh city. Cathedral libraries were founded by bishops, and urban charities by lay persons. New churches were built, often in the auditory style, in Dublin and Cork, and in those parts of Ulster where the linen industry had brought prosperity (and where a steady influx of English settlers strengthened the church). The small but ethnically distinct communities of Huguenots and Palatines maintained the reformed faith; and the Methodists societies, fostered by John Wesley's twenty-one visits to Ireland, infused new life into the church.

The Act of Union (1800) conjoined the English and Irish church establishments, and Parliament allocated substantial resources for churches and glebehouses. The simple tower-and-hall churches of the Irish countryside date from the largesse of the early nineteenth century. Resident bishops, freed from regular parliamentary duty by the Act of Union and armed with legislation, effected reforms. The evangelical revival of the period also enhanced the church's recovery. It was strong among the landed and professional classes. They built proprietary churches, supplied resources for missionary work, provided leadership and organization, and withstood initial episcopal hostility. A revival of the High Church tradition, associated with Bishop John Jebb and the lay theologian Alexander Knox, also made a distinctive contribution to the church's effectiveness. Meanwhile, a symbiotic relationship with the newly founded Orange Order was developed, notably in County Armagh.

The Golden Age, 1822 to 1870

The church's response to the opportunities and crises of pulsating, pre-famine society was heroic. To satisfy its thirst for knowledge, schools were founded, and bibles and tracts were distributed. Poverty and disease were tackled by a plethora of voluntary agencies. The expanding populations of Dublin, Limerick, and Belfast were provided with district churches and chapels attached to charitable institutions. Under the leadership of Archbishop Power Trench of Tuam (1819–1839), starving people were fed during the famines of 1822 and 1831 on the western seaboard. During the Great Famine (1845–1851), more than forty Anglican clergy died in the course of their sacrificial work in famine relief. During this period, the church presented a missionary character akin to that of the early Celtic church. Irish involvement in missions in tropical Africa and India was considerable. Irish-born bishops and clergy, of both evangelical and High Church traditions, and trained in the thorough theological syllabus adopted by Trinity College, Dublin in 1833, worked in England and the United States and in the developing Anglican churches in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Irish churchmen also served as colonial governors. At home the church reached out to the Irish people in those areas of the west where, before the Great Famine, the Roman Catholic Church was underresourced. As a result, the accusation of pastoral neglect was repudiated, and that of proselytism raised. But the integrity and evangelical motivation of the engagement were beyond reproach.

The church establishment underwent radical change in this period. Where government could add resources, it could also reform and, finally, remove. The Irish Church Temporalities Act (1833) abolished two provinces (Cashel and Tuam), reduced through mergers the number of sees by ten, imposed a tax on wealthy benefices, and entrusted the church's administration to ecclesiastical commissioners. Lord John George Beresford, a wise and resourceful primate (1822–1862), accommodated the church as best he could to the new order, but after 1833 the establishment lived on borrowed time. The census of 1861 disclosed that, despite all endeavors, the church still served a minority. William Gladstone, a devout Anglican and Liberal prime minister, decided on disestablishment. The Irish Church Disestablishment Act (1869) took effect on 1 January 1871. Under its terms the church took over from the state responsibility for ecclesiastical policy and government, whether in respect of doctrine and worship, finance, appointments to sees and benefices, or national, diocesan, and parochial administration.

Toward the Twenty-First Century

Since 1871 the church has been governed by its General Synod and its resources have been managed by the Representative Church Body established by the 1869 act. It first revised the Prayer Book in 1878 and, under the impetus of liturgical renewal, adopted an Alternative Prayer Book in 1984. In 1990, it became the first of the Anglican churches in Great Britain and Ireland to ordain women to the priesthood. Its cathedrals developed innovative ministries, so countering the partial demise of the parochial system. In the late twentieth century also, the church supported ecumenism and exerted influence in the Anglican communion: Archbishops George Simms, Henry McAdoo, and Robin Eames enjoyed international reputation for, respectively, scholarship, ecumenical leadership, and diplomatic skill. The church's unity was tested but not destroyed by the strains arising from partition and from the Orange standoff at Drumcree in Armagh in the late 1990s. Its mission was, however, crushed under its institutional weight and curbed by active prejudice toward its evangelical wing. It lacked the capacity to reform its institutions, but evangelical revival in the 1990s positioned the church to recover ground lost since 1970 both to secularism and to independent religious groupings.

SEE ALSO Evangelicalism and Revivals; Government from 1690 to 1800; King, William; Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800; Orange Order: Since 1800; Overseas Missions; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Protestant Community in Southern Ireland since 1922; Second Reformation from 1822 to 1869; Temperance Movements; Toland, John; Trinity College


Acheson, Alan R. A History of the Church of Ireland, 1691–1996. 1997. Second edition, 2002.

Akenson, Donald H. The Church of Ireland: Ecclesiastical Reform and Revolution, 1800–85. 1971.

Bolton F. R. The Caroline Tradition of the Church of Ireland, with Particular Reference to Bishop Jeremy Taylor. 1958.

Bowen, Desmond. The Protestant Crusade in Ireland, 1800–70. 1978.

Ford, Alan, James McGuire, and Kenneth Milne, eds. As by Law Established: The Church of Ireland since the Reformation. 1995.

Ford, Alan, and Kenneth Milne, eds. The Church of Ireland: A Critical Bibliography, 1536–1992. 1994.

McDowell, R. B. The Church of Ireland, 1869–1969. 1975.

Milne, Kenneth, ed. Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin: A History. 2000.

Alan R. Acheson

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Church of Ireland: Since 1690

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