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Disestablishment in context

Disestablishment in context

What is an established church?

  • An established church is the church that is recognised as the state church.
  • The idea of state control did not just begin at the Reformation. It went back to the Middle Ages, for example when the English king claimed to have been sent by the Pope to bring the church in Ireland into line with Rome.
  • Following the wars of religion in the 16th century a compromise was reached whereby it was agreed that the religion of the ruler would be the religion of the state. Europe’s rulers opted either to be Protestant or Catholic. Ireland was under the rule of the Protestant English crown and therefore was a Protestant (Anglican) state.

Advantages for the Church of Ireland of being established:

  • The law of the church (for example on marriage) was also the law of the land.
  • All the people of the state were required to support the established church by tithes.
  • The bishops had membership of the House of Lords so therefore could influence legislation.
  • The state church had a special place in education, again bestowing influence.

Disadvantages of being established:

  • The property of the church belonged to the state so when the church was disestablished all the property of the Church of Ireland was relinquished to the state.
  • The liturgy was controlled by the state.
  • All bishops and almost all deans were appointed by the crown so all the top positions in the Church of Ireland were political appointments. This resulted, for example, in all the 18th century Archbishops of Armagh being English. This was a huge issue for Anglicans who had a patriotic strain, like Swift, and who believed that Ireland should be Anglican but that it should be run by Irish Anglicans.

The 19th Century:

  • In the early 19th century as part of their zeal to modernise society, the liberal Whig party made considerable changes in the Church of Ireland.
  • The Church Temporalities Act of 1833 was particularly controversial; it amalgamated the provinces of Armagh and Tuam and of Dublin and Cashel, and united other dioceses, including Dublin and Glendalough with Kildare. The income of the higher clergy largely came from land with lesser income coming from tithes. The Archbishop of Armagh, for example, had about 100,000 acres of land from which he drew most of his income. But there were parish clergy and some bishops who were relatively poor. The Whigs felt that the income of the Church of Ireland was not fairly distributed and set about rectifying it with the Church Temporalities Act. This caused uproar, not only in Ireland but also in the Church of England as it was seen as the state interfering with the church.
  • The state also demonstrated its control by abolishing the payment of tithes to the established church by tenants: henceforth it would be paid by their landlords. There was tremendous resistance to paying the church tax, particularly among Roman Catholics and Presbyterians.


  • Gladstone was very sympathetic to the Church of Ireland and very generous to it. However, he saw that in dealing with the ‘Irish Question’ its position was untenable.
  • The census of 1861 showed the size of the Church of Ireland minority. It did not have a majority in a single county of the 32 counties of Ireland. Just one eighth of the population identified as members of the established church.

Gladstone’s three point policy:

  • Home Rule.
  • Land.
  • Disestablishment.

Disestablishment was the easiest of these. It had support from the liberal English Whigs and of the Roman Catholic Church. Its strength lay in the census of 1861.

The General Election of 1868:

  • As leader of the opposition in 1868, Gladstone tested the waters and put resolutions seeking the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland to Parliament in London.
  • These resolutions were approved,  which led to a General Election which Gladstone won following a campaign in which the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was a main issue.

The Irish Church Bill and the Irish Church Act:

  • On winning the election Gladstone introduced the Irish Church Bill which was passed in 1869 and became the Irish Church Act.

The effects of the Irish Church Act:

  • Once it received Royal assent on 26 July 1869 the Irish Church Act came into being and the Church of Ireland was detached from the Church of England (with which it had been united by the Act of Union of 1800).
  • The property of the Church of Ireland was transferred to the Commissioners of Church Temporalities.
  • The Representative Church Body (RCB) was set up in 1870 as the trustee body for the Church of Ireland and  churches, schools and glebe houses (rectories) was then given to the RCB.
  • A complicated compensation system was set up for clergy. Clergy were given a choice. They could continue to receive their income as they always had,  or they were entitled to ‘commute’, that is to receive a lump sum based on their expected income. If they wished, this sum could go to the RCB in return for a stipend. Most clergy opted to ‘commute’ thus enabling the RCB to build up a substantial fund, which was soon added to by a large amount that resulted from an appeal from the RCB to the laity.
  • Out of the funds of the former Established Church, one–off lump sums were paid to the Royal College of Maynooth to replace annual grants and to the Presbyterian Church to replace annual grants that were heretofore paid to it towards the incomes of its clergy. From this point on no church in Ireland received state funds.

1 January 1871:

  • The Church of Ireland was officially disestablished on 1 January 1871.
  • Despite the strapline of Disestablishment positively declaring that we were now “free to shape our future…” this was by no means seen by all at the time as a positive move.
  • The acclaimed hymn writer, Mrs Alexander, penned a hymn to mark the occasion that opened with  the line: ‘Dimly dawns the new year on a churchless nation’.

Disestablishment – the great gift to the Church of Ireland:

  • Disestablishment was of national importance, removing the status of a state church that had commanded the allegiance of only a minority of the population.
  • Just 50 years later its true importance to the Church of Ireland was clear as it had happened prior to the revolutionary period of 1912–22 and the creation of two separate political jurisdictions on the island.

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