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Church of Ireland Notes from ‘The Irish Times’

Disestablishment 150

As the end of 2020 approached many in Ireland, the United Kingdom and across western Europe held their collective breaths as the negotiations to strike a free grade deal between the EEC and the UK inched closer to a conclusion – a conclusion that would be the immediate preface to the UK leaving the EEC on I January 2021. In one those odd coincidences of history New Year’s Day 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of another sundering of the relations between Great Britain and Ireland  – the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Disestablishment had been legislated for by the Irish Church Act of 1870 but the act did not come into effect until 1 January of the following year.

Like Brexit, disestablishment was controversial as it was seen by many as an inappropriate intervention by parliament in the affairs of the church and, perhaps, the creator of a potentially disagreeable precedent. As things turned out while the Welsh Church was disestablished in the early 20th century both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have remained established. Given the upsurge in nationalistic nostalgia which has been such a feature of Brexit it seems unlikely that there will be any clamour for disestablishment England but if Scotland were to opt for independence the necessary creation of a new political and administrative polity may have ecclesiastical consequences.

Like Brexit, disestablishment was a long drawn out process. The creation of a General Convention in 1870 began the formal debate on the form the new Church of Ireland would take. There were long months of debate, often controversial, especially on liturgy and episcopacy, and, if, in the end, the integrity of the Book of Common Prayer and the role of bishops were largely protected, this outcome was by no means pre–ordained. The incorporation of the Representative Church Body in 1870 provided a perpetual trustee for the property and monies which were transferred to the newly disestablished church but the process of creating a sustainable financial foundation was protracted.

Like Brexit, disestablishment was personalised. Just as Brexit has become synonymous with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, so too disestablishment has become synonymous with the then British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. While time has provided a much need corrective to the perception of the events of the late 19th century with much of the modern commentary now stressing the beneficial effects of disestablishment, Gladstone was, for many, the villain of the piece. Only time will determine how Boris Johnston will be viewed.

One thing which time has proved is that the Church of Ireland is no longer at the forefront of public interest. While there has been a series of events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of disestablishment, which have been well supported, the commemoration has attracted less media interest than once would have been the case and, perhaps, surprisingly, not as much academic interest as might have been expected. However, the issue by An Post of a special national rate stamp to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of disestablishment with a design based on a stained glass window in St Fin Barre’s cathedral, Cork, has been a welcome recognition of this significant anniversary.

For those who would like a quick introduction to disestablishment the APCK has produced an introductory leaflet which may be obtained from the Dublin Diocesan Office (secretary@dublin.anglican.org) and the Archbishop of Dublin has issued a short video which can be accessed through the news page of the Church of Ireland website (www.ireland.anglican.org).

Church of Ireland Notes

Published in the Saturday edition of The Irish Times