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Disestablishment 150

Reflecting on D150: an interview with the World Council of Churches

‘As a minority, however small you are, you can give it a try’

Archbishop Michael Jackson and Caoimhe Leppard, co–ordinator for D150, were interviewed by Susan Kim, from the World Council of Churches, in December, on their reflections on D150, marking 150 years since the Church of Ireland’s Disestablishment.


As the national three–year programme “Disestablishment 150” drew to a close, the Church of Ireland is looking back on highlights from a commemoration of the historic milestone in which the Church of Ireland was made wholly independent of the Church of England, and was no longer the official state church.

The tagline for the commemoration was “Free to Shape Our Future,” and below, Most Rev. Dr Michael Jackson, Archbishop of Dublin, and Caoimhe Leppard, who coordinated the Disestablishment 150 initiative, reflect on how the Church of Ireland can move from commemoration to celebration – and what valuable insights the church can share with the global ecumenical movement.

As the Church of Ireland moves from commemoration toward celebration, how does this resonate with the theme of the upcoming World Council of Churches (WCC) 11th Assembly in 2022 – “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity?” Can we talk about the importance of moving together?

Archbishop Jackson: That question takes us to heart of what we were trying to do. The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 left people who felt they had an identity reeling because suddenly the identity changed. And so the first thing I’d be looking at would be the way in which churches may be slow to make up their mind and at factors which are external to the way in which they understand themselves but which can influence their identity.

Disestablishment itself was a movement, a movement toward new self–understanding in a primary context for people who then became full and independently Anglicans in the Irish tradition. The thing which matters to me is that being an Anglican is an expression of the kind of theological method of believing and living: a way of being liturgical, socially engaged, a way of being pastoral and a way of being theological which is now lived out in so many different contexts worldwide.

We had one of the early opportunities to do this and to become this. And as historical events have developed, declined, risen, dissipated – whatever historical events do – the Church of Ireland was in a way identified as part of Ireland itself, rather than looking as if it had a double identity that it couldn’t sustain. I would argue that continuity of identity in Ireland is very dependent on this particular type of disestablishment.

Now of course in other countries worldwide, there never has been an Anglican establishment. But there are countries where religion and politics, church and state are almost identical. The advantage for us in Ireland is that future events have enabled us to remain a church of the totality of Ireland even though Ireland is now two separate political and in many way social entities.

Caoimhe Leppard: I always really think of disestablishment as a quiet revolution within the church. Disestablishment allowed space for ordinary of men and women in the pews to ask the true purpose of the church. Very few at the time did relish their newfound freedom but we commemorate disestablishment by recognizing the benefits of it. It did allow the church to focus on its own personal and spiritual mission, and move to focus on the church as a spiritual community with a degree of democratic governance.

The theme of our whole programme was “Free To Shape Your Own Future.” When we were researching the actual event, we came across one of the early architects and strategists who wrote quite brightly and hopefully that the Church of Ireland was free to shape its own future independent of state control or any political alignments.

Did disestablishment, in some ways, take great courage on the part of the church at that time?

Archbishop Jackson: I think stability is always attractive by virtue of its inertia. “Have you got the heart for adventure?” That’s the sort of question that the disestablishment through which this church went can ask wider Christian communities.

If you have to engage not only with yourself but the context in which you live, that will present to you or throw into your path questions which are rightly described as ecumenical. But they’re also human, personal, social and political.

It always remains, of course, experimental because any democratic situation hasn’t got a prescription of agreement for how a thing might turn out. But if you can accept that elasticity or that hope within it, I still think you can be the richer for being part of your own democratic journey.

As you describe the Church of Ireland as a “church without borders,” what does that mean within the context of the global ecumenical movement, as we seek visible unity?

Archbishop Jackson: We owe that phrase to the Archbishop of Canterbury who came to preach a service at St Patrick’s Cathedral. We didn’t know what he was going to say, but when he said it, it actually gathered together something that ought, in many ways, to have been blindingly obvious to us.

The first thing is that Ireland is a comprehensively bordered country. You have what people call “The Border,” which actually identifies and divides people with the aspiration that a certain number of people have to remain British, and the aspiration that a certain number of people have to be totally and comprehensively Irish, and the idea that putting people on either side of geographical border is not going to divide their hearts.

Throughout the upheavals of Irish history, throughout disestablishment, the Church of Ireland has remained an “all–Ireland” church. That hasn’t been all that easy.

If a church, for example, like the Church of Ireland, 25, 30, 40, 50 years ago has a reputation for being liberal and forward–thinking, what’s happened now is that the society is doing that liberal, revolutionary, forward thinking for itself.

That’s why we need to push out and develop a self–understanding which is, again, beyond borders. That’s why we always need partners who are beyond our own island.

It’s a question of what you do with your island status. Does it mean you’re going to collapse into the Atlantic? Or does it mean you can become a strategic island? What we’re talking about is not necessarily strategic in a military sense but actually strategic in a spiritual, religious and ecumenical sense. Where we are pushed again and again, simply by events themselves, you have all of this experience – you make something of it. Not only what can you share but what can you learn that can bring you forward from the places where you get stuck. That’s why we need global ecumenical movements.

Caoimhe Leppard: As an all–Ireland church without borders, part of our vision for success for Disestablishment 150 was to build an Ireland–wide programme and encourage individual dioceses to contribute to it.

We did this enable people to have an all–Ireland framework that they could take, flesh out the story and their history, and enable them to bring it to life. There really were some fantastic and creative initiatives and contributions across the whole of the Church of Ireland. We were so happy that people wanted to get involved.

Can you explain why you chose the word “commemoration” and not, say, “celebration?”

Archbishop Jackson: The word commemoration may sound very sober but in fact there has been a ten–year programme in Ireland called the Decade of Commemorations going from 2012 to 2023, incorporating 2016 which is the centenary of 1916 – obviously iconic and a real marker of Ireland then and Ireland today, leading right through a period of Civil War and the Anglo–Irish Treaty and a whole host of things. We felt that if we wanted to enable the Church of Ireland to be part of the weave of the society, we would adopt the term commemoration, rather than what maybe sounded like a bouncy castle.

We managed to get the grant of a stamp for Disestablishment 150. That was the first grant of a stamp for use across the country specifically to a religious body such as ours.

Caoimhe Leppard: It was amazing to get the state’s recognition and engagement through the commemorative stamp. It’s a really social way of engaging with the general public who might not be Church of Ireland, that this disestablishment programme was happening, and it was significant not only in Church of Ireland history but in Irish political and social history as the very, very first reform to try and solve the Irish question in the late 19th century. It’s so nice because at Christmas I plan to send out my cards with the Disestablishment 150 stamp on them.

It isn’t just a Church of Ireland historic commemoration. It really was particularly significant in Irish history. Throughout the 10–year decade of commemoration, this was really the first one in that long line of reforms and revolutionary political movements.

Archbishop Jackson: In a context like this of self–understanding and ecumenical generosity, no minority is too small to take an initiative. Our numbers are genuinely small. As a minority, however small you are, you can give it a try.

You deeply engaged young people in Disestablishment 150. What were some of the key messages that you believe reached young people at the grassroots level?

Caoimhe Leppard: We are very fortunate to have a wonderful organization in the Church of Ireland Youth Department. So the CIYD Church of Ireland Youth Forum was the very first event at which we wanted to launch our programme.. It was really, really important to us to include young people. It was at this event that we shared the theme “Free to Shape our Own Future.” We can see today in Ireland and everywhere that young people are actively engaged in public issues more than ever, and we felt it was really important to empower them as stakeholders in the life and community of the Church of Ireland.

We were able to hear from them, what they wanted to contribute.

Archbishop Jackson: My stubborn conviction is that young people are the present of the church, rather than simply the future of the church. Part of the reason I’d say that is that I think young people have a very particular voice that can and does read culture in A way that’s quite different from people who through their lives have accumulated more and more heavy and different priorities. There can be a lightness of touch. There also I think can be an ease with social media which enables people to get into different ways of voicing and hearing voices. I think some the things that motivate and sustain young people are issues of justice, issues of climate and also friendship, loyalty. Those are to be treasured and not as some people have said in the past, “Oh, they’ll grow out of that.”

From a global perspective, I think one of the really important things is to track the energy of the lesser public responsibility that young people have, and to take it into and through the institutions. Very often young people sit light to the institutions of their day. But the day is fast approaching when those young people will have responsibility for those same institutions—or what’s left of them. There’s no point in looking in shock and awe at young people; that energy needs to be not harnessed, but directed toward revitalizing the institutions here and now so that when these people come to positions of service and leadership, there’s a continuity of integrity from who they are today and who they will be tomorrow. Our programme intended to lift up that voice with a theme “Free to Shape Your Own Future.”

Watch this video to find more about Disestablishment 150:

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A National Programme of initiatives to mark the 150th anniversary of the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland through the Irish Church Act 1869.

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