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A Month is a Long Time in Politics: Disestablishment as Covered in the Gazette

A Month is a Long Time in Politics: Disestablishment as Covered in the Gazette

by Dr Miriam Moffitt

Hindsight is wonderful. It allows us to write history with the knowledge of how things actually played out. And of course, the passage of time also places distance between us and the past, taking the heat out of situations because we already know the outcome. Contemporary accounts, in contrast, reveal the messiness and uncertainties of the people who are actually involved in the events. And they reveal what people thought about issues at the time, and how their opinions might have changed.

The Archive of the Month for August focuses on the coverage of disestablishment in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette between the circulation of the draft Bill in January 1869 to its passage into law on 26 July of that year and its immediate aftermath. The Bill was debated and passed in the House of Commons between March and May, and in the House of Lords from May to late July. The Gazette was a monthly publication at that time and therefore a lot of history happened between the publication of one issue and the next.

At the start of August 1869, exactly 150 years ago this month, members of the Church of Ireland were coming to terms with the news that their Church had been disestablished by parliament at the end of July. Viewed from today’s perspective, the passage of the Irish Church Bill through both houses of parliament was inevitable but few people saw it that way in 1869. Many Irish Protestants accepted that, with a hefty majority of 110, Gladstone’s Liberal government could push through any legislation it chose through the Commons. They pinned their hopes on the House of Lords where they believed Conservative peers, under the leadership of the Belfastman Lord Cairns, along with bishops from Ireland, England and Wales, would reject the Bill. However, although many of the Lords were firmly opposed to the Bill, they voted it through, and many of the English and Welsh bishops abstained. To have rejected it would have caused such a constitutional crisis that the future of the House of Lords would have been called into question. Members of the Lords could only save one skin – their own or the Church of Ireland’s and, unsurprisingly, they plumped for their own.

The acquiescence of the Lords in late July was a bolt from the blue for members of the Church of Ireland who had been told repeatedly that disestablishment would never happen. The legal status of the Church as the Established Church of the country was defined and guaranteed in Article 5 of the Act of Union of 1800. To disestablish it was to fly in the face of the constitution. It would, and could, never happen. Until it did.

Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 18 Feb. 1869
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 18 Feb. 1869

At the start of 1869, the Gazette bravely insisted the Church would retain its established status. The January issue assured readers that should the Bill ever reach the Upper House, ‘the eloquence and logic of such prelates as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Oxford, Peterborough, and Derry would go far towards quashing it’. The absolute conviction that the Bill would be rejected was echoed in the ‘No Surrender’ headline over the February editorial.

Irish Church Bill, March 1869
Irish Church Bill, March 1869

The Church was united in its opposition to the Bill but divided on how best to address the problem. The Lay and Clerical Association, while never agreeing with disestablishment, suggested negotiating with Gladstone to influence what they saw as a dreadful but probably inevitable outcome; the Central Protestant Defence Association believed that to enter into any discussion at all was to concede that disestablishment might happen. The editorial policy of the Gazette strongly supported the latter stance, an attitude reflected in some letters to the paper but opposed in others.

Never was there a greater mistake made by those who would wish to preserve any portion of a building that was assailed than to tell the enemy how they might reach its foundations.
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 18 Feb. 1869 (editorial).

Confidence began to ebb once the text of the Bill was published. The March editorial wrote of Gladstone’s ‘gigantic scheme of confiscation’ and sneered at those who suggested negotiating the Prime Minister. Faith in the Upper House persisted but the Gazette conceded (in a non–prominent column) that Lord Salisbury had explained that when decisions made in the Commons were based on the will of the country, they should not be overturned in the Lords. The recent election had been fought one a single issue – disestablishment of the Irish Church – and had returned Gladstone with a solid mandate to proceed. Salisbury’s warning was repeatedly mentioned over the next few months but seems to have been conveniently forgotten by those who insisted on holding firm and not negotiating. Little by little, the Gazette began tentatively to imagine life after disestablishment. By April, disestablishment (still very much unwanted) was possibly ‘a blessing in disguise – a measure that will call forth all the latent energy of the Irish Church’. This optimistic spirit stemmed from convening of a diocesan conferences, followed by a national conference.

Left: Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 19 Mar. 1869. Centre: National Conference held April 1869. Right: Standing Committee of the National Conference.
Left: Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 19 Mar. 1869. Centre: National Conference held April 1869. Right: Standing Committee of the National Conference.

By May, the ‘notorious’ Bill had passed through the Commons and was before the Lords where it was hoped that significant amendments might be introduced, or that it would even be rejected entirely (ignoring Salisbury’s comments). The sense of gloom was deepened, though, when Gladstone signalled his intention to introduce legislation regarding the ownership of land; measures viewed by the Gazette as ‘a war of extermination against the Protestants of Ireland’. By June, the struggle was nearly over and nearly lost; the Bill had passed its first reading in the Lords. The Gazette conceded that many ‘honourable and generous men’ approved it ‘with a loathing and abhorrence’ to prevent a constitutional crisis between the two Houses but had promised to reject it at the next reading if their amendments were not carried. It claimed that some had voted for the Bill because it would allow the Church of Ireland to ‘claim entire freedom as a Church’. However, it was widely believed that the Lords would reject the Bill at its second reading as many peers had given public pledges to do so.

Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 July 1869
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 July 1869

The next issue, dated 21 July – just days before the Bill was finally approved in the Lords – confidently insisted that ‘There is every probability, as far as we can judge at this date, of its falling through’. Many believed the Lords would reject the entire Bill because Gladstone had insisted it be passed without amendments. They were wrong. As the debate in the Lords crept into the early hours of Saturday 24 July, the Lords backed down rather than bring about the constitutional crisis flagged by Lord Salisbury; many of the protesting Irish peers abstained. The Irish Church Act passed into law the following Monday.

Unsurprisingly, the Lords were harshly treated in the August edition of Gazette: ‘The Irish Church betrayed by friend and foe alike, is now cast entirely upon her own resources’. There was a general sense of betrayal although some persons appear to have understood the political reality better than others.

We have been grossly betrayed by Lord Cairns & his party, which in fact I foresaw, from that day’s interview with him, at Sir J. Napier’s.

Left: Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 Aug. 1869. Right: Letter from Anthony Traill to [Thomas] Greene, 29 July [1869], RCB Library, MS GC/2/5/24.
Left: Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 Aug. 1869. Right: Letter from Anthony Traill to [Thomas] Greene, 29 July [1869], RCB Library, MS GC/2/5/24.
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 Oct. 1869
Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 Oct. 1869

The Church’s confidence quickly returned; readers of the September Gazette were assured of a bright future if ‘We fix our eyes intently and with longing strain upon what we hope is the splendid rising sun of Ireland’s now Disestablished and Disendowed Church’. The unwanted rupture from the State and from the Church of England had now become an opportunity: ‘thank God, as a Free and Independent Church we have commenced well’. In September, readers learned that the clergy had gathered at a National Synod; the following month, they read a report of a meeting of lay delegates, and the editor began to hope the Gazette might have a wider circulation among the laity, who were now more involved in church affairs.

Once disestablishment had become a fait accompli, the focus immediately turned to the future. The implementation of the Act was set for January 1871 which meant that considerable adjustments had to be made in a timeframe of less than eighteen months. From the moment the Act was passed, the Gazette urged its readers to look forwards not backwards:

As long as their seemed a vestige of hope, we hung up the flag of ‘No Surrender’; we have only taken it down when fairly beaten in the struggle. Now, as faithful members of the Church of Christ, it is our duty to accept the issue, bitter as it is, and bend all our energies towards making the best of our new situation. The future of the ‘Irish Church’ depends in a large measure upon a single twelve months. Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette, 21 Aug. 1869.

Disestablishment was a delicate and tortuous process in which strong feelings among groups of the laity influenced and sometimes hindered the Church’s ability to influence its structures in a post–establishment world. Much of the negotiations in Westminster were carried out by prominent laymen who were also pivotal in organising the governance systems of the disestablished church. At a first glance it might seem that the episcopate sat on their hands during the entire episode, but this was certainly not the case. Their input has been documented by James Golden in his doctoral thesis Protestantism and Public Life: The Church of Ireland, Disestablishment, and Home Rule, 1864–1874 which can be consulted in the RCB Library. This confirms that the two archbishops, Marcus Gervais Beresford in Armagh and Richard Chevenix Trench in Dublin, along with other members of the Irish bench worked long and hard to influence the outcome, maintaining almost daily contact with influential politicians and the British episcopate – but did so in private. They could not be seen to interact directly with British politicians because large sections of the laity, including many prominent persons, were fiercely opposed to any form of compromise or dialogue.

Left: Marcus Gervais Beresford, Primate and archbishop of Armagh, 1862-85. Right: Richard Chevenix Trench, archbishop of Dublin, 1864-84
Left: Marcus Gervais Beresford, Primate and archbishop of Armagh, 1862-85. Right: Richard Chevenix Trench, archbishop of Dublin, 1864-84

This was probably the reason also that the bench of bishops established a committee of clergy and laymen to oversee the reorganisation of the Church. As deliberations regarding governance and lay representation were underway before the Bill was even introduced to parliament, this could have been interpreted as defeatist – accepting the inevitability of disestablishment from the outset. In reality, they were attempting to reform structures that were outdated, even for an established church. Their actions ensured planning was underway to provide an adequate form of church governance whether the Church was disestablished or not. On 30 July 1869, less than a week after the Act became law, this embryonic governing entity was given a name: ‘The Representative Church Body’.

There is much to be learned from looking at the disestablishment months through the lens of the Gazette. The Gazette is especially useful in recording the diverse opinions held within the Church and, in this instance, we can gain an insight into the different ways in which churchmen experienced a very significant change to their Church and the varying ways in which they responded. (There is no evidence that women were involved in the disestablishment episode in any way.) The content of the Church of Ireland Gazette (Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette to 1900) from 1856 to 1949 may be explored in full by using the search box on link to the digitized version of the Gazette, available here