"A free national church": reflections on the Church of Ireland's 'Disestablishment 150' project. Part I

The reformed Church of Ireland under the government of our dread sovereign the King is and ever was a free national church.

So declared the Episcopal clergy of Dublin in 1647.  Their declaration echoed words used by Laud to Bramhall (Bishop of Derry) in 1635:

God bless your free Church of Ireland.

This understanding that the Established Church of Ireland was a "free national church" has been central to the Church of Ireland's self-understanding over centuries.  It, however, seems to be have been overlooked by Disestablishment 150, the Church of Ireland project celebrating the 150th anniversary of disestablishment under the slogan "free to shape our future".  Disestablishment, we are informed, "made it independent of the Church of England".

It is an odd assertion.  From the passing of the Act of Supremacy by the Parliament of Ireland in 1537, the Church of Ireland was a free national Church until the 1800 Act of Union.  It then became the United Church of England and Ireland, "united into one Protestant Episcopal Church", in the words of the Act of Union.  For a mere 70 years the Church of Ireland, as by law established, was united with the Church of England.  For 263 years, as the established Church, it was a free national Church.

Even as the United Church of England and Ireland, the Irish Church had episcopal representation in the House of Lords, while "the friends of the Church" actively represented its interests in the Commons.  What is more, the formularies of the Church of Ireland were unchanged through this time. In his classic account of The Caroline Tradition of the Church of Ireland (1958), F.R. Bolton notes that clerical subscription in the Church of Ireland was unchanged by the Act of Union, with clergy continuing to subscribe according to the Irish Canons of 1634. 

Here, then, is the first failure of the Distestablishment 150 project: the lack of any recognition that for the vast majority of its time as the established Church, the Church of Ireland was a free national Church.  Disestablishment did not create a Church "free" to shape its future.  In fact, it was establishment itself - the fact of being the established Church, under the Royal supremacy - which had guaranteed its existence as (in the words of Article 34) a "particular or national Church". (To emphasise what should be obvious: if there had been no Royal Supremacy in the first place, there would have been no free national Church.)

If anything, disestablishment was a means of the Church of Ireland regaining a status obscured by the Act of Union, but which had characterised its existence as the established Church from 1537.  Rather, then, than being a moment of rupture with the experience of establishment, disestablishment was profoundly marked by continuity with establishment.

This is a second failure profound failure in Disestablishment 150: there is no recognition of the deep continuities between the established and disestablished Church of Ireland.  

The Church of Ireland Preamble and Declaration of 1870 - the first act of the disestablished Church - embodies these continuities.  When it refers to "this the Ancient Catholick and Apostolick Church of Ireland", it invokes that long tradition of being a free national Church, which had been protected by establishment until the Act of Union.  The continuities with establishment are rehearsed again and again throughout the Declaration:

as heretofore (I.1); will continue to minister (I.2); doth hereby reaffirm (I.3).

This is most significantly evident when reference is made to the Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer:

The Church of Ireland doth receive and approve The Book of the Articles of Religion, commonly called the Thirty–nine Articles, received and approved by the archbishops and bishops and the rest of the clergy of Ireland in the synod holden in Dublin, A.D. 1634; also, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, according to the use of the Church of Ireland; and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, as approved and adopted by the synod holden in Dublin, A.D. 1662.

This is not a Church working under the slogan "free to shape our future".  It is a Church gratefully reaffirming an identity which had been received and protected by establishment.

What of the Declaration setting forth the synodical government of the disestablished Church of Ireland?

The Church of Ireland, deriving its authority from Christ, Who is the Head over all things to the Church, doth declare that a General Synod of the Church of Ireland, consisting of the archbishops and bishops, and of representatives of the clergy and laity, shall have chief legislative power therein, and such administrative power as may be necessary for the Church, and consistent with its episcopal constitution.

This, too, speaks much more of continuity than rupture.  The Declaration has already made reference to the synods of 1634 and 1662, recalling that convocation had been (until the early 18th century) a significant feature of the established Church of Ireland.  As Bolton notes, this was also true of diocesan and provincial synods.  The continuity with the establishment, however, does not end here.  The very concept of laity participating in the Church's councils flows from establishment.  It was a layperson, after all, who was Supreme Governor of both the established Church of Ireland and the United Church of England and Ireland.  Hooker makes a point of joyfully quoting Thomas More on the Royal Supremacy:

The greatest exception that Sir Thomas Moore tooke against that Title, who suffered death for deniall of its, was that it maketh a lay or secular person the Head of the State spirituall or Ecclesiasticall (LEP VIII.4.12).

This, declares Hooker, is indeed the case.  Alongside the monarch, of course, was Parliament.  The decisions of Convocation became law only through Act of Parliament, ensuring a significant role for an assembly of laity.  As Hooker states:

The Parlament is a Court not so meerly temporall as if it might meddle with nothing but only leather and wooll (VIII.6.11).

The place of Parliament in "our own Churches regiment" ensures, Hooker continues, "generall consent" for the laws of the Church, "consent of the whole Church" (ibid.).

To suggest, therefore, that disestablishment "conferred freedom for laity and clergy to develop a synodical way of life" is to entirely overlook both the synodical traditions present in establishment and the place of the laity in the affairs of the Church, secured by establishment.  In affirming the role of the laity in the General Synod of the disestablished Church of Ireland, the Declaration was reasserting a key characteristic of establishment.

The Disestablishment 150 website opens with the following statement:

Disestablishment has seen a renewed focus on ourselves as a developing and evolving spiritual community.

Leaving aside the fact that such language has echoes of what John Milbank has termed "stale expressions" - the discourse of "The Management-Shaped Church" - it is somewhat ironic that the claim of "a renewed focus on ourselves" leads to a summary of disestablishment which suggests a disregard for the historic witness and traditions of the Church of Ireland.

It is right that the Church of Ireland commemorate the 150th anniversary of its disestablishment, a significant event in the history of this Church and Island.  This, however, does not require a rather shallow account which disregards how establishment has shaped the character of this Church in many positive ways, not the least of which are our identity as a free national church and synodical government with the participation of the laity.

Disestablishment did not create these characteristics.  It was not a matter of being "free to shape our future". Instead, it allowed for continuation and renewal of an ethos which had been created, protected, and nourished by establishment.  Disestablishment was marked not by rupture but profound continuity.  It became a means, amidst the great and sometimes violent changes this Island would witness in the decades to come, of securing and continuing that which Dublin clergy in 1647 had identified as a founding principle of establishment:

the liberty of the free national Church of Ireland.


  1. I think you have missed the irony in Bramhall's quotation, He was speaking just after he and wWentworth had 'persuaded' the 'free church of Ireland' to abandon its indpendent confession and adopt the English 39 Articles, and to accept subscription to the new ecclesiastical canons. The way in which the C of I operated for much of the 18c was very similar: theoretically independent, but in fact ruled by bishops sent directly from England who ensured that it followed the C of E line. It is not that you are wrong to state that the Church was independent up 1800, it is just that the reality was a bit more and nuanced. Appreciate that this does not help your enjoyably polemical argument, but then history tends to be messy and get in the way of sweeping generalizations..

    1. GF, many thanks for your comment.

      Yes, Laud's (not Bramhall's) words were sarcasm. The sarcasm, however, reflected the fact that this is exactly what the CofI believed itself to be, a point emphasised by Laud going on to state that if the English Canons had been accepted - rather than new Irish Canons drawn up - "I do not think the Canons of the Church of England would have shot any of the freedom of it".

      As for the Articles of Religion replacing the Irish Articles, this was a decision of the Irish Church. Yes, the Crown desired it (and Canterbury thus encouraged it), but they knew it required the acceptance of the Irish Church. In the words of the 1647 declaration to the Parliamentary Commissioners, the Articles "were not received with any acknowledged subordination to the Church of England".

      And with regards to "sweeping generalizations", I think that is a very apt summary indeed of "free to shape our future".


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