Celebrating an Old High Church Saint Patrick's Day ... with Ussher

It is usual to regard Ussher's 
A discourse of the religion anciently professed by the Irish and Brittish (1631) as one of the earliest expressions of a Protestant narrative laying claim to Patrick and the primitive Irish Church.  Ussher's claim, however, is rather more specific than that:

the religion professed by the ancient Bishops, Priests, Monks, and other Christians in this land, was for substance the very same with that which now by publike authoritie is maintained therein, against the forraine doctrin brought in thither in later times by the Bishop of Romes followers.

In other words, Ussher portrayed the primitive Irish Church not merely as Protestant but as sharing the same characteristics as that of the Elizabethan Settlement: Augustinian, episcopalian, liturgical, and under the Royal rather than papal Supremacy.  Alongside affirming that "the Crowne of England hath ... obtained an undoubted right unto the soveraigntie of this countrey", Ussher contrasted the episcopal claims of the ancient Irish Church with papal claims, noting that in primitive practice the titles later claimed by the papacy were enjoyed by Patrick and other Irish bishops:

those titles and prerogatives, which the Pope now peculiarly challengeth unto himselfe, as ensignes of his Monarchy, being heretofore usually communicated unto other Bishops, when the universall Church was governed by way of Aristocratie.

Pointing to the flourishing of the Irish Church over centuries, Ussher portrayed it as a free, national Church:

This country was heretofore, for the number of holy men that lived in it, termed the Island of Saints: of that innumerable company of Saints, whose memory was reverenced here; what one received any solemne canonization from the Pope, before Malachias Archbishop of Armagh, & Laurence of Dublin? who lived, as it were, but the other day. We reade of sundry Archbishops that have beene in this land: betwixt the dayes of Saint Patrick and of Malachias, what one of them can be named, that ever sought for a Pall from Rome?

In a significant aspect of its discipline, the Primitive free, national Church of Ussher's portrayal also shared another important characteristic with the post-Reformation Church of Ireland:

concerning single life, I doe not finde in any of our records, that it was generally imposed upon the Clergie; but the contrary rather. 

When it came to the liturgy, Ussher emphasised the similarities with the Reformed Church of Ireland.  While the term 'mass' was known in the early Irish Church, Ussher - with, we might imagine, something of a smile - noted that it was used to also describe non-eucharistic worship, such as would have been common on many Sundays in Church of Ireland parishes:

to speake somewhat of the Masse (for which so great adoe is now adayes made by our Romanists) wee may observe in the first place, that the publike Liturgie or service of the Church, was of old named the Masse: even then also, when prayers only were said, without the celebration of the holy Communion.

He particularly refers to an example of St Colm's last Vespers being described as 'mass', going on to say "that which we call Even-song, or Evening prayer".  On the Eucharist itself, he is quite clear that the form of the celebration of the Primitive Irish Church was found in the reformed liturgy of the Church of Ireland:

it doth appeare, that the sacrifice of the elder times was not like unto the new Masse of the Romanists, wherein the Priest alone doth all; but unto our Communion, where others also have free libertie given unto them toe eat of the Altar, as well as they that serve that Altar.

A free, national Church; episcopal, not papal; a married clergy; liturgy and sacraments contrasting with Tridentine norms.  My point here is not to enter into the details of the debates between Ussher and his Papal opponents on the nature of the Primitive Irish Church.  It is, rather, to suggest that Ussher's account, rather than merely reflecting generic Protestant concerns and aspirations, coheres rather more significantly with the emphases evident in High Church accounts of both the Primitive Church in general and the ancient Irish Church in particular.

As Eamon Duffy has shown, the confidence and assertiveness of the Church of England and Ireland post-1660 and throughout the Augustan era found expression in a flowering of patristic studies, for which Ussher work on the Ignatian epistles had itself been an inspiration.  Here Anglicanism "found not merely its origins, but, occasionally and increasingly, a mirror image of itself".  Ussher's A discourse of the religion anciently professed by the Irish and Brittish can, therefore, be regarded as an anticipation of this vision of, to use Duffy's phrase, "Primitive Christianity revived".

Jeremy Taylor's sermon at the consecration of two archbishops and ten bishops for the newly restored Church of Ireland in January 1661 pointed to an understanding of episcopacy very similar to that in Ussher's account of the Primitive Irish Church.  Noting that "England and Ireland were Governed by Bishops ever since they were Christian", Taylor went on to say of episcopacy:

it is the greatest preservative of the people's liberty from Ecclesiastick Tyranny on one hand, and Anarchy and licentiousness on the other.

This was Ussher's point when he contrasted the later papal 'monarchy' with the 'aristocracy' of episcopal government in the patristic churches and the early Irish Church, evoking those constitutional theories which depicted aristocracy as a bulwark against the tyranny of both the one and the many. 

Just as Ussher saw the reformed liturgy of the Church of Ireland standing in continuity with that of the Primitive Irish Church, so too the Prayer Book was similarly presented by Augustan Anglicanism as 'primitive Christianity revived'.  William Beveridge's 1683 sermon at the opening St. Peter's, Cornhill, declared the use of the Prayer Book to stand in continuity with the usage of the Apostolical Church and "as it was in the Primitive Church", "in Conformity to the Catholick and Apostolical".  Secker (Archbishop of Canterbury 1758-68) would similarly point to how the Prayer Book was "in Imitation of the primitive Christians".

The coherence of Ussher's account with the High Church vision continued beyond the Augustan era. This is seen in Richard Mant's early 19th century description of how the Church of Ireland as a free, national and episcopal Church stood in continuity with the Primitive Irish Church:

The polity of the Church of Ireland, like that of all national members of the Church Catholick, was from the first episcopal, comprising the three orders of ministers: bishops, priests, and deacons ... Until about the middle of the twelfth century the Church of Ireland maintained its character, as an independent national church, without acknowledging any pre-eminence, authority, or jurisdiction, of the See of Rome.

Now, yes, it might shock James Ussher that we are here placing him amongst the ecclesial descendants of William Laud.  That said, Ussher was an episcopalian, devoted to the royal supremacy, and buried according to the rites of the then prohibited Book of Common Prayer.  As Bernard's 'Life' of Ussher noted (quoted by the High Church Elrington in his 'Life'):

He came constantly to the Church in his episcopal habit and preached in it, and for myself (by his approbation) when I officiated I wore my surplice and hood, administered the communion, and at such occasions preached in them also. And for all other administrations they were fully observed in each rite and ceremony according to the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer. 

Whatever the divisions between Laud and Ussher, they were both ardently committed to a vision of free, national and episcopal Churches, worshipping according to the Book of Common Prayer, rejecting papal errors.  What is more, both confidently articulated the sense that the Churches of England and Ireland were therefore closest to the example of the Apostolic and Primitive Churches.  Ussher's account of the Primitive Irish Church gave particular expression to this vision and confidence, a vision and confidence which can rejoice the Laudian and Old High Church heart on Saint Patrick's Day.


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