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Church of Ireland
Church of Ireland

The Church of Ireland (Irish: Eaglais na hÉireann; Ulster-Scots: Kirk o Airlann)[2] is a Christian church in Ireland and an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion. It is organised on an all-Ireland basis and is the second largest Christian church on the island after the Catholic Church. Like other Anglican churches, it has retained elements of pre-Reformation practice, notably its episcopal polity, while rejecting the primacy of the Pope. In theological and liturgical matters, it incorporates many principles of the Reformation, particularly those espoused during the English Reformation. The church self-identifies as being both catholic and Reformed.[3] Within the church, differences exist between those members who are more Catholic-leaning (high church) and those who are more Protestant-leaning (evangelical).[4] For historical and cultural reasons, the Church of Ireland is generally identified as a Protestant church.[5]


The Church of Ireland describes itself as

The Church of Ireland considers itself Catholic because it is in possession of a continuous tradition of faith and practice, based on scripture and early traditions, enshrined in the Catholic creeds, together with the sacraments and apostolic ministry.[7] However, the Church of Ireland is also Protestant, or Reformed, since it opposes doctrines and ways of worshipping that it considers contrary to scripture and which led to the Reformation.

When the English Parliament declared that the Holy See had no power over the Church in England, the Church in Ireland also conformed, assuming possession of most church property and so retaining a great repository of religious architecture and other items, though some were later destroyed. The church explains its possession of so many of the ancient church buildings of Ireland by reference to the precedent set by Emperor Constantine the Great in the 4th century

In Ireland, a considerable majority of the population continued to adhere to Catholicism despite the political and economic advantages of membership in the state church. Despite its numerical minority, however, the Church of Ireland remained the official state church until the Irish Church Act 1869 disestablished it on 1 January 1871, under Queen Victoria and her Liberal government led by William Ewart Gladstone.

The Church of Ireland claimed that in breaking with Rome the reformed established church was reverting to a condition that had obtained in the church in Ireland prior to the 12th century – the independent character of Celtic Christianity. Modern scholarship, however, sees the early Irish church as different from, but still a part of, Roman Christianity, with the result that the Church of Ireland and the Irish Catholic church can both claim descent from St Patrick.[10]

Claims of legitimacy for the Norman invasion of Ireland were derived from a Papal Bull of 1155 – Laudabiliter, although the governing structures in Ireland had never acknowledged any external authority over Ireland. The bull claimed to give King Henry II of England the right to invade Ireland, ostensibly as a means of reforming the church in Ireland more directly under the control of the Holy See.[11] The authorisation from the Holy See was based upon the putative Donation of Constantine which claimed to make every Christian island in the western Roman Empire the property of the Papacy, though as Ireland was never a part of the Roman Empire, it had no real relevance. By the time of the English Reformation, the Donation had been exposed as a forgery, and Henry VIII sought to undo by enforcing laws regarding praemunire the historic royal homage to the Papacy that was delivered by John, King of England before him.

The Church of Ireland is the second largest church in Ireland and the third largest in Northern Ireland, after the Catholic and Presbyterian churches.


In 1155, Adrian IV claimed Ireland as a papal fief and granted Henry II the Lordship of Ireland. The reformed Church of Ireland was officially founded in 1536 when the Irish Parliament accepted Henry VIII as its head, rather than the Pope, confirmed when Henry also became King of Ireland in 1541. The church was initially restricted to Dublin, driven by its bishop, George Browne. The pace of reform in quickened after 1547 under Edward VI, ended when his sister Mary I restored Catholicism in 1558; her reign was largely characterised by inertia.[12]

When Elizabeth succeeded Mary in 1558, only five Irish bishops accepted the 1560 Elizabethan Settlement, leaving the new administration with little alternative but to replace the vast majority.[13] This replacement was complicated by the relative poverty of the Church compared to its Catholic predecessor, its lack of Irish-speaking clergy and the poor reputation of others. For example, Hugh Curwen backed the reforms of Henry and Edward, but accepted appointment as Catholic Archbishop of Dublin in 1555 by Mary, then became a Protestant under Elizabeth and was later charged with moral delinquency by Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Armagh.

The project to convert the native Irish met with limited success in the 16th century, since

A gradualist policy was adopted, similar to that used for Catholic areas in Northern England, leading to "church papist" clergy and laity.[15] This permitted nominal conformance with the established Church "whilst continuing to the traditional, pre-Reformation manner". Officially abandoned in 1603, the practice of 'occasional conformity' persisted in both England and Ireland well into the mid-18th century.[16]

The first translation of the New Testament into Irish Gaelic was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory. This was continued after his death in 1585 by his assistant, John Kearny, and Nehemiah Donnellan, Archbishop of Tuam, completed by Donnellan's successor William Daniel and printed in 1602. A translation of the Old Testament was prepared by William Bedel, Bishop of Kilmore (1571–1642), but not published until 1685 in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713), Archbishop of Dublin.[17][18] William Daniel also translated the Book of Common Prayer in 1606, while an Irish version of the revised 1662 prayer book was published in 1712 by John Richardson (1664–1747).

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Church was largely confined to the English-speaking minority in The Pale. The Irish majority remained Catholic and Scots settlers in Ulster were initially members of the Church of Ireland, but from the 1640s established an independent Presbyterian church. Clergy continued to be imported, but there were also Irish born ministers, such as the church of Ireland's leading theologian and historian, James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh from 1625 to 1656. In 1615 the Church of Ireland drew up its own confession of faith. Similar to the Church of England's 39 Articles, they were more detailed, less ambiguous and often explicitly Calvinist.[19] When the 39 Articles were formally adopted in 1634, Ussher ensured they were in addition to the Irish Articles, not a replacement, but the latter soon fell by the wayside and the Thirty Nine Articles remain the confession of the Church to the present day.[20]

Under Charles I, the Church of Ireland claimed to be the original and universal church, while the Papacy was an innovation, thus vesting it with the supremacy of Apostolic succession.[21] While Rome naturally disputed this interpretation, advocates included Ussher himself and Charles' former personal chaplain John Leslie, a key supporter of Caroline reforms in Scotland who was appointed bishop of Derry & Raphoe in 1633.[22]

During the 1641–1653 Irish Confederate Wars, nearly two-thirds of Ireland was controlled by the largely Catholic Confederacy. In 1644, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini became Papal Nuncio to Ireland; however, the Confederacy also included significant numbers of Royalist members of the Church of Ireland while Irish Catholicism had developed greater tolerance for Protestants and hostility to elaborate ritual. Rinuccini's refusal to compromise with the Church of Ireland and the re-introduction of ceremonies such as foot washing divided the Confederacy and contributed to its rapid collapse in the 1649-1652 Cromwell's re-conquest of Ireland.[23]

The church was re-established after the 1660 Restoration of Charles II and in January 1661, meetings by 'Papists, Presbyterians, Independents or separatists' were made illegal.[24] In practice, the penal laws were loosely enforced and after 1666, Protestant Dissenters and Catholics were allowed to resume their seats in the Parliament of Ireland.

In 1685, the Catholic James II became king with considerable backing in all three kingdoms; this changed when his policies seemed to go beyond tolerance for Catholicism and into an attack on the established church. His prosecution of the Seven Bishops in England for seditious libel in June 1688 destroyed his support base, while many felt James lost his right to govern by ignoring his coronation Oath to maintain the primacy of the Protestant religion.[25]

This made oaths a high profile issue, since ministers of the national churches of England, Scotland and Ireland were required to swear allegiance to the ruling monarch. When the 1688 Glorious Revolution replaced James with his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary II and William III, a minority felt bound by their previous oath and refused to swear another. This led to the Non-Juring schism, although for the vast majority, this was a matter of personal conscience, rather than political support for James.[26]

The Irish church was less affected by this controversy, although the Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh became a Non-Juror, as did a handful of the clergy, including Jacobite propagandist Charles Leslie.[27] The Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland is traditionally viewed as beginning in 1691 when the Treaty of Limerick ended the 1689-1691 Williamite War. The Church re-established control and the 1697 Bishop's Banishment Act expelled Catholic bishops and regular clergy from Ireland, leaving only the so-called secular clergy.[28]

In 1704, the Test Act was extended to Ireland; this effectively restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland and officially remained in place until the 1829 Catholic Relief Act. However, the practice of occasional conformity continued, while many Catholic gentry by-passed these restrictions by educating their sons as Protestants, their daughters as Catholics; Edmund Burke is one example.[29]

It is estimated fewer than 15 - 20% of the Irish population were nominally members of the church, which remained a minority under pressure from both Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists. The 1719 Toleration Act allowed Nonconformists freedom of worship, while the Irish Parliament paid their ministers a small subsidy known as the 'regium donum.'[30]

Although willing to permit a degree of flexibility, like their English counterparts, Irish bishops viewed their status as the national church to be non-negotiable and used their seats in the Irish House of Lords to enforce this. However, in 1725 Parliament passed the first in a series of 'temporary' Indemnity Acts, which allowed office holders to 'postpone' taking the oaths; the bishops were willing to approve these, since they could be repealed at any point.[31]

In the 17th century, religious and political beliefs were often assumed to be the same; thus Catholics were considered political subversives, simply because of their religion. During the 18th century, sectarian divisions were replaced by a growing sense of Irish autonomy; in 1749, Bishop Berkeley issued an address to the Catholic clergy, urging them to work together with the church in the (Irish) national interest.[32] After 1750, the government increasingly viewed Catholic emancipation as a way to reduce the power of Protestant nationalists like the United Irishmen; this had potential implications for the church since the requirement non-church members pay tithes was deeply resented.[33] Ironically, the movement ended with the largely non-sectarian 1798 Irish Rebellion and the resulting incorporation of Ireland and England.

Following the legal union of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain by the Act of Union 1800, the Church of Ireland was also united with the Church of England to form the United Church of England and Ireland. At the same time, one archbishop and three bishops from Ireland (selected by rotation) were given seats in the House of Lords at Westminster, joining the two archbishops and twenty-four bishops from the Church of England.

The Irish Church was over-staffed, with 22 bishops, including 4 archbishops, for an official membership of 852,000, less than that of the Church of England's Diocese of Durham. The 1833 Irish Church Temporalities Bill reduced these to 12, as well as making financial changes. Part of a series of reforms by the 1830-1834 Whig government that included the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act, it caused deep political splits. The implications of government legislating church governance was a contributory factor in the Oxford Movement and had wide repercussions for the Anglican Communion.[34]

Another source of resentment was the funding of the Church by tithes imposed on all Irish subjects, even though the majority were not members. This led to anomalies like the incumbent of a living near Bessborough, who in 1833 was receiving £1,000 per year, despite the fact the parish had no Protestants or even a church.[35] The "Tithe War" of 1831–36 led to their replacement by the tithe rent charge but they did not entirely disappear until the Irish Church Act 1869.

The Act ended the Church's status as a state organisation; its bishops were removed from the House of Lords and its property transferred to the government. Compensation was paid but in the immediate aftermath, parishes faced great difficulty in local financing after the loss of rent-generating lands and buildings.[36]


The head of the Church of Ireland is, ex officio, the Archbishop of Armagh. In 1870, immediately prior to its disestablishment, the Church provided for its internal government, led by a General Synod, and with financial and administrative support by a Representative Church Body. Like other Irish churches, the Church of Ireland did not divide when Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s and it continues to be governed on an all-Ireland basis.

The polity of the Church of Ireland is episcopal church governance, as in other Anglican churches. The church maintains the traditional structure dating to pre-Reformation times, a system of geographical parishes organised into dioceses. There were more than 30 of these historically, grouped into four provinces; today, after consolidation over the centuries, there are 12 Church of Ireland dioceses or united dioceses, each headed by a bishop and belonging to one of two surviving provinces.

The leader of the southern province is the Archbishop of Dublin, at present Michael Jackson; that of the northern province is the Archbishop of Armagh, at present Richard Clarke. These two archbishops are styled Primate of Ireland and Primate of All Ireland respectively, suggesting the ultimate seniority of the latter. Although he has relatively little absolute authority, the Archbishop of Armagh is respected as the church's general leader and spokesman, and is elected in a process different from those for all other bishops.

Doctrine, canon law, church governance, church policy, and liturgical matters are decided by the church's general synod. The general synod comprises two houses, the House of Bishops and the House of Representatives. The House of Bishops includes the 10 diocesan bishops and two archbishops, forming one order. The House of Representatives is made up of two orders, clergy and laity. The order of clergy holds one third of the seats while the laity holds two thirds of the seats.[37] As of 2017, there are 216 clergy members and 432 lay members in the House of Representatives.[38] The membership of the House of Representatives is made up of delegates from the dioceses, with seats allocated to each diocese's clergy and laity in specific numbers; these delegates are elected every three years.[39]

The general synod meets annually, and special meetings can be called by the leading bishop or one third of any of its orders.[40]

Changes in policy must be passed by a simple majority of both the House of Bishops and the House of Representatives. Changes to doctrine, for example the decision to ordain women as priests, must be passed by a two thirds majority of both Houses.

The two houses sit together for general deliberations but separate for some discussions and for voting. While the House of Representatives always votes publicly, often by orders, the House of Bishops has tended to vote in private, coming to a decision before matters reach the floor of the synod. This practice has been broken only once when, in 1999, the House of Bishops voted unanimously in public to endorse the efforts of the Archbishop of Armagh, the Diocese of Armagh and the Standing Committee of the General Synod in their attempts to resolve the crisis at the Church of the Ascension at Drumcree near Portadown.[41]

The church's internal laws are formulated as bills proposed to the Houses of the general synod, which when passed become Statutes. The church's governing document, its constitution, is modified, consolidated and published by way of statute also, the most recent edition, the 13th, being published in 2003.

The representative body of the Church of Ireland, often called the "Representative Church Body" (RCB), is the corporate trustee of the church, as established by law, and much of the church's property is vested in it. The members of the RCB are the bishops plus diocesan delegates and twelve co-opted members, and it meets at least four times a year. The staff of the representative body are analogous to clerical civil servants, and among other duties they oversee property, including church buildings, cemeteries and investments, administer some salaries and pensions, and manage the church library. While parishes, dioceses, and other parts of the church structure care for their particular properties, this is often subject to RCB rules.[42]

The Church of Ireland embraces three orders of ministry: deacons, priests (or presbyters) and bishops. These orders are distinct from positions such as rector, vicar or canon.

Each diocese or united diocese is led by its Ordinary, one of the ten bishops and two archbishops, and the Ordinary may have one or more Archdeacons to support them, along with a Rural Dean for each group of parishes. There is a diocesan synod for each diocese; there may be separate synods for historic dioceses now in unions. These synods comprise the bishop along with clergy and lay representatives from the parishes, and subject to the laws of the church, and the work of the general synod and its committees and the representative body and its committees, oversee the operation of the diocese. Each diocesan synod in turn appoints a diocesan council to which it can delegate powers.

Each parish has a presiding member of the clergy, assisted by two churchwardens and often also two glebewardens, one of each type of warden being appointed by the clerical incumbent, and one by popular vote. All qualified adult members of the parish comprise the general vestry, which meets annually, within 20 days each side of Easter, as the Easter Vestry. There is also a select vestry for the parish, or sometimes for each active church in a parish, comprising the presiding cleric and any curate assistants, along with relevant churchwardens and glebewardens and a number of members elected at the Easter Vestry meeting. The select vestry assists in the care and operation of the parish and one or more church buildings.

Special provisions apply to the management and operation of five key cathedrals, in Dublin, Armagh, Down and Belfast.

The church has disciplinary and appeals tribunals, and diocesan courts, and a court of the general synod.


The Church of Ireland experienced a major decline in membership during the 20th century, both in Northern Ireland, where around 65% of its members live, and in the Republic of Ireland. The church is still the second-largest in the Republic of Ireland, with around 126,400 members in 2016 (minus 2% compared to the 2011 census results)[43] and the third-largest in Northern Ireland, with around 260,000 members.[44][45]

The Church of Ireland has two cathedrals in Dublin: within the line of the walls of the old city is Christ Church Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Dublin, and just outside the old walls is St. Patrick's Cathedral, which the church designated as the National Cathedral for Ireland in 1870. Cathedrals also exist in the other dioceses.

There is also the metropolitan cathedral church of Ireland, situated in Armagh, St Patrick's Cathedral. This Cathedral is the seat of Archbishop and Metropolitan The most reverend Richard Clarke

The church's central offices are in Rathmines, adjacent to the former Church of Ireland College of Education, and the Church's library is in Churchtown. Teacher training now occurs within the Dublin City University Institute of Education, overseen by the Church of Ireland Centre, based at the former All Hallows College. The church operates a seminary, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, in Rathgar, in the south inner suburbs of Dublin.

The churches of the Anglican Communion are linked by affection and common loyalty. They are in full communion with the See of Canterbury and thus the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his person, is a unique focus of Anglican unity. He calls the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, chairs the meeting of Primates, and is President of the Anglican Consultative Council.[46] The contemporary Church of Ireland, despite having a number of High Church (often described as Anglo-Catholic) parishes, is generally on the Low Church end of the spectrum of world Anglicanism. Historically, it had little of the difference in organisation between parishes characteristic of other Anglican provinces, although a number of markedly liberal, High Church or Evangelical parishes have developed in recent decades. It was the second province of the Anglican Communion after the Anglican Church of New Zealand (1857) to adopt, on its 1871 disestablishment, synodical government. It was also one of the first provinces to begin ordaining women to the priesthood (1991).

GAFCON Ireland was launched on 21 April 2018, in Belfast, with 320 attendees from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. International speakers included Archbishops Peter Jensen, retired Archbishop of Sydney, and Gregory Venables, Primate of the Anglican Church of South America.[47] The Church of Ireland was represented at GAFCON III, held on 17-22 June 2018 in Jerusalem, by a six-member delegation, which included two bishops, Ferran Glenfield, of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh, and Harold Miller, of Down and Dromore.[48][49]

Like many other Anglican churches, the Church of Ireland is a member of many ecumenical bodies, including the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches. It is also a member of the Porvoo Communion.

In 1999[50], the church voted to prohibit the flying of flags other than St Patrick's flag and the Flag of the Anglican Communion.[51] However, the Union Flag continues to fly on many churches in Northern Ireland.

The church has an official website. Its journal is The Church of Ireland Gazette, which is editorially independent, but the governing body of which is appointed by the Church. Many parishes and other internal organizations also produce newsletters or other publications, as well as maintaining websites.

Doctrine and practice

The centre of the Church of Ireland's teaching is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The basic teachings of the church include:

The 16th-century apologist, Richard Hooker, posits that there are three sources of authority in Anglicanism: scripture, tradition and reason. It is not known how widely accepted this idea is within Anglicanism. It is further posited that the three sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way. In Hooker's model, scripture is the primary means of arriving at doctrine; things stated plainly in scripture are accepted as true. Issues that are ambiguous are determined by tradition, which is checked by reason.[52]

In recent decades, the church has ordained women to all offices. In 1990 the church began ordaining women to the priesthood.[53] The first two women ordained were Kathleen Margaret Brown and Irene Templeton. In 2013, the church appointed its first woman bishop, Pat Storey.[54]

The church has been divided over aspects of human sexuality. In 2002, the issue became pertinent as a vicar provided a blessing for a lesbian couple.[55] The denomination announced a period of discernment to allocate time to the perspectives within the discussion. In 2010, a congregation was recognised by the church for receiving an LGBTI award for offering services for LGBTI people.[56]

Civil partnerships have been allowed since 2005. The church has no official position on civil unions.[57] In 2008, "the Church of Ireland Pensions Board ha[d] confirmed that it will treat civil partners the same as spouses."[58] In 2011, a cleric in the Church of Ireland entered into a same-sex civil partnership with his bishop's permission.[59][60] Assurances of sexual abstinence were not required from the cleric.[61] In 2012, the church's Clergy Pension Fund continued to recognise that "the pension entitlement of a member's registered civil partner will be the same as that of a surviving spouse."[62] Regarding cohabitation, the church said that "any view of cohabitation has to be the intention of the couple to lifelong loyalty and faithfulness within their relationship."[63] In 2004, then Archbishop John Neill said that the "Church would support the extension of legal rights on issues such as tax, welfare benefits, inheritance and hospital visits to cohabiting couples, both same gender and others."[64] The church recognises four general viewpoints within the denomination ranging from opposition to acceptance toward same-gender relationships.[65]

Prior to the referendum on same-sex marriage, the church remained neutral on the issue.[66] In 2015, the Bishop of Cork, the Rt. Rev. Paul Colton,[67] Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel,[68] and two retired archbishops of Dublin endorsed same-sex marriage.[69] While voting "no" on gay marriage, Bishop Pat Storey endorsed civil unions.[70] Also, 55 clergy signed a letter supporting the blessing of same-sex couples.[71] In its pastoral letter, the church reiterated that, presently, church marriages are only for heterosexual couples, but that clergy may offer prayers for same-sex couples.[72] When asked about clergy entering into civil same-sex marriages, the letter stated that "all are free to exercise their democratic entitlements once they are enshrined in legislation. However, members of the clergy, are further bound by the Ordinal and by the authority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland."[72] Services of Thanksgiving for same-sex marriage have taken place in congregations; for example, St. Audoen's Church hosted "a service of thanksgiving" for same-sex marriage.[73] LGBTI services are also allowed by the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.[74]

REFORM Ireland, a conservative lobby, has criticised the official letter as "a dangerous departure from confessing Anglicanism" and continues to oppose same-sex marriage recognition.[75] Reflecting division, the church deferred its report on same-sex marriage to listen to all voices.[76] The Church of Ireland Gazette, although "editorially independent", endorsed a blessing rite for same-sex couples.[77] Many congregations, including cathedrals, have become publicly affirming of LGBTI rights.[78] A church report has determined that "the moral logic underpinning the negative portrayal of same-sex eroticism in Scripture does not directly address committed, loving, consecrated same-sex relationships today".[79][80] In 2017, the General Synod considered a proposal to request for public services of thanksgiving for same-sex couples, but the proposal was not passed; the church's select committee on human sexuality recommended that the bishops continue to study the issues.[81] There were 176 votes against the motion to request public services, 146 in favour, and 24 abstentions.[82] The Bishop of Cork, Paul Colton, declared his support for same-sex marriage ceremonies in the Church of Ireland.[83]

The first translation of the Book of Common Prayer into Irish was published in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was published in 1712.

The Church of Ireland has its own Irish language body, Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise ("Irish Guild of the Church" - [90] ). This was founded in 1914 to bring together members of the Church of Ireland interested in the Irish language and Gaelic culture and to promote the Irish language within the Church of Ireland. The guild aims to link its programmes with the Irish language initiatives which have been centred round Christ Church Cathedral. It holds services twice a month in Irish.[84]

From 1926 to 1995, the church had its own Irish-language teacher training college, Coláiste Moibhí. Today, there are a number of interdenominational Gaelscoileanna (schools where Irish-medium education is applied).

See also

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