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Church of Ireland

Background Information

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The Church of Ireland ( Irish: Eaglais na hÉireann) is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion, operating seamlessly across the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Like other Anglican churches, it considers itself to be both Catholic and Reformed. In fact, in the Preamble and Declaration affixed to its constitution, it is identified as "the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland" and "a reformed and Protestant Church".

When the Church in England broke with the Pope and communion with the Roman Catholic Church, the Church in Ireland likewise underwent reformation, with those adhering to the new rules becoming the State Church and holding possession of official Church property, even as doctrine was changed, while the majority of the population remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and continue to do so to this day. As the reformed Church of Ireland took possession of practically all official Church property, it retains a great repository of religious architecture and other items.

Despite its numerical minority, however, the Church of Ireland remained the official state church until it was disestablished on 1 January 1871, by the Liberal government under William Gladstone.

Today the Church of Ireland is, after the Roman Catholic Church, the second-largest church in the island of Ireland. It is governed by a General Synod of clergy and laity and organized into twelve dioceses. It is led by the Archbishop of Armagh (styled " Primate of All Ireland"), at present the Most Reverend Dr Alan Harper; the church's other archbishop is the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Dr. John Neill.


Early history

The Church of Ireland traces its origins back to the missions of Saint Patrick. As a monastically-centered institution, the early Celtic Church of Ireland had a unique calendar and usages, but was a full part of the wider Western Church, but with links to the Coptic and Syriac churches.

In 1166, basing his action on the Papal Bull Laudabiliter, which was claimed to give him lordship over Ireland, Henry II of England invaded Ireland and in 1171 made himself Lord of Ireland.

Reformation and beyond

In 1536, during the Reformation, Henry VIII was named the head of the Irish church by the Irish Parliament. When the Church of England was reformed under Edward VI so too was the Church of Ireland. All but two of the Irish bishops accepted the Elizabethan Settlement and there is continuity and Apostolic succession in the Church of Ireland, separate from that of the Church of England and the doubts raised by Roman Catholics re the validity of the form and intention in consecrating of Matthew Parker as archbishop of Canterbury (i.e. the English didn't have Rome's permission and didn't do it the way Rome did consecrations). However 2 of the 4 bishops who consecrated Parker had themselves been consecrated in the 1530s using the Roman Pontifical.

The established church in Ireland underwent a period of more radical Calvinist doctrine than occurred in England. James Ussher (later Archbishop of Armagh) authored the Irish Articles, adopted in 1615. In 1634 the Irish Convocation adopted the English Thirty-Nine Articles alongside the Irish Articles. After the Restoration of 1660, it seems that the Thirty-Nine Articles took precedence, and remain the official doctrine of the Church of Ireland even after disestablishment.

The Church of Ireland undertook the first publication of Scripture in Irish. The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until his untimely death in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Dr. Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam, and it was finally completed by William O'Domhnuill (William Daniell, Archbishop of Tuam in succession to Donellan). Their work was printed in 1602. The work of translating the Old Testament was undertaken by William Bedel (1571-1642), Bishop of Kilmore, who completed his translation within the reign of Charles I, although it was not published until 1680 (in a revised version by Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713), Archbishop of Dublin). William Bedell had undertaken a translation of the Book of Common Prayer in 1606. An Irish translation of the revised prayer book of 1662 was effected by John Richardson (1664 - 1747) and published in 1712.

The English-speaking minority mostly adhered to the Church of Ireland or to Presbyterianism and the Irish-speaking majority remained faithful to the Latin liturgy of Roman Catholicism, which remained the majority denomination in Ireland.

From the birth of the United Kingdom

The Dublin area saw many churches like Saint Stephen's, built in the Georgian style during the 18th century.

As before the Reformation, some clergymen of the Church of Ireland sat as Lords Spiritual in the Irish House of Lords; under the provisions of the Act of Union 1800, one archbishop and three bishops chosen by rotation would be Lords Spiritual in the newly united United Kingdom House of Lords in Westminster, joining the two archbishops (Canterbury and York) and the twenty-four bishops from the Church of England.

In 1833 the British Government proposed the Irish Church Measure to reduce the 22 archbishops and bishops who oversaw the Anglican minority in Ireland to a total of 12 by amalgamating sees and to use the revenues saved for the use of parishes. This sparked the Oxford Movement which was to have wide repercussions for the Anglican Communion.

As the official established church, the Church of Ireland was funded partially by tithes imposed on all Irish citizens, irrespective of the fact that it counted only a minority of the populace among its adherents; these were a source of much resentment which occasionally boiled over, as in the " Tithe War" of 1831-36. Eventually, the tithes were ended, replaced with a lower levy called the tithe rentcharge. The Irish Church Disestablishment Act 1869 came into effect in 1871 and ended the role of the Church of Ireland as state church. This terminated both state support and parliamentary authority over its governance, and taking into government ownership much church property. Compensation was provided to clergy, but many parishes faced great difficulty in local financing after the loss of rent-generating lands and buildings. The Church of Ireland made provision in 1870 for its own government, led by the General Synod, and financial management by the Representative Church Body. With disestablishment, the last remnant of tithes were abolished and the church's representation in the House of Lords also ceased.

Like other Irish churches, the Church of Ireland did not divide when Ireland was partitioned in 1920, and continues to be governed on an all-island basis.

The Church today

Saul church, a modern replica of an early church with a round tower, is built on the reputed spot of St Patrick's first church in Ireland.

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 churchmanship 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, and was one of the first provinces to ordain women to the priesthood, in 1991.

The Church of Ireland has two cathedrals in Dublin: within 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 a National Cathedral for Ireland in 1870. Cathedrals also exist in the other dioceses. The church operates a seminary, the Church of Ireland Theological College, in Rathgar, in the south inner suburbs of Dublin, and the church's central offices are in Rathmines, adjacent to the Church of Ireland College of Education.


The Church of Ireland experienced major decline during the 20th century, both in Northern Ireland, where 75% of its members live, and in the Republic of Ireland. However, the Church of Ireland in the Republic has shown substantial growth in the last two national censuses and its membership is now back to the levels of sixty years ago. There are various reasons for this. One is the relaxation of the Ne Temere regulations, which stipulated that children of mixed Roman Catholic-Protestant marriages should be brought up as Roman Catholics. It is also partly explained by the number of Anglican immigrants who have moved to Ireland recently. In addition, some parishes, especially in middle-class areas of the larger cities, report significant numbers of Roman Catholics joining . A number of clergy originally ordained in the Roman Catholic Church have now become Church of Ireland clergy and many former Roman Catholics also put themselves forward for ordination after they have become members of the Church of Ireland .

The 2006 Census in the Republic of Ireland showed that the numbers of people describing themselves as members of the Church of Ireland increased in every county. The highest percentage growth was in the west (Counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon) and the largest numerical growth was in the mid-east region (Wicklow, Kildare and Meath). Co Wicklow is the county with the highest proportion of Church of Ireland members (6.88%) and Greystones Co. Wicklow has the highest proportion of any town (9.77%).

In 2007 twenty candidates were ordained into the Church of Ireland, as opposed to only nine Roman Catholic priests in the Republic.


The polity of the Church of Ireland is Episcopalian church governance, which is the same as other Anglican churches. The church maintains the traditional structure dating to pre-Reformation times, a system of geographical parishes organized into dioceses. There are twelve of these, each headed by a bishop. The leader of the five southern bishops is the Archbishop of Dublin; that of the seven northern ones the Archbishop of Armagh; these 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.

Canon law and church policy are decided by the church's General Synod, and changes in policy must be passed by both the House of Bishops and the House of Representatives (Clergy and Laity). Important changes, e.g. the decision to ordain female priests, must be passed by two-thirds majorities. 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 of the Church of Ireland in their attempts to resolve the crisis at the Church of the Ascension at Drumcree, near Portadown.

Worship and liturgy

The Church of Ireland embraces three orders of ministry: deacon, priest or presbyter and bishop.

Book of Common Prayer

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

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:

  • Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God in one person. He died and was resurrected from the dead.
  • Jesus provides the way of eternal life for those who believe.
  • The Old and New Testaments of the Bible ("God's Word written") were written by people "under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit". The Apocrypha are additional books that are to be read, but not to determine doctrine.
  • The two great and necessary sacraments are Holy Baptism and The Lord's Supper/Holy Communion/ the Eucharist
  • Those "Commonly called Sacraments that are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel" are confirmation, ordination, marriage, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.
  • Belief in heaven, hell, and Jesus's return in glory.

The threefold sources of authority in Anglicanism are scripture, tradition, and reason. These three sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way. This balance of scripture, tradition and reason is traced to the work of Richard Hooker, a sixteenth century apologist. In Hooker's model, scripture is the primary means of arriving at doctrine and things stated plainly in scripture are accepted as true. Issues that are ambiguous are determined by tradition, which is checked by reason.

Ecumenical relations

Like many other Anglican churches, the Church of Ireland is a member of many ecumenical bodies, including the World Council of Churches and the Irish Council of Churches. They are also a member of the Porvoo Communion.

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