Church of Ireland

Church of Ireland
Church of Ireland
Church of Ireland logo.png

Logo of the Church of Ireland
Primate Alan Harper, Archbishop of Armagh (Church of Ireland)
Headquarters The See House,
Cathedral Close,
Northern Ireland,
BT61 7EE
Territory Ireland
Members 365,000[1]
Anglicanism Portal
St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh (Church of Ireland)

The Church of Ireland (Irish: Eaglais na hÉireann[2]) is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion. The church operates in all parts of Ireland and is the second largest religious body on the island after the Roman Catholic Church. Like other Anglican churches it has retained elements of pre-Reformation practice and is episcopal in polity, while rejecting papal authority and incorporating many of the theological and liturgical reforms of the Reformation and the English Reformation in particular; in this regard the church formally identifies as both Catholic and Reformed, though people within the church may identify themselves more strongly as one or the other. Unlike most other churches of the Anglican Communion, however, for particular historical and cultural reasons the Church of Ireland is generally identified as being a Protestant church.[3]



When the church in England broke communion from the Roman Catholic Church, all but two of the bishops of the Church in Ireland followed the Church of England,[citation needed]. The new body became the state church, assuming possession of most church property (and so retaining a great repository of religious architecture and other items, though some were later destroyed. Following the break with Rome the focus was that of the continuation of the Irish Celtic Church which remained independent of Rome until the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. This continues to be case and is reflected in the continuation of the celebration of Irish Saint Days which include St Patrick (March 17th), St Bridget (February 1st) and St Columba (June 6th). The Church of Ireland remained the official state church until it was disestablished on 1 January 1871 by the Liberal government under William Ewart Gladstone.

Today the Church of Ireland is, the second largest denomination in Ireland. In Northern Ireland, it is the third largest denomination, after the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches.


12th to 16th centuries

St. Malachy was one of the most influential reformist ecclesiastics in Ireland in the 12th century.
Maps of dioceses in Ireland as defined by the synod of Kells. From Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd.

The Irish church underwent major reforms during the 12th century. These reforms have been generally been interpreted as a reaction to previous secularisation, but could also be seen as a continuous development.[4] The reforms had consequences for, and were influenced by, relations within the church as well as secular politics.

Before the 11th century the church in Ireland was monastic, with bishops residing at monasteries and without a permanent diocesan structure. The circumstances surrounding the foundation of the diocese of Dublin early in the century are obscure, but at some point during the reign of Sithric Silkbeard Dúnán became Bishop of Dublin, thus establishing the first proper diocese in Ireland. His successor Gilla Pátraic was consecrated by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, and on that occasion Lanfranc sent letters to Toirdelbach Ua Briain and Gofraid urging reforms, in particular regarding the consecration of bishops and the abolition of simony. There is no evidence of Canterbury claiming primacy over the church in Ireland prior to this, and neither Lanfranc nor Anselm ever made direct primatial claims for Canterbury in relation to the Irish church.[5] Gilla received a letter from Anselm congratulating him on his elevation to the see of Limerick, and there was no suggestion that Anselm felt Canterbury had been slighted or ought to have been involved.[6]

The first of the four main synods main of the 12th century convened at Cashel, the seat of the Kings of Munster in 1101, at the instigation of Muirchertach Ua Briain. How many actually attended this synod is not known, but some of its decrees have been preserved. There is a decree on simony, on prohibition for laymen to become airchinnig (heads of ecclesiastical establishments) and finally a decree that defines what relationships are considered to be incestuous. None of these decrees are radical, but they are generally interpreted to be in line with the Gregorian reform.[7]

The second synod was the Synod of Rathbreasail. This synod, presided by Gilla Espaic[8] as papal legate and attended by fifty bishops, three hundred priests and over three thousand laymen, marked the transition of the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan and parish-based church. It established two provinces, with archbishoprics at Armagh and Cashel, and prominence given to Armagh, making Cellach the primate of the church in Ireland. Each province consisted of twelve territorial dioceses. The see of Dublin was not included, as this was under primacy from Canterbury,[note 1] but a place was left open for it, in the sense that only eleven dioceses were declared under Cashel.

Gilla, Cellach and Cellach's successor Máel Máedóc Ua Morgair, better known as St. Malachy, drove the reform process onwards. No formal attempts on getting papal approval for the structure chosen at Rathbreasail are known before Malachy sought pallia for the two incumbent archbishops at Cashel and Armagh. Malachy convened a synod at St Patrick's Island. The main challenge must have been to reach an accommodation with Dublin, and Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair, then the most powerful king in Ireland, was eager to increase Connacht influence on the church. The solution reached was to extend the number of metropolitan sees from two to four, with Tuam and Dublin included alongside Cashel and Armagh. Pope Eugene III appointed cardinal John Paparo as papal legate, and sent him to Ireland with pallia for the four archbishops. The Synod of Kells-Mellifont was convened in 1152, with Paparo presiding as papal legate. The decrees from the synod are longer extant, but some information is preserved through the Annals of the Four Masters[9] and Geoffrey Keatings Foras Feasa ar Éirinn. The main result of the synod was the official papal sanctioning of the episcopal structure as created in 1111 and refined in 1148. Ireland was divided into four ecclesiastical provinces each headed by a metropolitan archbishop.

While the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland retains four provinces, the Church of Ireland has only two provinces: Armagh and Dublin. This significant structural departure was necessitated in view of declining membership. Over the centuries a number of dioceses have shared a bishop with other dioceses and become united dioceses. The two remaining provinces, constituted into 12 dioceses, are governed in common by a General Synod of clergy and laity led by the Archbishop of Armagh (styled "Primate of All Ireland"), currently the Most Reverend Alan Harper; the church's other archbishop is the Archbishop of Dublin (styled "Primate of Ireland"), as of 2011 the Most Reverend Michael Jackson.

16th to 19th centuries

The Church of Ireland came into existence as a reformed church independent of the Roman Catholic Church in 1536 when the Irish Parliament declared Henry VIII to be the Supreme Head of the Church on earth (i.e. Head of the Church of Ireland). He would not legally become King of Ireland until 1541. Henry’s assumption of the title of King of Ireland had great ecclesio-political significance since the title Lord of Ireland implied a tacit acceptance of the Pope’s claim, (apparently) first made by Adrian IV, in the papal bull Laudabiliter of 1155, that Ireland was a papal fief. Adrian granted Henry II the Lordship of Ireland; thus, Henry’s assumption of the title of King had less to do with dispossessing the native Irish kings than with confronting the Pope. When the Church of England was reformed under King Edward VI of England, so too was the Church of Ireland. All but two of the Irish bishops accepted the Elizabethan Settlement,[citation needed] although the vast majority of priests and the church membership remained Roman Catholic. The Church of Ireland claims Apostolic succession because of the continuity in the hierarchy; however, this is disputed by the Roman Catholic Church which asserts that only those bishops approved by and in communion with the Holy See are legitimate.

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

"in order to convert the native Irish, it needed native ministers; but the supply of native ministers was meagre because the native Irish were unconverted"[10]

As a result, a gradualist policy towards ecclesiastical reform was adopted leading to "church papist" clergy and laity. In this way, they were able to nominally "conform to the established church whilst at the same time continuing to the traditional, pre-Reformation manner". Following the accession of King James I of England, this policy was abandoned.

The lack of success prompted an alternative strategy of importing reformed clergy from England and Scotland. Consequently, the church underwent a period of more radical Calvinist doctrine than occurred in England. In 1615 the Convocation of the Church of Ireland adopted 104 articles known as the Irish Articles. James Ussher (later Archbishop of Armagh) was their main author. Although these articles superficially resemble the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England they are in fact a great deal more detailed and much less ambiguous on many matters; they also represent a more thoroughgoing and explicit Calvinism than the 39 Articles. When the Irish Parliament adopted the 39 Articles in 1634 under pressure from the King and Archbishop Laud, Ussher ensured that the Church of Ireland in the Irish Convocation adopted them in addition to, not instead of, the Irish Articles. After the Restoration of 1660, it seems that the Thirty-Nine Articles took precedence; they remain the official doctrine of the Church of Ireland even after disestablishment.[11]

The Church of Ireland undertook the first publication of Scripture in the Irish language. The first Irish translation of the New Testament was begun by Nicholas Walsh, Bishop of Ossory, who worked on it until his death in 1585. The work was continued by John Kearny, his assistant, and Dr. Nehemiah Donellan, Archbishop of Tuam; 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.

Despite these translations, the Church of Ireland largely served The Pale and the plantations and failed to win support from the old Hiberno-Norman aristocracy, still less the native Irish, who saw it as an instrument of English occupation. The English-speaking minority mostly adhered to the Church of Ireland or to Presbyterianism, while the Irish-speaking majority remained faithful to the Latin liturgy of Roman Catholicism, which remained by far the majority denomination in Ireland.

19th to 20th centuries

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

When Ireland was incorporated in 1801 into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 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.

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 using the revenues saved for the use of parishes. This sparked the Oxford Movement,[citation needed] 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 subjects of the Crown. Irrespective of the fact that the adherents of the church were never more than a small minority of the populace, the population at large was expected to pay for its upkeep. Following the defeat of Catholic arms in 1691, no armed resistance was to be expected to this discriminatory policy. Nevertheless, peasant resentment of the tithes 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 last remnant of the tithes was not abolished until disestablishment in 1871.

The Irish Church Act 1869 (which took effect in 1871) finally ended the role of the Church of Ireland as state church. This terminated both state support and parliament's role in its governance, but also took into government ownership much church property. At the establishment of the state Church, no compensation was given to Catholic clergy by the state who suffered loss by the seizure of Church property; at its disestablishment, compensation was provided to clergy by the state. On both occasions, 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 a General Synod, and with financial management by a Representative Church Body. With disestablishment, 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 the 1920s. It continues to be governed on an all-Ireland basis.


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 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.[12] 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).

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 Institute, in Rathgar, in the south inner suburbs of Dublin. The church's central offices are in Rathmines, adjacent to the Church of Ireland College of Education, and the Church's library is in Churchtown.

Christ Church in Lisburn with the Union Flag flying on the left.

In 1999, the church voted to prohibit the flying of flags other than St Patrick's flag.[13] However, the Union Flag continues to fly on many churches in Northern Ireland.


The Church of Ireland experienced major decline during the 20th century, both in Northern Ireland, where around 65% of its members live, and in the Republic of Ireland which contains upwards of 35%. However, the Church of Ireland in the Republic has shown substantial growth in the last two national censuses; its membership is now back to the levels of sixty years ago (albeit with fewer churches as many have been closed). Church membership increased by 8.7% in the period 2002–2006, during which the population as a whole increased by only 8.2%.[14] Various reasons for this increase have been proposed. One is the relaxation of the Ne Temere regulations that 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 (mostly from the U.K. and Nigeria).

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 (Counties Wicklow, Kildare, and Meath). Co. Wicklow is the county with the highest proportion of Church of Ireland members (6.88%); Greystones Co. Wicklow has the highest proportion of any town (9.77%).


The polity of the Church of Ireland is episcopal 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 12 dioceses, each headed by a bishop. The leader of the five southern bishops is the Archbishop of Dublin; that of the seven northern bishops is the Archbishop of Armagh; they 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). Certain important changes, for example the decision to ordain women as priests, must be passed by a majority of two-thirds of both houses. 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.[15]

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.

Ecumenical relations

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.

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.[16] This may usefully be contrasted with the teachings of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches that place the emphasis on Sacred Tradition and Magisterium: reason is not listed as a source of authority or teaching in these churches.

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.

Irish language

The Church of Ireland has its own Irish language body, Cumann Gaelach na hEaglaise ("Irish Guild of the Church"). 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.[17]

From 1926 to 1995, the church had its own Irish-language teacher training college, Coláiste Moibhí.

See also


  1. ^ World Council of Churches
  2. ^ "Press release: An-ghairm ag seastán Chumann Gaelach na hEaglaise ag Ard Shionad Eaglais na hÉireann". Church of Ireland official website. Retrieved 25 July 2011.
  3. ^ Protestant and Catholic, APCK Study Leaflet, 1996
  4. ^ Hughes, The Irish Church, 800-c.1050, p. 655, note 70.
  5. ^ Flanagan, p. 913.
  6. ^ Flanagan, p. 915.
  7. ^ Holland, Cashel, synod of I (1101)
  8. ^ Holland, Gille (Gilbert) of Limerick
  9. ^ AFM 1152.4
  10. ^ Clarke, "Varieties of Uniformity", pg120.
  11. ^ Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume I. The History of Creeds. | Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  12. ^ Anglican Communion Official Website.
  13. ^ Flags of the World: St. Patrick's Flag as flag of Church of Ireland: "The General Synod of the Church of Ireland recognises that from time to time confusion and controversy have attended the flying of flags on church buildings or within the grounds of church buildings. This Synod therefore resolves that the only flags specifically authorised to be flown on church buildings or within the church grounds of the Church of Ireland are the cross of St Patrick or, alternatively, the flag of the Anglican Communion bearing the emblem of the Compassrose. Such flags are authorised to be flown only on Holy Days and during the Octaves of Christmas, Easter, the Ascension of Our Lord, Pentecost, and on any other such day as may be recognised locally as the Dedication Day of the particular church building. Any other flag flown at any other time is not specifically authorised by this Church...."
  14. ^ Republic of Ireland Central Statistics Office, Census 2006: Principal Demographic Results.
  15. ^ [1]
  16. ^ Anglican Listening Detail on how scripture, tradition and reason work to "uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way".
  17. ^ Church of Ireland Notes, page 2, Irish Times, 10 January 2009
  • Flanagan, Marie Therese (2005), "High-kings with opposition, 1072-1166", in Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí, Prehistoric and Early Ireland, A New History of Ireland, I, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 899–933, ISBN 0-19-922665-8 


  1. ^ The see of Waterford however, where the incumbent bishop Máel Ísu Ua hAinmire also had been consecrated in, and taken vows of obedience to, Canterbury, was moved to Lismore, and Máel Ísu chosen as the first archbishop of Cashel.

Further reading

  • Cross, F. L. (ed.) (1957) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: U. P.; pp. 700–701
  • Neill, Stephen (1965) Anglicanism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
  • MacCarthy, Robert Ancient and Modern: a short history of the Church of Ireland. Four Courts Press Ltd., 1995

External links

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