The Church of Ireland traces its history to the early Irish Church founded by St Patrick. The early Irish Church was primarily monastic in nature but gradually a diocesan structure took shape and bishops assumed increasing authority.
In 1534, the English Parliament declared Henry VIII head of the Church of England in response to the refusal of the Pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Two years later, the Irish Parliament declared him head of the Church of Ireland. Initially the dispute was a jurisdictional one and while Henry desired independence from the Papacy, he was theologically catholic. However, Henry VIII’s successors, Edward VI (1547–1553) and Elizabeth I (1558–1603) were more reform–minded and their reigns marked the introduction of Protestantism to both the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.
The reformation split the Irish church. The established Church of Ireland was protestant, state approved and supported. The Roman Catholic Church was regarded with hostility and suspicion by the authorities but nevertheless supported by the majority of the people, particularly outside Dublin, where the crown’s authority was weakest. Each church maintained it was the authentic successor of the pre–reformation Irish church. The plantations of Ulster in 1610 saw the introduction of Presbyterianism to Ireland. The fourth major Christian church in Ireland today, the Methodist church, dates from the first visit to Ireland by John Wesley in 1747.
Although a minority, the Church of Ireland remained the established Church until the UK Parliament’s passage of the Irish Church Act 1870. The Act disestablished the Church of Ireland and separated it from the Church of England. It also provided that the Church of Ireland would be self governing and have no connection with the crown or the state. To provide for its own government, the Church of Ireland created a General Synod, comprising about 650 elected clergy and laity, along with the bishops of the Church. The Church of Ireland was one of the first Anglican Churches to adopt this form of Government and it was to prove a model for Anglican churches worldwide. The Irish Church Act also provided for a ‘Representative Church Body’, consisting of elected clergy and laity to manage the Church’s property and finances and the ‘RCB’ continues to do this today.
In the twentieth century, ecumenism became an increasingly important part of the Church’s mission. Initially this was confined to relations with other protestant churches (in part through the Irish Council of Churches) but the second Vatican Council (1962–1965) had a positive effect on the relations between the protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Now, the development of good ecumenical relations and participation in ecumenical events (including worship) at all levels is a vital part of Church life. At an international level, Church of Ireland clergy and laity have also played an important role in groups like ARCIC (Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission) which seek to learn about and address important theological differences between the churches. In Ireland, a particularly important ecumenical development for the Church of Ireland has been the establishment of the Church of Ireland–Methodist Covenant. The Covenant looks forward to the ‘visible unity’ of the two Churches and considerable progress has been made towards inter–changeability of ministry between them.
Basis of belief
‘The Church of Ireland doth, as heretofore, accept and unfeignedly believe all the Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, as given by inspiration of God, and containing all things necessary to salvation; and doth continue to profess the faith of Christ as professed by the Primitive Church.’ (Preamble and Declaration, Constitution of the Church of Ireland)
As part of continuing to profess the faith ‘as professed by the Primitive Church’, the Church of Ireland accepts the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed and the creed of St Athanasius.
Approximate membership and geographical spread in Ireland.
There are just over 390,000 members of the Church of Ireland. There is a Church of Ireland presence throughout Ireland but most reside in Northern Ireland (particularly east of the Bann). According to the most recent censuses (both in 2011) there are 275,000 members of the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland and 129,039 members in the Republic of Ireland. We have approximately 1100 places of worhship in Ireland in about 600 parishes.
Our unique identifying qualities
The Church of Ireland has a unique heritage tracing its roots to the earliest days of Christianity in Ireland and retaining both catholic and reformed traditions. The diversity of liturgical traditions and ‘churchmanships’, while sometimes a source of disagreement, also provides a source of creative synergy and points of contact with Christians of other denominations.
How we are governed
The Church of Ireland is governed by a General Synod, which normally meets annually and comprises about 650 elected clergy and laity with the Bishops of the Church. Major decisions need the support of clergy, laity and bishops (sometimes by weighted majorities).
The Church is episcopally led with the Archbishop of Armagh (Primate of All Ireland) and the Archbishop of Dublin (Primate of Ireland) leading the ‘house of bishops’.
Each diocese is led by a bishop and governed by an elected Diocesan Council drawn from the clergy and laity of the diocese. Every year a Diocesan Synod discusses and reviews the work of the diocese.
At a parish level, each parish is governed by a select vestry elected by the parishioners and chaired by the incumbent priest (normally, but not always, called the Rector).
What to expect on a Sunday morning
The basic liturgical prayer book is the ‘Book of Common Prayer (2004)’ which contains the liturgy for public and private worship in both traditional and modern language. The Eucharist or Holy Communion is the central act of worship. There are a variety of ‘styles’ or ‘churchmanship’ encompassed within the Church of Ireland from ‘High Church’, which would place emphasis on sacrament and catholicity to ‘Low Church’, which would place more emphasis on scripture and preaching. There is also a strong emphasis on music throughout the Church with the Church Hymnal (5th Edition, 2000) being the main reference book for hymns. Other special services are frequently undertaken with particular groups in mind (eg All Age worship, children’s services etc.).
What our church does Monday–Saturday
Every day members of the Church attempt to live out their faith in their daily lives. Many parishes play an active role in providing services in their communities and developing relationships with Christians of other denominations and non–Christians.
At a General Synod level, a number of elected groups of bishops, clergy and laity examine issues such as ecumenism, children’s ministry and the Church’s engagement with wider society (including the Governments of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom) on behalf of the Church.
How to find out more
Our website is: www.ireland.anglican.org