The Church of Ireland traces its history to the early Irish Church founded by St Patrick, which was primarily monastic in nature but gradually took shape as a diocesan structure took shape with bishops assuming increasing authority.
In 1534, the English Parliament declared King Henry VIII to be 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; Henry VIII was Lord of Ireland at that time and was subsequently styled King of Ireland from 1542 onwards.
Initially the dispute was a jurisdictional one and while Henry desired independence from the Papacy, he was theologically catholic. However, two of Henry VIII’s successors, King Edward VI (1547–1553) and Queen 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, and 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 that it was the authentic successor of the pre–Reformation Irish Church. The Plantations of Ulster in 1610 saw the introduction of Presbyterianism to the island of 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 1869, which took effect in 1871. 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 624 elected clergypersons and lay members, along with the bishops of the Church. The Church of Ireland was one of the first Anglican Churches to adopt this form of government, which was to prove a model for other Anglican denominations around the world. The Irish Church Act also provided for a Representative Church Body (RCB), consisting of elected clergy and laity, to manage the Church’s property and finances – a role which the RCB continues today.
The Church affirmed in its Preamble and Declaration (1870) that it would ‘set forward … quietness, peace and love among all Christian people’ and maintain communion with all other Christian Churches ‘agreeing in the principles of this Declaration’. In the 20th 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 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 such as the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) which seeks to learn about and address important theological differences between the Churches, the Porvoo Communion which links Anglican and Lutheran Churches in Europe, and formal dialogues with Reformed, Methodist and Old Catholic denominations.
In Ireland, a particularly important ecumenical development for the Church of Ireland has been the establishment of the Church of Ireland–Methodist Covenant in 2002. The Covenant looks forward to the ‘visible unity’ of the two Churches and considerable progress has been made regarding inter–changeability of ministry between them. Church of Ireland parishes have good neighbourly relations with Presbyterian congregations; the two Churches are the largest Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland.
Basis of belief
Members of the Church of Ireland are primarily disciples of Jesus Christ and worshippers of God the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
The 39 Articles of Religion, received and approved by the Church of Ireland in 1634, affirm the canonical books of the Old Testament and New Testament as Scripture. At a General Convention in 1870, at the time of disestablishment, the Church once again received and approved the 39 Articles, and declared Scripture to be given by inspiration of God, and containing all things necessary to salvation, and that the Church continued ‘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 receives and believes the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed and the creed of St Athanasius. A range of leaflets onaspects of the Church’s beliefs is available here.
Membership and geography
There are around 375,000 members of the Church of Ireland and the denomination has a presence in every county and city across the island of Ireland. Most members reside in Northern Ireland (particularly east of the Bann) – the 2011 Northern Ireland Census recorded 249,000 members of the Church living within the region; the 2016 Republic of Ireland census counted 126,000 members of the Church of Ireland. The Church has around 1,100 places of worship and around 450 ‘cures’ (or parish units) which may be either standalone parishes or groups or unions of parishes.
The National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland is St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The Church of Ireland Theological Institute and the head office for the Representative Church Body are both located in Dublin. Several other diocesan and central offices are located elsewhere in Ireland, including at Church of Ireland House, Belfast. St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, is a cathedral of the two largest dioceses in the Church – Connor and Down and Dromore – and lends its name to the city’s Cathedral Quarter.
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 the General Synod, which normally meets annually and comprises 648 elected members – 216 clerical members and 432 lay members – along with the 11 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
The Church’s liturgical prayer book is the Book of Common Prayer (newly revised in 2018) which contains the liturgy for public and private worship in both traditional and contemporary language. The Eucharist or Holy Communion is the central act of worship. There are a variety of ‘styles’ or ‘churchmanships’ 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 theChurch Hymnal (5th edition, 2000) being the main reference book for hymns, supplemented by Thanks & Praise (2015). Other special services are frequently undertaken with particular groups in mind (e.g. all–age worship, children’s and youth services).
What our Church does Monday–Saturday
Every part of the island of Ireland is covered by a Church of Ireland parish – a local context in which clergypersons, staff, volunteers and other parishioners love and serve Jesus Christ and their neighbours.
Every day, members of the Church seek to live out their Christian faith in their daily lives. Many parishes play an active role in their communities (from Sunday schools and youth clubs to Bible study groups, Mothers’ Union branches and senior citizens’ activities) and developing relationships with Christians of other denominations and with non–Christians.
The Church is directly involved in the management of many primary schools and several post–primary schools (mainly in the Republic of Ireland) and it contributes to the Christian ethos of state–controlled primary schools in Northern Ireland through transferor representatives on boards of governors and on the regional Education Authority. The name ‘transferor’ comes from the transfer of schools from Protestant Churches to the Northern Ireland Government in the mid–20th Century.
At a General Synod level, a number of elected committees and working groups of bishops, clergy and laity examine issues such as mission, youth and children’s ministry, international development, ecumenism and inter–faith matters, and the Church’s engagement with wider society (including with government in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Westminster) on behalf of the Church.
How to find out more
Our website is www.ireland.anglican.org