This week marks 150 years since the "disestablishment" of the Church of Ireland received royal assent from Queen Victoria, having passed through the necessary legislative processes in the Westminster parliament.
Disestablishment meant that the Church of Ireland was now made wholly independent of the Church of England. It was no longer the official state church (whereby church and state law were coterminous) and would receive no further public funding. Essentially it was left entirely to its own devices by the British state and by the Church of England, the latter with which it had been organically united since the Act of Union of 1800.
Disestablishment would not take final effect for a further 18 months (in order that the church could set about restructuring itself), but effectively the deed was done on July 26th, 1869.
Although the editor of the proceedings of a church convention, summoned in 1870 to construct the reorganisation of the Church of Ireland, wrote brightly that the church was now “free to shape her own future course”, very few of its members relished this unsought freedom.
There was a widespread uncertainty as to whether the church could possibly survive financially, and also a fully reasonable concern that it might fragment into different doctrinal and ecclesiastical factions.
For much of the following decade, the Church of Ireland sought to resolve these issues and underpin its future survival.
Lay members showed considerable financial generosity in contributing to the central funds of the church. This generosity was matched by many of the clergy who chose to allow a “commutation” of the totality of the income it was calculated they would individually be entitled to receive over the remainder of their ministry to be transferred into the central coffers of the church, as seed capital.
There was hence a genuine conviction that the disestablished Church of Ireland retained a God-given mission to proclaim the Gospel in its own particular comprehension of that message.
Although there was indeed good reason to believe that the church might quickly dissolve into competing sects, its newly created General Synod – representing laity, clergy and bishops – worked carefully if sometimes fractiously over the course of eight years. It coalesced around a determination that the definitive liturgy of the church would remain largely unchanged; this unquestionably had a major unifying effect on the mindset of the newly disestablished church.
In addition, the church had already resolved at its 1870 convention that it would conscientiously seek to maintain full communion with the Church of England.
This did not imply that the Church of Ireland was in any way subservient to the Church of England (or that its autonomy was not absolute), but it did demonstrate that the Church of Ireland did not wish to find its place outside a fledgling Anglican Communion of Churches.
We may also idly speculate that if disestablishment had not happened when it did, could the Church of Ireland have survived intact when its disestablishment would become unconditionally imperative with partition 50 years later?
The Church of Ireland has kept itself away from the metaphorical public square too readily
Although the immediate aftermath of disestablishment was indeed troublous for the church, it did regroup effectively. It may reasonably be suggested that it achieved this by placing a high priority, even subliminally, on its internal unity. In many respects, this has not greatly changed over the past 150 years – for better, for worse.
There have always been tensions within the Church of Ireland – some doctrinal and ecclesiological, some concerning ethos, and some relating to social and ethical behavioural principles.
Nor can it be doubted that the diverging cultures and sociopolitical realities of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (as it now is) over the century since partition have exacerbated some of the already existing pressures on the continuing cohesiveness of the church. However, for the most part, the Church of Ireland has always sought to find a consensus and to "stick together".
A tragic corollary has been that the Church of Ireland has also kept itself away from the metaphorical public square too readily and, in this regard, has had a conspicuously sparse engagement with political life, particularly in the Republic.
Rather than this being – as it might appear to be – simple timidity in the face of possible extinction, it is more probably derived from the aftermath of disestablishment, when the cohesion of the church became its greatest requirement. It then learned that it could have no worthwhile mission for Christ if it ever forfeited its essential interconnectedness.
The disestablished church has not, however, been entirely introspective nor have opportunities for ecclesiastical innovation been wholly renounced. The Church of Ireland has been at the very forefront of Anglican liturgical development. It provided legislation to permit (in particular circumstances) the marriage of divorced people in a church setting.
On the whole it has provided an authentic via media in ecumenical relationships and has been heavily engaged in international ecumenical commissions over many decades. And Ireland was the first of the Anglican churches in Europe to ordain women to the priesthood and to the episcopate.
Today we may reasonably celebrate 150 years of disestablishment, but only if we are now ready to show the same faith, courage and generosity our forebears epitomised in 1869 as we seek to shape our future course.
Archbishop Richard Clarke is Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland