Friday 26 July 2019

150 years ago today: Church of Ireland disestablished

On this day, 150 years ago, the Irish Church Act was passed into law, ending the Church of Ireland's long status as the 'state' church of the island.

To mark the anniversary, the RCB Library has published its August Archive of the Month a few days early in order to release an analysis by the historian Dr Miriam Moffitt of the Disestablishment as it happened and was reported in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette (now known as the Gazette).

The Church’s sense of betrayal following the
passage of the Irish Church Act is evident in
this editorial dated 21 August 1869.
Drawing on the rich resources of the digitized and freely searchable Church of Ireland Gazette, Dr Moffitt focuses on the period between the circulation of the draft Bill in January 1869 to its passage into law on 26 July and the following months, demonstrating how the news was reported and interpreted by the wider Church of Ireland community.

She comments: “Viewed from today’s perspective, the passage of the Irish Church Bill through both Houses of Parliament was inevitable but few people saw it that way in 1869. Many Irish Protestants accepted that, with a hefty majority of 110, Gladstone’s Liberal government could push through any legislation it chose through the Commons.

"They had, however, pinned their hopes on the House of Lords where they believed Conservative peers and bishops, under the leadership of the Belfastman Lord Cairns, would reject the Bill. However, although many of the Lords firmly opposed the Bill, they voted it through, and many of the English and Welsh bishops abstained.

“To have rejected it would have caused such a constitutional crisis that the future of the House of Lords would have been called into question. Members of the Lords could only save one skin – their own or the Church of Ireland’s. Unsurprisingly, they plumped for their own. The acquiescence of the Lords in late July was a bolt from the blue for members of the Church of Ireland who had been told repeatedly that Disestablishment would never happen. The legal status of the Church as the Established Church of the country was defined and guaranteed in Article 5 of the Act of Union of 1800. To disestablish it was to fly in the face of the constitution. It would, and could, never happen. Until it did.”

Other aspects of the story include the Church’s more public journey to re-structure itself in the post-established world. Dr Moffitt observes how most of the negotiations in Westminster were carried out by prominent laymen who were also pivotal in organising the governance systems of the disestablished Church.

The presentation, which also draws on other complementary resources available in the Library, once again reveals how looking through the lens of the Gazette can recover hidden aspects of the Church of Ireland's history. The digitised version of the Gazette from 1856 to 1949 is available to search, free, at