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The Disestablishment of the Irish Church

Earl Russell

Above : Picture Of Earl Russell

Arrangements regarding the Property of the Church
Thus if the British Government selected the Irish Church Establishment as the grievance first to be attacked, its selection was certainly not due to any special insistence by the Irish themselves on this particular point. In 1867, Earl Russell moved for a Commission to enquire into the property of the Irish Church and its condition generally. Nothing was
said of Disestablishment, but the intention of the motion was obvious.The Commission was appointed, and in the following year made its report. The state of things revealed undoubtedly showed need for reform.

Of the 1,478 parishes into which Ireland was divided, only 181 showed a resident Protestant Episcopalian population exceeding 1,000; in 201 there were less than forty ; in ninety-one of these less than twenty of that creed. This last category included several parishes in which there was not a single Protestant. The incomes attached to most of the Sees were high, but those of the parochial clergy were the reverse. Some of the incumbents were very badly paid, and this was still more the case with the curates. The net income of the Established Church was declared to be £580,000 per annum; the value of its property £16,000,000.

There could be no doubt that a determined attack on the Establishment was intended. An attempt to unite all the Protestants of Ireland in defence of the menaced Church met with little success. The Dissenters; Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, and the rest could not easily or rapidly forget the treatment meted out to their ancestors by the ecclesiastical authorities of the Established creed, in the old days when the ascendancy of that creed was unchallenged, and the fierce opposition offered when the removal of any of their grievances was proposed. At most, they faintly opposed or remained silent. One very strong, and indeed unanswerable, argument the defenders of the Irish Church could certainly advance. The fifth article of the Act of Legislative Union had declared that the Churches of England and Ireland, as by law established, should be united into one Protestant Episcopal Church, and «« the continuance and preservation of the said United Church as the Established Church of England and Ireland shall be … an essential and fundamental part of the Union.

Logically the removal of a ” fundamental ” part of an Act would seem to invoi the rescinding ipso facto of the Act itself; so that, if the Establishing fell, the Union fell with it. For such reasonings the politicians who were resolved Disestablishment cared little. Times and circumstances changed they said, and laws must change with them.The fate of the Irish Church was one of the questions put before the electors at the General Elections of 1868, and when these resulted in the triumph of the Liberals, headed by Mr. Gladstone, the doom of that Church was sealed. In March, 1869, Gladstone introduced in the Commons his Bill for Disestablishment. Several long debates followed, and great eloquence was displayed on both sides ; but the majority of the Members evidently sided with the Government. In the Lords a stouter defence was made, and some of the spiritual peers fought a losing battle with spirit. It was, however, in vain. The Bill passed the Commons by an overwhelming majority, and the Upper House did not dare to oppose the people’s will.

The Act received the Royal Assent in July, 1869. An interval for the making of needful arrangements was accorded, and then, on January 1st, 1871, the Irish Reformed Church ceased, as a State Establishment, to exist.The task of dealing with the vast property of the late Establishment was handed over to a Commission. About half was formed into a fund to be used, as circumstances should determine, for charitable or educational purposes. The bulk of the remainder was to compensate the prelates, incumbents, curates and minor office-holders of the Church who were actually in possession, as well as the lay patrons of livings. A newly-created Board, ” The Church Representative Body,” dealt with the annuities, the capitalised value of which was passed over to them by the Commission.
Arrangements as to the amounts to be paid by each diocese and each parish for the support of its prelate and clergy, and for the upkeep of the churches are also made by this body. The doctrine and discipline of the Disestablished Church is under the care of a General Synod, consisting of an Upper and Lower House. In the former sit the archbishops and bishops ; in the latter, elected representatives of the lower clergy and of the laity.

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