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The Church of Ireland is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion, operating both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Claiming direct unbroken descent from the beginnings of Irish Christianity, it is the largest Protestant church on the island of Ireland and the second largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland. For historical reasons, it is responsible for much of the island's ancient built heritage.
The Church of Ireland would trace its origins to the ancient Celtic church founded by Patrick, before the Roman church order was introduced in Ireland after the Norman Invasion of 1171. In the sixteenth century it became the Irish sister of the Church of England, following the initial break between King Henry VIII and the Holy See, and the subsequent establishment of English state Protestantism under Henry's children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, the Church of Ireland became the Kingdom of Ireland's established church. Throughout it retained control of Ireland's ancient churches and cathedrals.
Some clergymen of the Church of Ireland were entitled to sit as Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords. Under the provisions of the 1801 Act of Union, one Archbishop and the three Bishops chosen by rotation would be Lords Spiritual, joining several bishops from the Church of England.
Though the religion of a minority of Irish people, it remained the official religion of Ireland until church disestablishment, facilitated by an Act of Parliament in 1869, came into effect in 1871. Prior to then, it had been funded by tithes or local taxes that all, whether Anglican or not, were obliged to pay to it. The representation of the Church in the House of Lords also ceased.
As a disestablished church, it made provision for its own government (General Synod) and financial management (Representative Church Body) in 1870. As with other Irish churches, it did not divide when Ireland was partitioned in 1920, and continues to be governed on an all-island basis, with twelve dioceses within two provinces (Armagh and Dublin).
The Church of Ireland today
The contemporary Church of Ireland, despite having a small number of High Church parishes, is on the moderately Protestant part of the spectrum of world Anglicanism. Historically, there was little of the difference in churchmanship between parishes characteristic of other Anglican Provinces, although a number of more markedly liberal, high church or evangelical Parishes have developed in the past generation. It was the first Province of the Anglican Communion to adopt synodical government, doing so at disestablishment in 1871 and was one of the first Provinces to ordain women to the priesthood in 1991.
The church itself is structured on a model inherited from pre-Reformation times. The Primate of All Ireland is the Archbishop of Armagh, whose seat is the mediaeval cathedral in that city. (There is also a Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and a Victorian Roman Catholic cathedral in the city.) The church is organised on diocesan or bishopric lines. Local parish clergy are usually, although not always, called rector. The Archbishop of Dublin, like his Catholic counterpart, is called the Primate of Ireland, in effect the most senior churchman in the Republic of Ireland.
Canon law and church policy is made by the Irish General Synod, and changes in policy must be passed by both the houses of Bishops, and the House of Representatives (Clergy and Laity). Important Changes, e.g. ordaining women priests, must be passed by two-thirds majorities. While the House of Representatives always votes publicly, often by orders, the House of Bishops has tended to come to vote in private, coming to a decision before matters reach the floor of Synod. This unwritten rule has been broken only once, in 1999 when the House of Bishops voted unanimously in public to condemn the violence at the Church of the Ascension in Drumcree.
The Church of Ireland experienced major decline in Ireland during the 20th Century. Its numbers have dropped significantly in Northern Ireland, where its members now account for only 15% of the population. In the Republic of Ireland, its numbers dwindled dramatically; however, the 2002 Irish census showed an unexpected increase of 30% in the Church of Ireland's membership in the Republic, the first in almost a century. This is partly explained by the large number of Anglican immigrants who moved to Ireland, particularly from Africa, although some Parishes, especially in middle-class areas of the larger cities, report a significant number of formerly Roman Catholic members joining.
The Church has two cathedrals in Dublin, located within the walls of the old city, Christ Church Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop, and just outside the old walls, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the National Cathedral of Ireland.
In recent decades the Church has closed many of its country churches and some historic churches in towns and cities, and ancient buildings such as bishops' palaces have been sold.
Prominent Irish Anglicans
Prominent members of the Church of Ireland include or have included
- James Ussher - scholar, Archbishop of Armagh
- Edmund Burke - statesman and philosopher
- C. S. Lewis - scholar, author, Christian apologist
- Douglas Hyde - first President of Ireland
- Erskine Hamilton Childers - fourth President of Ireland
- TC Hammond - evangelist, later Principal Moore Theological College, Sydney
- Oscar Wilde - writer, but converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed.
- George Bernard Shaw, writer and Nobel Prize laureate
- William Butler Yeats, poet and Nobel Prize laureate
- Samuel Beckett, playwright and Nobel Prize laureate
- Richard Brinsley Sheridan, playwright
- Roger Casement, humanitarian
- Henry Grattan, defender of Irish parliamentary independence
- Robert Emmet, revolutionary
- Bram Stoker, creator of Dracula
- George Berkeley, philosopher
- Jonathan Swift - writer (who served as Dean of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin)
- David Norris - Irish senator and gay rights campaigner
- Bono (real name Paul Hewson), lead singer with U2
- Theobald Wolfe Tone, eighteenth century revolutionary
- Sean O'Casey, playwright
- Charles Stewart Parnell, Home rule M.P.