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The Disestablishment Of The Church Of Ireland

: Inevitable, Progressive Or Political? Essay, Research Paper


The Protestant Episcopal Church of Ireland, was a church native to Ireland, drawing its apostolic succession from the medieval Irish Church. It was a church of a minority but was treated by the British government as the one lawful and orthodox church of Ireland, therefore was the Established Church of Ireland.

On July 26, 1869, The Irish Church Bill was passed into law, disestablishing the Church of Ireland. This action was taken after a long period of time, and several factors contributed it being taken. There is also the question of whether the move was inevitable, political or progressive. We will see that in fact a combination of these three led to the disestablishment of the church, but the process towards disestablishment was mainly political.

Doomed From the Beginning?

In the sixteenth century, the Tudor Monarchs adopted Reformation principles for the Church of England, and applied these principles to Ireland as well. However, unlike England, where the Established Church was accepted by a great majority of people, in Ireland there was no consensus on the issue of the Church. The Church was that of a minority, and the differences in language, difficulties in communication, and the incomplete control that England held over Ireland meant its? acceptance was limited.

The majority of the Irish were not interested in the Established Church of Ireland from the beginning. This raises the question of was it doomed from the beginning ? was disestablishment inevitable?

Tithes and Reforms

In the 1830s, there were changes made in the organization of the Established Church.

Firstly, the Tithe Composition Act was passed in 1832, which led to widespread protest. Tithes were payments made by Irish land tenants to the Established Church. Before 1832, payments of tithes were made in kind. This Act made money payments the rule, which had to be made by very poor people, mostly Roman Catholics. It was in support of a church which was not theirs, and they gained little, if any, benefit from it. The protest against tithes eventually escalated into the Tithe War. This did a great deal of damage to the reputation of the Church of Ireland in various Irish communities.

As a result of these events, in 1838 the Tithe Rentcharge Act was passed, which reduced tithes by one-quarter and made rich landlords and long term lease holders responsible for paying tithes to the Established Church. This was designed to place the burden of supporting the Church on the landowners rather than the tenants, as many of the landowners were members of the Established Church. But since the tenants supported the landowners, the tenants continued to indirectly support the Church.

There were other reforms made to the Church. The Church Temporalities Act was designed to rectify the situation of the Church?s resources being used inefficiently, and implemented several financial reforms to the Church and its clergy.

These reforms were implemented by British politicians, and were an early sign of what became a continuing series of demands for reform of the Established Church of Ireland. Many politicians felt there ?was something unsatisfactory about the status of this relatively wealthy minority church.? Herein lies the political element in disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. Furthermore, as time passed politician?s feelings toward the church of Ireland grew from dissatisfaction and a feeling that reform was needed to a feeling that the Church should be disestablished.

Report of the Census Commissioners

In 1861, the first religious census of Ireland was taken. It showed that out of the total Irish population of 5 788 415, there were 693 357 members of the Church of Ireland, compared to the Roman Catholic Church, which had 4 505 365 members. This meant that Church of Ireland members were only one eighth of the population. It also found that concentrations of adherents were found in significant numbers only in areas that had been populated with English and Irish immigrants.

This was the point at which pressure for disestablishment began to mount. The results of the census were a strong argument for those opposed to the Established Church.

Political Opposition Mounts

In 1865 and 1866, resolutions in the British House of Commons called for the government to act in regard to the state of the Irish Church on such matters as ecclesiastical endowments and the possibility of diverting a percentage of the revenues of the Church of Ireland. However, these were opposed by the government and failed.

The Conservatives came into power in June of 1865, led by Lord Derby. They were a minority government, and as they were looking for support in parliament and in public, they were very flexible on the issues. It bowed to pressure in May of 1867, accepting a motion for the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the Established Church?s property and revenues.

Report of the Royal Commission

The Commission reported in September of 1868. In its? report, it proposed drastic cutbacks in the Established Church ? that the episcopate be reduced to one archbishop and seven bishops; that many cathedral corporations be dissolved, and that only eight deans remain. It further proposed a significant restructuring of parishes and redistribution of the incomes of clerics.

The Irish Bishops refused to accept the Commission?s proposals. It is likely that the churchmen feared that if they agreed to the commission?s recommendations, the government would do even more than had been recommended. In fact, there was a good chance that the Church might have survived as an Established Church if they had accepted the proposals, at least for a time longer than they did. However, it is also true that the drastic overhaul of the Church?s finances that was proposed would have had serious implications for the Established Church?s future. Furthermore, by the time the commission reported, political events had overtaken its? usefulness. Nevertheless, its? findings still remain insightful into the situation at the time.


Benjamin Disraeli, beginning in February of 1868, undertook the leadership of the Conservative government. On March 30th, of that year, Gladstone, the leader of the opposition Whigs, moved a series of resolutions dealing with Ireland. One of these was

?that in the opinion of the House, it is necessary that the Established Church of Ireland should cease to exist as an establishment, due regard being had to all the personal interests and to all individual rights of property.?

The resolutions were carried against the Conservatives under Disraeli. He decided to call an election on this important issue, but was defeated. The new Liberal government, under Gladstone, moved to introduce the bill for disestablishment and disendowment of the Church of Ireland on March 1st, 1869.

On July 26, 1869, The Irish Church Bill was passed into law, after a great deal of resistance in the House of Lords. Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland began on January 1st, 1871.

Gladstone was a devout churchman, so all was not lost for the Church of Ireland. The settlement was generous; churches and schools presently in use were handed over to the Church, Glebe houses could be purchased on favorable terms, and ?500 000 was granted to make up for recent private endowments. The British government took everything else. This was another political aspect of disestablishment.

Why Disendowment as well as Disestablishment?

The significant issue of the Church of Ireland being the Established Church was not that it was the ceremonial church of Ireland, where, for example, the Queen would have attended church when she was in Ireland. Rather, the significant issue was the fact ?that it had been heavily endowed with land, and the proceeds of a tax on land.?

Other churches sustained themselves through attracting the support of voluntary members. The Church of Ireland, however, had the privileged position of support from tithes and from rents on extensive properties. It was due to this that disestablishment was inseparable from disendowment. Thus, the whole operation of disestablishment was essentially concerned with the transfer of the property of the Church of Ireland and its? administration.

Inevitable, Progressive or Political?

The process leading up to disestablishment was an overwhelmingly political one. Certain people in public office pressured ever increasingly for reform, and then disestablishment. The process by which the Church was disestablished and carved up was political.

One must not forget that the circumstances of the church?s existence as in Ireland made its disestablishment a progressive move. The Established Church was that of a very small minority, just over eleven percent of the total population of Ireland. Giving it the advantages it had was an unjust move in regards to the substantial Roman Catholic majority of Ireland. By putting it on an equal footing with the other churches in Ireland and leaving it to support itself was the best move for all involved.

Finally, the Church?s disestablishment was most likely inevitable, due to the circumstances surrounding its existence in Ireland. Whether or not disestablishment was inevitable at the time it occurred is debatable. The Irish Bishops possibly could have delayed disestablishment for several years had they accepted the Royal Commission?s proposals. But in the end, it was most likely that the Church would have been disestablished, given the level of pressure for Disestablishment present at the time.


The Church or Ireland is still a minority church in Ireland today. The Church?s membership still remains very close to the level it was at Disestablishment. Before the Church of Ireland was disestablished, it had advantages over the other churches in Ireland. But even after disestablishment, through the hard work and commitment of its congregations it continued to be a strong church, and continues to be today.

The Church of Ireland?s disestablishment was an inevitable, yet progressive move, but the process towards its? disestablishment was a very political one.


1 Hugh Shearman, How the Church of Ireland was Disestablished (Ireland: The Church of Ireland Disestablishment Committee, 1970) p. 7.

2 Much of the information in this section from How the Church of Ireland was Disestablished, pp. 8-10

3 R.B. McDowell, The Church of Ireland (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975) pp. 27-28

4 P.M.H. Bell, Disestablishment in Ireland and Wales (London: S.P.C.K., 1969) pg. 43

5 Robert MacCarthy, Ancient and Modern (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995) pg. 50 and The Church of Ireland pg. 34

6 How the Church of Ireland was Disestablished, pg. 10

7 Ancient and Modern, pg. 50

8 How the Church of Ireland was Disestablished, pg. 12