A Short History of the Church of Ireland by Kenneth Milne (Messenger Publications, €12.95/£11.50)
Dr Milne is well known to all who work in the fields of Church history in Ireland. This handy book is the fifth edition of a book which has already served its purpose well in providing a short handbook with all the essential facts and ideas for Church of Ireland students at all levels, and those outside of this community who feel the need to know something about a Church many of whom once harbored great doubts.
It has served its purpose well, but at the moment it has a social interest in Catholics (or maybe I should say in this context Roman Catholics, for me members of the Church of Ireland describe themselves too as following Catholic tradition, by St Patrick to the Apostles Dr. Milne, is indeed the historian of St Bartholomew’s, the nearby High Church parish church where I write, whose bells measure the hours for me now, while as the broken bell of the Carmelite nuns of Ranelagh rang over a schoolboy who worked hard at his Greek and Latin.Associated with St Bartholomew’s was a community of Anglican nuns whose distinctive habits were once a striking feature of Clyde Road.The church stands today renowned for its music.
I think all readers of this article would benefit from reading this book, for its informational value alone. It has no bibliography as such, but what Dr Milne does is refer its readers to standard histories and reference works, so that the views of the past most widely accepted by all historians of Ireland support the text. Thus, while expressing a distinctive point of view, it is non-partisan. All excellent, making this an essential book for all school and public libraries.
But at this time, one section deserves particular attention from Roman Catholic readers: what happened to the community after the dissolution of the Church of Ireland.
As a state religion, it needed to find and develop a new role, looking to the future rather than endlessly going back to how things once were. It’s all in chapter nine.
Central to this was a form of synodal governance. It was fashioned as a two-chamber assembly, much like the parliamentary form followed in the nations of these islands. But central to the signal was the election of lay members and, therefore, the empowerment of the laity as a whole. The nature of the Representative Body of the Church is described – although, as I said, further reading is well indicated.
The Roman Catholic Church was effectively a state church until recent changes to the constitution. Both churches had to find not a new role in society, but new ways to fulfill their mission. The Church of Ireland has been, in the opinion of this foreigner, very successful. Observation reveals that in South Dublin, Wicklow and Meath it seems to be thriving in its own way.
He was particularly successful in his community integration. A participation in the summer parish fair of say Stillorgan or Dalkey is very revealing. These are well attended, if not over-attended by the surrounding community, regardless of their religious views or lack thereof. It’s a day of family activities, hot dogs, and the chance to find a real treasure or two among books, pre-loved clothes, plants, and even electronic junk. (The screen I’m writing on comes from just one, perfect for $5.)
They do so well simply because they’re fun. But also many national Church of Ireland schools have grown up and are attended by all types of culture living in the area.
RC schools never have these events. The Catholic Church seems to have completely lost its sense of fun. The Church of Ireland has maintained a sense of family enjoyment, but also of active lay participation which involves the exercise of real power. They adopted not only female clergy, but also female bishops – and these gracious and generous ladies are always very pleasant to meet, as they happily engage with both their parishioners and the local community.
There are real lessons to be learned in Armagh and Maynooth in the coming months of how the Church of Ireland, as the author suggests against all odds, has defied the terrible expectations of the Disestablishment. Embark on an elective synod, many will say after reading Dr. Milne’s sober but thoughtful little book, published by what many still consider “a Catholic publisher” but is in fact a pan-Christian media outlet.
I just point to the pages, what people think and do in their light remains to be seen. But I came away thinking there are lessons to be learned here for Roman Catholics in search of relevance and survival.