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January 2012 – What happened at Disestablishment?

Representative Church Body Library, Dublin
GC/

The papers of the General Convention and its related committees, being the forerunners of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, including minute books, resolutions, correspondence, petitions printed and other materials, 1868–1874.  

Introduction to the collection
By the Irish Church Act (32&33 Vic. c. 42 sect. 2) – enacted on the 26 July 1869, and which passed into law in 1870 – the union between Church and State in Ireland that had existed since the Reformation was dissolved, and the Church of Ireland ceased to be established by law. This left the Church of Ireland ‘free to shape her future course, independent of state control’, as the early strategists of the disestablished church put it (Journal of the General Convention of the Church of Ireland, 1870 with Statutes Passed, edited by Revd Alfred Lee, Dublin 1871), pp v–vi (this source is also digitized and available here www.ireland.anglican.org/journal

The collection of papers created in the immediate periods both before and after enactment of 32&33 Vic. c. 42 sect. 2 were stored securely in a metal trunk labelled ‘General Convention Box’, in the Representative Church Body (initially at its headquarters at number 52 St Stephen’s Green, and more recently at Church of Ireland House in Rathmines) document this period of transition from state–run Church to an independent, largely voluntary and minority denominational Church, from the perspective of those tasked with safeguarding its future in the aftermath of disestablishment.  The contents of this box have now been extensively catalogued as “GC/”, and are available for consultation at the RCB Library, the Church’s principal repository for its written heritage. These documents tell the story of how the Church of Ireland was reorganised (with the general and diocesan synodical structures we have inherited today) and thus survived the biggest challenge of its history.  

There are minutes, resolutions and other working papers documenting the work of an initial Consulting Committee (section 1/) which began the task of transition, hosting an initial Church Conference of archbishops, bishops, clergy and laity in April 1869 (section 3/), gradually evolving thereafter through the creation of a Standing Committee, and related General Committee or Church Committee (see section 6). This committee organised the General Convention of 1870, and it, together with its various ancillary committees (see sections /7 &/8) was tasked to draft the Church of Ireland constitution, producing standing orders, and completely overhauling the financial structures of the Church. Every diocese and parish of the church was represented by clerical and lay delegates at the General Convention, which was held in open session from the 15 February (following divine service and administration of Holy Communion in St Patrick’s Cathedral) at the Ancient Concert Rooms, Great Brunswick Street, until the 4 November 1870, when the final entry in the minute book states: ‘here ends the minutes of the Convention’. Thereafter, the honorary secretaries provided continuous administrative support between annual representative diocesan and general synods at local and central Church levels.

A particularly valuable aspect of this collection is a voluminous amount of material documenting the role of the laity, most particularly in the working papers, minutes and resolutions of the Committee of Laymen which met separately but fed into the general deliberations for the re–structuring of the Church until the Convention was constituted, from March 1869 until February 1870 (see section /2).

The collection also includes a significant run of correspondence consisting of 46 letters and enclosures mostly addressed to the honorary secretaries of the main committees, from the archbishops of Armagh and Dublin (Marcus Gervais de la Poer Beresford and Richard Chevenix Trench), other bishops as well as prominent laity in the period both before and after the passage of the Act, from January 1869 to January 1870, when the Convention got going. These letters which are catalogued in detail here provide a particularly graphic, sometimes colourful insight, to the personal views of the various episcopal, clerical and lay correspondents on Gladstone’s radical legislation, but also convey a sense of a realistic acceptance of the inevitable that legislative change would bring, and the determined strategy adopted by those trying to safeguard the Church. The correspondence reveals the growing influence of the laity and the careful path the hierarchy had to tread to keep all parties together, and the wise decisions that were made to ensure the Church survived.

Another section (9/) includes 11 petitions addressed to either the Church of Ireland as a whole, or specifically to the Convention in the course of its work. Some of the early petitions convey the widespread dismay and empathy that existed within the Church of England at the passage of the Irish Church Act, 1869, from Church of England sources – specifically in the form of an enormous roll signed by the clergy and laity of the diocese of Norwich, and supportive letters from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. But several petitions also relate to the early internal battles that the Church would face, with regard to fair lay representation at the Convention in particular, and the necessary, if controversial, doctrinal and ritual revisions of the Book of Common Prayer that the changed legal position of the Church required, and which with other matters fuelled a heated and protracted ‘Revision debate’.

Various printed papers (10/) received by the various committees and the Convention during the course of its work, together with a couple of miscellaneous items (11) complete the collection. For clarity, and given the plethora of committees at work during a relatively short period, the papers are arranged loosely in chronological order as many of the forerunning committees merged or evolved into later committees, and ultimately the General Convention proper.

It is significant that such an important record of the thinking and decision–making that occurred during this period of transition has survived at all. One item of correspondence reveals that there was a determined effort to preserve the material by the Revd C.P. Reichel [Vicar of Mullingar 1864–75, Meath, and later Bishop of Meath], Vicarage, Mullingar, who (shortly after the Irish Church Act was passed in August 1869 and when the Church Conference was concluding its business, paying the way for the Standing Committee to evolve the process of holding general synods) wrote to Thomas Greene Esq., one of the honorary secretaries, to emphasise the importance of record–keeping and ensuring the collection would be made safe for future generations. Reichel’s advice may have had a bearing on the survival of the collection. ‘With regard to the documents’ he wrote, ‘to ensure that at a future time a report of proceedings of the Standing Committee’ would be ‘kept for the record’, he urged that ‘the memoranda of the meetings are it seems to me the property of the secretaries on behalf of the whole committee, and they will have no right to give them to the Archbishops, should they require them to’ (GC5.1/25).  

Hoping that the archbishops would not seek to have custody of them after ‘the Conference is disposed’, Reichel warned that should any future attempt be made to take possession of the documents, ‘it ought to be resisted given the importance that the documents may have at some future time … I therefore write to protest, as a member of the Committee, against these documents being either destroyed or allowed out of the possession of the secretaries. Only another Church Conference, or its committee, or the future government body can have any right to dispose of these documents’.  

It seems that Reichel’s sensible advice was acted upon, with the result that this collection, safely stored in its metal trunk which passed into the hands of the Representative Body has survived the test of time. 

For further information contact:
Dr Susan Hood
RCB Library
Braemor Park
Churchtown
Dublin 14
Tel: 01–4923979
Fax: 01–4924770
E–mail: susan.hood@rcbdub.org