Added on 24/02/2009
L-R Dr Garret FitzGerald, Malcolm Macourt (author), Archbishop John Neill
Counting the People of God? The Census of Population and the Church of Ireland by Malcolm Macourt launched in Dublin
Malcolm Macourt's new book, produced by Church of Ireland Publishing, was launched in St Ann's, Dawson Street, Dublin on Friday 13 February 2009 by the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr John Neill, and former Taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald.
Transcript of Archbishop John Neill's speech:
I first met Malcolm Macourt some forty years ago and I think our paths never crossed again until this evening! That first meeting, forty years ago, was a few days prior to my ordination, when to the horror of the then Archbishop of Dublin that as one about to be ordained, and as one trained for ministry in the Church of England, I had never encountered church life in the city of Belfast – Dublin didn’t count then! I was despatched to stay with the Macourt family and spent a very pleasant few days being exposed to what to me was the entirely foreign culture of East Belfast. The fact that this was to me a foreign culture could not of course be dispelled in one weekend, so perhaps you will forgive I have no real comment to make on the Northern Ireland section of this fascinating book! On page 17 of Counting the People of God?, Malcolm Macourt refers in the context of the division of this island of the impact of this on a church which has 'maintained its all-island organisation' but he wisely added in brackets the word 'officially', for the perception is often somewhat different from the official!
The history of Census in an Irish context presented in this work is fascinating, and in particular the part the religious question has played in this story. It is also fascinating to see the different contexts, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of census taking and in particular the very different religious map that is painted. It is most valuable for those who live and work on this island to see how much their own experience, and indeed the stories that they hear, are either borne out or indeed challenged by the hard and even cold facts of a census. But of course any discipline, be it that of the historian, sociologist, theologian, or statistician recognises that fact and interpretation are closely interwoven, and it is most valuable the manner in which this work helps to unpack what to many of us would be little more than statistics.
As my own ministry, since Malcolm and I met in Ballymacarrett Rectory in 1969, has been in Dublin, the South East, the South West and for the longest continuous period in the West of Ireland, I am particularly interested in the observations in this book. I tried to test observation and interpretation as I saw it against the findings of census.
First I mention the effect of the Achill Mission and of the Irish Church Missions on the diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry in the middle of the nineteenth century. In Connemara, most of the churches date from that period, and to the North in Mayo, signs and certainly folk memory of that period remain in some parishes. Malcolm Macourt points to the seminal work of Desmond Bowen in this respect in relation to the diocese of Killala in particular. This work has now been followed up by Irene Whelan of the University of Wisconsin in her work, The Bible War in Ireland. Meanwhile a very detailed analysis of the Connemara situation has recently been published by Miriam Moffitt entitled Soupers and Jumpers, which looks very carefully at the statistics of each parish, but also presents a remarkably balanced analysis of the competing denominational interests. It certainly confirms the significant growth of the membership of the established Church in that region for a short period at least.
Malcolm Macourt points to the presence of the large Protestant working class population that was in Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century, but which was to decline very quickly. This picture is supported by historical studies undertaken by Dr John Crawford. This is also something that those of us who have ministered in Dublin in the second part of that century are all too aware. He rightly points out that some of this is hard to analyse. I hesitate as one who is certainly no sociologist to venture an opinion, and indeed as one who is uncomfortable about talking within class structures in twenty first century Ireland – I cannot but help wondering if this particular strata of Church of Ireland membership – the Protestant working class - suffered more from the negative effects of the Ne Temere decree than did the Church of Ireland population as a whole. This coupled with the impression that a declining and re-housed city centre population, removed to new housing areas as a religious minority, possibly failed to retain its identity – may provide another contributory factor.
In contrast to the erosion of the inner city population, Malcolm Macourt points to the stability in the rural South of the farming population (p.96). He says that in areas where there were very few members of the Church of Ireland, they did indeed go under, but notes that this was not the whole story. I quote, 'Numbers were retained, in part at least, by maintaining a social structure consisting not only of church attendance, but also of church-based social events, schools and other groups for children, for women: what amounted to a separate social structure.' I find from my own observation that this is manifestly true. But it may also be one of the factors that led for a long time to a very inward-looking and conservative community in some places, with little sense of identity with the locality at large. It is interesting too that the most significant ecumenical advances in rural areas generally took place not where the Church of Ireland was at its strongest, but where it was small and therefore not so isolated from the wider community. This was borne out in the West of Ireland. On the other hand, the effects of Ne Temere in those areas where the Church of Ireland was able to exist within its own social structures was undoubtedly less, than say in the previously mentioned inner city areas of Dublin and its new suburbs.
A further observation that Malcom Macourt makes in relation to the Republic is to point to the fact that 'Maintaining a base in towns seems to have been more difficult for the Church of Ireland' (p.92). As Rector of Skibbereen in West Cork some thirty five years ago, I can bear this out – there were still quite a few Church of Ireland businesses on the main street, but there were many more that had disappeared within what was then recent memory – and I doubt that there are any there now. I would feel that one of the reasons for this decline was that there was less determination to stay put in hard times in the small town communities than there was among those tied to the land in the same parishes, and that in many ways the town folk were less integrated into the wider community than were farmers who belonged in a more day-to-day manner AND there is the undoubted fact that since the social group represented by the shopkeepers went more for educational opportunity and were educated in boarding schools, with the result that they belonged in the area very loosely, and easily took the opportunity to migrate to the city suburbs. This has had an undoubted effect in some areas on the ability of the Church of Ireland to maintain a significant presence in the towns of the rural south and west – and the church at the crossroads is and was often better supported and better maintained than the church in the town centre which would have more potential for growth and for attracting the newcomer.
One area that fascinated me in relation to our contemporary scene was the manner in which Malcolm Macourt looked at the growth in the Church of Ireland population in the last two censuses – a remarkable growth by any standard. He rightly points to need to distinguish between the New Irish and the 'Traditional Protestants' - in that such growth tells us little about what is happening in other areas of membership. Many of the New Irish will be Anglican by denominational background, but will in fact be worshipping in the countless new churches as listed in the Directory recently published and based for those in the Republic on the research of Dr Livingstone Thompson and Dr Alan Bruce.
However, Malcolm Macourt does point to other factors too in the growth of the Church of Ireland in the Republic. The Ne Temere decree has not only virtually disappeared, but it has had a reverse effect from that which it had in previous generations – the pressure it exerted has in instance after instance had the exact opposite effect, and interchurch marriages have ceased to have a negative effect on Church of Ireland membership. He also points to the fact that returning emigrants with Anglican spouses has had some effect on numbers, as does the desirability of many Church of Ireland primary schools.
These are all important observations, but I feel that there is one that has been left out, though almost mentioned, that is very significant indeed, and one that must be mentioned – and which Anglican reticence is all to slow to identify in many instances! The Church of Ireland is changing, and in many of the parishes that I visit, indeed probably in the majority, I discover those of the majority community who have opted for membership of the Church of Ireland – not because of marriage, and not because of simply drifting, but because of conscious personal decision. In many of the parishes, these are now the churchwardens and the youth leaders – these are lay people employed at the level of diocesan church life, these are the parish clergy. We have about one hundred clergy active in this United Dioceses, and about ten or eleven per cent of these come from a Roman Catholic background with no previous link to the Protestant community. These figures are equally and consistently represented among those being recommended for training for ordination.
This phenomenon is going to have an effect on many of the features of the Church of Ireland so accurately portrayed by Malcolm Macourt. All Churches may be suffering numerically in today’s Western world, but they are also changing. Although tribalism is not a word that we relish as members of the Church of Ireland – there was tribalism among us, particularly in rural areas (perhaps we might call it defensive tribalism), and in other areas where the Church of Ireland could be tribal through strength of numbers (we might call it complacent tribalism) – but this is changing. The increasing numbers of new members of the Church of Ireland drawn from the wider population, who are definitely now 'Church of Ireland', are different in respect of not sharing traditional tribal characteristics. They share none of the prejudices, customs or memories of the 'tribe'. This is going have an effect over time and mould a different church.
There is a real future for an Anglican experience of being Christian. In spite of its ability to tear itself apart, Anglicanism is prepared to face issues, and I sincerely believe that within these strange census figures, there is hidden a new opportunity for the Church of Ireland to contribute in a meaningful way to the Christian presence on this island. Malcolm Macourt is to be thanked for what is a very significant study which may set us all thinking afresh.
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