How a synodal path helped the Church of Ireland survive and flourish in changing days

How a synodal path helped the Church of Ireland survive and flourish in changing days
A Short History of the Church of Ireland by Kenneth Milne (Messenger Publications, €12.95/£11.50)

Dr Milne is well known to all those working in the areas of Church history in Ireland. This book at hand is the fifth edition of a book which has already served its purpose well by providing a little manual with all the essential facts and ideas for both Church of Ireland students at all levels, and those outside that community who feel the need to know something about a Church that many once harboured great doubts.

It has served its purpose well, but at this moment in time it has a social interest for Catholics (or perhaps I should in this context say Roman Catholics, for me members of the Church of Ireland describe themselves as following Catholic tradition too, right back through St Patrick to the Apostles. Dr Milne, indeed is the historian of St Bartholomew’s, the High Church parish church nearby where I write, whose bells measure off the hours for me now, much as the broken bell of the Carmelite nuns in Ranelagh sounded over a school boy toiling 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 today is renowned for its music.

Benefit

I think that all readers of this paper would benefit from reading this book, for its informative value alone. It has no bibliography as such, but what Dr Milne does is refer his readers to standard histories and reference works, so that views of the past most widely accepted by all historians in Ireland support the text. So while expressing a distinctive point of view it is not partisan. This is all excellent, making this an essential book for all school and public libraries.

But at this moment in time, one section deserves special attention from Roman Catholic readers: what happened to the community after the Church of Ireland was disestablished.

From being the state religion it had to find and develop a new role, one which would look to the future rather than hark back endless to the way things once were. This is all in chapter nine.

Church historian Dr Kenneth Milne.

Central to this was a synod form of governance. It was shaped as an assembly of two houses, much like the parliamentary form followed in the nations of these islands. But central to the signal was the election of lay members, and as a result the empowering of the laity as a whole. The nature of the Church Representative Body is outlined – though as I say further reading is well indicated.

The Roman Catholic Church was effectively a state Church down to recent changes in the constitution. Both Churches have had to find not a new role in society, but new ways of carrying out their mission. The Church of Ireland has been, in the view of this outsider, very successful. Observation reveals that in South Dublin, Wicklow and Meath it seems to be thriving in its own special way.

It has been especially successful in its community integration. An attendance at the summer parish fair of say Stillorgan or Dalkey is very revealing. These are well attended, indeed over attended by the surrounding community, whatever their religious views or lack of them. They are a day out for family activities, hot dogs, and the possibility of finding a real treasure or two among the books, the pre-loved clothes, the plants and even the electronic junk. (The screen I am writing on came from one, perfect for €5.)

They succeed so well simply because they are fun. But also many of the Church of Ireland national schools have grown and are attended by every kind of culture living in the neighbourhood

Events

The RC schools never have these events. The Catholic Church seems to have quite lost its sense of fun. The Church of Ireland has maintained a sense of family fun, but also of active lay participation that involves the exercise of real power. They have adopted not only female clergy, but also female bishops – and these gracious, generous ladies are always very nice to meet with, as they happily engage both with their parishioners and with the local community.

There are real lessons to be learned in Armagh and Maynooth in the months to come from how the Church of Ireland, as the author suggests against all odds defied the dire expectations of Disestablishment. Roll on an elective synod, many will say after reading Dr Milne’s sober but reflective little book, published by what many people think of still as “a Catholic publisher”, but is in fact a pan-Christian outlet.

I merely point to the pages, what people think and do in the light of them remains to be seen. But I came away thinking there are lessons to be learned here for the Roman Catholics in search of relevance and survival.