Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Church of Ireland in the Plantation of Ulster

On Monday I reviewed Jonathan Bardon's book The Plantation of Ulster. The parts of the book that resonated most deeply with me were the repeated concentrations on the role of religion in the colonisation process. So I want to take some time to think about the evidence Bardon presents, and question how we can commit to gospel-centredness over against our traditional role of state enforcer of religion.

The role of the Church of Ireland at that time seemed to be a political one, with it being seen as a tool for the civilising of the crude Irish. The importance of the gospel was lost amidst the political baggage, unfortunately.

Davies and Chichester were also at one in their certainty that the process of anglicisation must include the full introduction of the Protestant religion, ensuring that the established church - the Church of Ireland - was the sole ecclesiastical authority throughout Ireland. (56)

This issues in the proclamation of King James in 1605 aimed at converting the Old English settlers in Ireland from their Catholicism:

Chichester launched a programme of religious persecution on a scale never witnessed before in Ireland. He now rigidly enforced an earlier law which fined ordinary Catholics a shilling for every Sunday they failed to attend a Protestant church... In Drogheda, Chichester personally led the campaign to force Catholics to attend Protestant services. One Catholic gentleman went as far as the church door but would go no further, whereupon Chichester told him, blandly at first, and then savagely, to go in, and... struck him a cruel blow on the head with his stick. Then the macebearer attacked him so savagely that he fell to the ground like a dead man, and the viceroy had him dragged into church, where he lay insensible and gasping all the time of the sermon, and no one dared approach him. (69)

The man died shortly after. It's hardly a seeker sensitive approach, nor even a gospel minded invitation for people to come in. Once the plantation began in earnest, there was some urging of ministers to come to the pagan land:

Art thou a Minister of Gods word? make speede, the harvest is great, but the laborers be fewe: that shalt there see the poore ignorant untaught people worship stones and sticks: thou by carrying millions to heaven, maiest be made an archangell. (144 - from a pamphlet written by Thomas Blennerhasset, an undertaker planting in Lurg and Coolmakernan in County Fermanagh)

Others became Church of Ireland because it was politically convenient to do so:

The turbulent marchlands of England and Scotland [from whence came the Border Rievers] had not been known for their piety. Here families had hardly been touched by the Reformation. Arriving in Ulster in search of land to rent, they quickly found it politic and economically advantageous to be Protestants. Barely aware of Presbyterian or Puritan theology, they conformed to the state-sponsored church. This explains why such a large number of Protestants in Co. Fermanagh became, and remained, members of the Church of Ireland. (148)

While it appears that King James was a gospel man, his advisors were not thus inclined:

In 1604 the English Privy Council informed Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin, that King James believed 'true religion is better planted by the word than the sword', but Loftus and Thomas Jones, the Lord Chancellor (who was to succeed Loftus in that post), responded that they were unable to see 'how, without some moderate course of coactions, they can be reclaimed from their idolatry to come to hear the glad tidings of the truth.' In short, 'coaction' (force) might be required to bring about the conversion of natives to the reformed faith.(198)

No wonder the gospel has singularly failed to take root in this island! The situation was scarcely likely to improve - the newly appointed Bishop of Derry, Raphoe and Clogher was more concerned with his lands and incomes than with the preaching of the gospel. Similarly, Trinity College Dublin, founded to provide reformed clergy, was sending out on average no more than five graduates per year. The Archdeacon of Clogher in 1622 admitted that 'many of his clergy were "scarce endowed with a mediocrity of learning."' (202)

Tensions between settlers and natives militated against any prospect of mass conversions to the reformed religion among the Gaelic Irish. In any case an alien religion whcih vilified their cherished beliefs and traditions would be preached by men speaking an alien tongue, who often regarded them as pagans, savages and barbarians. Further alienation was brought about by the manner in which the established church imposed its exactions on the native population. Resistance to conversion was strengthened by the eagerness of bishops and clergy of the state church to punish and exploit them through the ecclesiastical courts. (203)

There was another element of sadness in the political machinations, and that centred on the driving out of the Presbyterian clergy. For the first thirty years or so, Presbyterian clergy were welcomed within the Church of Ireland, ministering and preaching the gospel. (Crawford Gribben has written more extensively on this feature of the Church of Ireland at the time). As Bardon writes,

Scottish Presbyterian ministers were readily accepted as parish clergy in Ulster without being forced to subscribe to prescribed liturgy and articles of faith. This explains why there was no serious attempt to set up a presbytery in Ulster until 1642. (203)

But come that fateful time, everything would change.

Wentworth, after denying Catholics the right to public office, now turned on Presbyterians who did not toe the line. Until now the Church of Ireland had tolerated a wide range of Protestant beliefs and practices. This suited Scots very well: most of those settling in Ulster were Presbyterians, who, since they did not yet have their own church here, were content to join the Church of Ireland. And all over Ireland, Protestants in this, the established church, tended to be Puritans, favouring plain forms of worship and dress.
Wentworth was determined to change all that. Bishops using the High Church pomp, ceremony, chanting and liturgy favoured by the King [Charles] replaced the ones that the Irish Protestants prefered. Bramhall... was appointed Bishop of Derry in 1634, and from 1636 he led a court of high commission to supervise diocesan courts and enforce state policy, with the power to confiscate and imprison.

The Presbyterians were driven out, with many fleeing to New England on the Eagle Wing. The Black Oath was the final straw, one of the factors leading to the fall of Charles I and the Civil War, as Clotworthy of Antrim appealed to Parliament on behalf of the Puritans and Presbyterians. But the damage was done, the Church of Ireland was rent asunder, the other Protestants driven out, confirmed by the deprivation of any remaining Presbyterian clergy by Bishop Jeremy Taylor of Down, Connor and Dromore.

It appears that tensions between the churches were magnified in the closing years of the 1600s:

Clergy of the Church of Ireland were particularly alarmed by the influx of Scots immigrants. In several parts of Ulster, Presbyterians formed overwhelming majorities - Jonathan Swift was unhappy at Kilroot not only because he was thwarted in love but also because he had almost no Anglicans living in his parish. Ulster Presbyterians threatened the privileges of the established church and made inroads on Anglican congregations too often neglected by worldly or absentee clergy. (307)

It seems to be a bleak century for the progress of the gospel in Ireland, despite the many opportunities that may have been opened through the plantation. Politics reigned supreme, with the cause of Christ relegated to a minor concern or as a tool to be used to beat and break the natives. While lamenting what has gone before, surely we must heed the warnings and seek to ensure that we are a lively gospel witness, not a tool of government or civil society. An island of lost souls still cries out in need, just as Saint Patrick first heard the call and came to preach Christ crucified. Will we play our part in this, our generation?

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