One of the most delightful figures in 19th century Church history is the Most Rev. William Alexander, 1824-1911, who was Bishop of Derry and Raphoe 1867-1896 and Archbishop of Armagh 1896-1911. I briefly mentioned in a blogpost about the High Church movement in Ireland, but I hope I can now do a little more judice to this half-forgotten bishop.
William was born in 'Derry April 13 1824. His father was a clergyman of the Church of Ireland, and his mother, though raised Presbyterian had converted to Anglicanism upon her marriage. Like many of the more active clergy in the 1820s, Mr Alexander was an Evangelical. However, his son's theological development was to be influenced greatly by his father's choices regarding his education for he was sent up to Oxford in 1843 just at the close of the Oxford Movement and experienced the magnatism of J H Newman, then still an Anglican, and of Pusey. William Alexander, though influenced by them, seems to have gotten more poetry than theology out of the Oxford Movement, and became no mean hand as a poet himself. On the other hand, his theology bore the stamp of the moderate "Bisley" school of Tractarianism throughout his life. Like many of that school, he put great faith in the idea of putting the Prayer Book into practice, and he read widely not just Anglican Divines, but also some French and German writers. However, Alexander's health did not allow him to pursue an honors degree, but he did so well in the examinations that he was granted an areogatat degree. Ordination followed in 1847, and after a brief curacy he was Rector successively of Derg, Camus, and Fahan parishes in the northwest of Ireland.
His daughter's memoir refers often to the affection in which he held his parishioners, and contains many humourous references to the somewhat dour Ulster character. It is evident from the surviving record that he was a zealous parish priest, and that his wife, Cecil Francis (Humphries) Alexander (1818-1895) was a devoted parish visitor and an invaluable help to her husband in his ministry. It is evident that the two of them took great pains not us over visiting the sick, but indeed all in the parish who claimed some sort of connection with the Church of Ireland, and they also visited many dissenters of both the Protestant and Roman varieties where they felt they would be welcomed. Alexander also retained some links to Oxford with his poem dwelling on the character of the University being recited at the installation of Lord Derby as Chancellor in 1853. He was also, periodically, a university preacher who was popular for the simplicity and warm of his style. Alexander's extensive parish - Camus - had some drawbacks, one of which was the fact that he had to give up walking in favour of riding in order to undertake his parish rounds. As a result, he became rather stout, and the familiar rotund figure of "Billy" Alexander came into being.
For William Alexander the road to preferment came through his connection with the Marquis of Abercorn. His name was there-or-thereabouts in discussion about patronage throughout the early 1860s unlike he eventually received the Deanery of Emly (essentially a sinecure) in 1864. This welcome addition to the family economy carried little in the way of duties, but not so his next preferment which was the Bishopric of Derry and Raphoe.
At the time the Diocese was a difficult one to administer. The only railway in the diocese was the Irish Northwestern which ran from Omagh to the Maiden City, which in turn had a short branch, in the form of the Finn Valley Railway from Strabane to Stranorlar. This meant that unlike many of his colleagues, Bishop Alexander would be jogging around his diocese on a horse, or in a gig like a bishop of fifty years previously. The Bishop's palace was no great bonus either being crammed into a narrow site within the walls of the old City of Londonderry. Add to this, the debate concerning the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was raging just at the time when William Alexander was consecrated.
Disestablishment was undoubtedly the 'right thing to do' in what was an is an overwhelming Roman Catholic island, but the accompanying disendowment was something that all Churchmen feared, as was the prospect of evolving a form of democratic government to replace the old Establishment. The Irish bishops, including William Alexander opposed the measure, but tended to take a statesman-like attitude figuring that disestablishment on good terms was better than prolonging the Establishment at the price of a further suppression of Bishoprics by the government. The first reduction, from 22 to 12 had been accomplished in 1833-1846 and had sparked the Oxford Movement, and it was felt that a further reduction, from 12 to 8 was adversely affect the efficiency of the Episcopate even though it would bring the size of Irish dioceses somewhat into line with those in England. In the event, the Irish Church Disestablishment Act gave the Church fairly generous terms, and the Church was able to reconstruct its finances on a fairly firm foundation which allowed reasonable salaries to be paid to the remaining dignataries, as well as to parish rectors. It was only towards the end of the long agricultural depression of the late-nineteenth century that the Church of Ireland began to feel the pinch.
Administering the Church was a different matter, and Bishop Alexander, along with Marcus Beresford of Armagh, Lord Plunkett, John Gregg, and R C Trench of Dublin played his part in derailing a variety of crackpot schemes in the new Representative Church Body which would have given the newly disestablished Church of Ireland a government more Presbyterian than Episcopal in its structure. The same crossbench combination also derailed schemes to radically revise the BCP, so that when the shouting was over in 1878, the Church looked much the same, but had representative bodies at Diocesan and National levels, and also a new, simpler Canon Law designed to thwart the sort of Ritual riots that were so much a feature of English Church life in the 1860s.
Bishop Alexander did not always appreciate the cautious tone of the Irish Canons in ceremonial matters, but the survival of the BCP almost intact encouraged him, as did the enthusiasm of the laity for making the new arrangements work. He set about administering the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe in conjunction with the new Diocesan Synod with enthusiasm, whilst his reduction in stipend seemed to him to be fair, and fitting in a disestablished Church. His wife, though, was never reconciled to disestablishment, and continued to pine for the old days until her death in 1895.
Bishop Alexander understood that the heart of the Church was parish life and he did everything he could to encourage good quality worship and promote clubs and socueties within every parish in his diocese. Despite his High Churchmanship he was popular with his colleagues, so when Robert Gregg died in 1896, Alexander was elected as Primate of All Ireland and removed from Derry to Armagh. It has be to said that his translation to the smaller diocese of Armagh came as something of a relief to the aging Alexander, who, at 72 was having increasing difficulty getting about. He could move around rather more of his new diocese by train, and this made the burden of travelling somewhat less, and he soon became a popular and familiar figure in the diocese.
He finally retired in Lent 1911 at the age of 87, and briefly retired to Torbay where he passed away in September 1911. Although he made no spectacular contributions to the life of the Church his concern for sound theology, good worship, and lively parishes made him one of the most effective influences on the newly disestablished Church of Ireland setting the pattern for a vigorous, and successful life as a minority Church. The two great secrets of William Alexander's ministry were his love of souls and his love of parish life, and if the Church is to remain a vital force in the lives of men all its ministers need to remember those things.