Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Irish High Church Tradition

It might come as a surprise to those who know a little about the Church of Ireland to know that there was a High Church tradition in Ireland. The main reason for this has to be the post-disestablishment Canons which clamped down on all and any attempt at making ritual innovations. However, due to its lack of liturgical hang-ups other than following the BCP, Tractarianism found a home in Ireland.

The best know exponants of the Tractarian tradition on the Irish bench were Richard Chenevix Trench 1807-1887 (Archbishop of Dublin 1861-1886) and William Alexander 1824-1911 (Derry and Raphoe 1867-1894; Armagh 1894-1910). Both were minor poets, and both had picked up the "high seriousness" of Tractarianism during their times in the English University. Of the two, William Alexander seemed to connect more easily with Irish Clerical life. His ministry at Fahan in Co. Donegal, his happy marriage to hymnodist Cecil Frances Alexander, and sunny nature made him very popular. The more "English" Trench was somewhat disliked in Dublin, where the majority of enthusiastic Churchmen would have preferred an Evangelical. Both worked quietly to broaden the outlooks of their dioceses, though it has to be said that Trench was the more successful in promoting "Church Ideals."

Trench's time in Dublin saw the establishment of three "Anglo-Catholic" parishes - St Bartholomew's, Dublin; and St John's, Sandymount; and to a lesser extent, Christ Church, Leeson Park; which joined All Saints', Grangegorman, as exponants of the Tractarian tradition in Ireland. All three had daily Communion, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer whilst keeping just inside the ceremonial restrictions then current in the Church of Ireland. They maintained the North end position at Holy Communion; lit the altar candles only for the purposes of giving light; but also scheduled Confession. Periodically one of them would "get brave" and challenge the interpretation of the rubrics, but such attempts usually resulted in a case being brought in the Court of the General Synod.

This brings me to the most influential of Irish High Churchmen - John Allan Fitzgerald Gregg (1873-1961) a member of the firm of "Gregg, Son and Grandson, Bishops to the Church of Ireland!" His uncle and grandfather were Evangelicals, but J.A.F. was born and educated in England and picked up Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic ideas both at Bedford School and at Cambridge. However, rather than stay in England and become a "spike," he decided to go to back to his family's native Ireland where he was ordained in the Diocese of Down and Connor, and Dromore. Curacies in Ballymena and Cork ensued, then a spell as Rector of Blackrock 1906-11, then four years as Divinity Professor at TCD before election as Bishop of Ossory, Leighlin and Ferns at the early age of 42. Translation to Dublin followed in 1920; then to Armagh in 1939, where he stayed until his retirement in 1959, aged 85.

One painful aspect of his ministry in Dublin was having to adjudicate the cases brought against two of the High Church parishes in Dublin. The first involved St Bartholomew's, Dublin, where C. B. Moss (yes, that C. B. Moss!) was Curate Assistant, and the second involved St John's, Sandymount. In both cases, Archbishop Gregg upheld the Canons of the Church of Ireland whilst conceeding lesser points to the rectors of the respective churches. Gregg himself thought the Canons too restrictive, but with his respect for law, he was not going to engage in any sort of prophetic activism.

Known to his clergy as "The Marble Arch" Gregg appeared in public to be aloof and self-contained. This was a by-product of the Tractarian seriousness that he absorbed school and university. In private he could be a warm and approachable man - especially in his later years. He was probably at his best when dealing with clergy. Despite his austere appearence and manner, he was often very compassionate with his clergy who experienced difficulties, and he took a great deal of time and effort with his ordinands, as one of my own mentors could testify.

Gregg's variety of High Churchmanship resembled that of Gore and the "Lux Mundi" school. He was prepared to accept the positive contribution of Biblical Scholarship and acknowledge the role of history in shaping the theology and institutions of the church, but was unyielding in his adherence to the Sacraments, to the Apostolic ministry, and to Tractarian spirituality.

He was particularl vehement in his defense of the apostolic ministry and led the charge against Archbishop d'Arcy's attempts to reconcile Anglicans and Presbyterians in 1934. Later, in 1948, he was also distinctly cool towards the Church of South India Scheme. For Gregg, the integrity of the Apostolic ministry of bishop, priest and deacon was non-negotiable, and he was not ariad to take an unpopular position in order to maintain it.

Gregg was twice considered for English bishoprics. Firstly in 1938 as a serious candidate as successor for Hensley Henson as Bishop of Durham, and less seriously as a candidate for York or Canterbury in 1942 and 1945. It is unlikely that Gregg would have accepted such a promotion, as, after some initial pangs for academic life in Cambridge, he had become so much part and parcel of the Irish Church. However, it also shows the seriousness with which English Churchmen and politicians regarded him.

Gregg finally retired from Armagh in 1958 and was succeed by the well regarded, James McCann of Meath. In 1969 George Simms, another High Churchman with a fascination for literature succeeded to the primacy, and finally managed to liberalize the ceremonial Canons that had caused Gregg so much heartache forty years earlier.

Because of the sober tradition of the Irish Church, Anglo-catholicism there has always been a matter there of belief not ceremonial. This is completely in accord with what the Tractarians believed and taught, but confusing to those who are tempted to mistake the right vestments for the right beliefs. At the end of the day what really matters is what one believes.


  1. Thanks for the informative post. I take it that, had the Ornaments Rubrick controlled in C.B. Moss's case, as opposed to Irish Canon Law, his parish would have won?

  2. Moss was on the fringe of the "Simpson Case." St Bartholomew's would have been OK under the Ornament's Rubric. However, in the second case involving St. John's, Sandymount, they still would have had to remove the confessional and the Big Six.