The Church of Ireland (as a Protestant Episcopal Church) is that part of the Irish Church which accepted the sixteenth-century Reformation. From the time of the Reformation for 320 years it was the established state Church, headed by the crown, and had considerable legal and political privileges. Since
1st January 1871, it has been disestablished, and is now an entirely voluntary Church where neither crown nor parliament has any role in its government in either part of Ireland.
The Church of Ireland, as the title implies, is conscious of three things:
its claim to relate directly with Christianity from its very beginnings on the island of Ireland; and its adherence to the Christian faith in its fullness.
In response to a request to set down a number of characteristics which make the Church of Ireland and its members distinctive, a standing committee conference in 1993 produced a document of ten short paragraphs with the following headings:
1. We are Christians.
2. We are Irish.
3. We are Catholic, holding all the Christian faith in fullness.
4. We are a Reformed Church.
5. We are committed to unity within Christ's sadly divided body.
6. We are Anglicans.
7. We respect freedom.
8. We regard Worship, public and private, as priority for every Christian.
9. We are a Church affirming the place of the ancient threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons within our common life.
10. We believe in the equality within the Body of Christ of all the baptised.
The Church of Ireland, for historical as well as practical reasons, finds itself in a traditional Anglican position in Ireland. Theologically, pastorally and geographically it stands between the ethos and outlook of Roman Catholicism on the one hand and Presbyterianism on the other. Catholic and Reformed in doctrine, composed of members in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, reflecting an entire spectrum of political, economic and cultural outlooks while maintaining practical allegiance to "unity in diversity", the Church of Ireland has found itself, despite great pressure, reflecting a middle ground. The Church's organisation and ministry transcends political border. The General Synod, its supreme legislative assembly, is composed of elected clergy and laity from all parts of Ireland and this is reflected in all membership of boards or committees. While it's numerical majority live and worship in Northern Ireland, its members in the Republic of Ireland are fully represented in its administration, and its theological college is in Dublin.
Despite political developments which over the years have divided Ireland and her people, the Church of Ireland has managed to maintain a degree of unity which has allowed its voice to be heard clearly in both jurisdictions. It is widely accepted that the Church of Ireland has played a role in Irish life far in excess of its numerical strength. Among the other churches of the Anglican Communion, the Church of Ireland has provided expertise, advice and leadership in many important aspects of the life in that Communion.
The cause of reconciliation has been a priority for the Church of Ireland on the island of Ireland as a whole. A significant number of its members have been killed in the violence of Northern Ireland. Its bishops and members have played key roles in the peace process and in the building of bridges between divided communities.
Although it has large city parishes its real strength lies in rural communities. The farming community provides a large proportion of its membership. The movement of population in urban Ireland has necessitated the building of new churches and the creation of new parochial units. The essential priority of its ministers remains pastoral, and consequently a relatively small number of its clergy are in specialist, non-parish-based, positions.
Given its acceptance in both parts of Ireland, the Church of Ireland has influenced political debate, political developments and community thinking in many ways. Through its role of the Church Committee it has supported the individual initiatives of bishops by an ongoing dialogue with party politicians. In all such instances the Church of Ireland has emphasised reconciliation, justice and fairness. In its liturgy and pastoral ministry the Church of Ireland reflects the historical Celtic tradition, while emphasis on the concerns of youth has given it fresh impetus in the meeting of the needs of new generation. It sees sectarianism in Northern Ireland as a corrosive and destructive element in society, and has taken a lead in combating this evil element in Northern Irish life.
The very title "Church of Ireland" conveys to its members its sense of Irish identity. At Disestablishment in 1871 this title was legally confirmed although from the 17th Century church writers had referred to the titles of the Church of England or Church of Ireland as alternative descriptions of the same body. Yet the Church of Ireland has always emphasised its separate identity, despite sharing the same doctrine and discipline as its English counterpart.
The Irish orgins of the Church of Ireland are as varied as the traditions which make up the Irish identity. Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) was convinced that the faith which St Patrick professed was at one with his own, and this strong sense of continuity with the past, in particular with Celtic times, has remained influential. This was keenly expressed in a hymn written at the time of Disestablishment by the Rector of Banbridge, Canon James E. Archer
Lift thy Banner, Church of Erin,
To thine ancient faith we cling.
Ages pass yet with St Patrick
Firm we hold the faith of God.