The Isolation of the Church Establishment

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

The Irish Church Establishment had three supports in public opinion in England, which caused a certain reluctance to deal summarily with it. It was believed that the Irish Dissenters were united with its own members in regarding it as a blessing; that the Protestant Liberals as well as the Conservatives recognized it as an advantage; and that the Catholic laity were not really opposed to its existence. One by one its partizans have removed these props, and, with a pertinacity of purpose, as marked as if it had been actually designed, have brought it to a state of complete isolation.

The special work of the Dublin demonstration of February has been to show that the small agitation in favour of the Church Establishment is simply and exclusively a Tory manoeuvre. Even before the meeting in the Rotundo the list of names published in connection with it had almost effected this, and had shown the public what they had to expect. The failure to accomplish the object professedly aimed at, and the success in attaining the special end for which the demonstration seems to have been unconsciously convoked, may be judged by the following extract. It is from a letter which appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail, an organ of the Establishment party, on the 31st of January. The writer wishes to enquire "whether the Union of Protestants to be developed on the 5th proximo in Dublin should be called 'a General Union, of Protestants' or of Protestants of one party—the Tory or Conservative side?" "For it cannot be denied," he adds, "that, in the great and noble list published, we cannot but miss many—I should think all—the Protestants of the other party, who most undoubtedly feel the strongest attachment to the Protestant religion and general interests of their country.

For instance, 'Ireland's only Duke,' must we not miss his name as well as the many other noble Lords and Commons of the Whig Party." The writer is, no doubt, correct in believing that those Protestant gentlemen who have declined to join his friends "feel the strongest attachment to the Protestant religion and general interests of their country." They may be excused if they take a higher and more intelligible way of showing their attachment to both than the partizans of Endowed Toryism. Probably they believe that their religion will survive even in a purified atmosphere, and will be not less like a revelation of divine truth when it has been freed from the reproach of extorting its revenue from the pockets of the dissentient poor. They may also think it a service to their country to aid in delivering her from the dominion of this fertile mother of religious discords, whilst at the same time they free themselves from the charge of asking the alms of Catholics to support the Church of their own belief. But, whatever be their reasons, one thing remains certain: the Liberal Protestant gentry of Ireland hold aloof from these defenders of the Establishment.

It has already been made manifest that the Catholic gentry are unwilling any longer to tolerate that misrepresentation of their views and feelings which has declared them to be not only undesirous of the abolition of the Church Establishment, but even anxious to retain it. It was the special work of the Hillsborough demonstration to lay bare the real state of the case by provoking the declaration of the lay Catholics of Ireland which has been so influentially signed. It is true that in the tedious and rather ill-tempered "Address" afterwards published by "the Central Protestant Defence Association," an attempt is made to persuade the public that this Tory Committee is authorized to speak for the Catholic laity: "We utterly disclaim," they say, "any intention to encroach on the civil or religious liberty now so fully enjoyed by our Roman Catholic countrymen; and we know that we speak the sentiments of many of that persuasion when we say that, in defending the Protestant institutions in this country against the unjust attacks by which they are assailed, we are pleading the cause of the Roman Catholic laity themselves against an ascendancy of the Ultramontane party as odious to many of them as to us." This is fallacious in two ways: the Catholic laity have spoken for themselves in a different key; and the retention of the Establishment naturally gives the Irish priest a more prominent position on the political platform than he would otherwise have.

It is possible that the Tory committee do not see these obvious facts, though the very quotations they give from Catholic journals tell against their argument with reference to Catholic opinion. Too much, however, must not be expected from their intellectual capacity. If a writer in one of our daily papers condemned the policy pursued by James I. with respect to Ireland, no sane reader would construe his meaning to be that all Irish Protestants should now be rooted out of the country. Yet in the "Address" to which a number of Irish gentlemen have put their names something exactly like this has occurred. Here is the curious extract: "But even confiscation of lay and ecclesiastical property will not suffice without extinction of Protestantism, for we find a writer in another influential journal describing the settlement of the North" [in the reign of James I.] "as 'the infamous plantation of Ulster,' which means, according to our understanding, that the Protestants of the North ought to be as speedily as possible banished from the land." They pay a poor compliment to their understanding to charge it with such an inference ; but probably they are the best judges of its calibre. Men of station, however, ought not to be so densely ignorant of the fact that in the Ulster plantation a great number, the majority in fact, of the "planted" families were Irish Catholics. People who are reduced to such straits as theirs to show that somebody is going to persecute them need expect little sympathy from the public for their cry of mock agony.

But how do the Irish Dissenters respond to this attempt to work upon their fears and compel them to make common cause for the sake of Protestantism, threatened so urgently? In what manner do the "Protestants of the North" reply to this insidious appeal, in which the condemnation of an act of King James I. is quoted as indicating an intention to extirpate them "as speedily as possible" from Ireland? The effect of this and other like movements must have grievously disappointed those who concocted them. The Irish Dissenters refuse to make common cause with the Establishment. One congregation of Methodists did, it is true, before the meeting, pass a resolution in its favour, and the act was paraded with considerable joy as an indication of independent Protestant thought The fuss made over it was significant enough, but even this tiny cup of consolation was dashed from the lips that were opened for it. Wesleyan Methodists exposed the worthlessness of the resolution by showing that it emanated from a congregation of "Primitive" Methodists, who claim to be members of the Church of England, who receive its ministrations, and who refuse to be considered Dissenters. As to the Protestants of the North, they have expressed their opinion in unmistakeable terms. The Hillsborough demonstration evoked the spirit of Presbyterianism in a very unexpected way.

The Scottish infusion in Ulster has its own ideas; and this element suffered at the hands of "Prelacy" in Ireland, treatment similar to that accorded to its brethren in Scotland. When this is recalled to memory, it naturally kindles wrath against the "Prelatic Establishment." It was bad policy in the supporters of the Establishment to disturb the Presbyterians. Their silence could be misrepresented; but their voice must be heard to the confusion of those who appealed to them. Belfast and Londonderry are the respective centres of North-East and North-West Ulster ; in the one the Northern Whig, and in the other the Standard, represents the Presbyterians of the Northern province. How do these papers view the Establishment Question and the appeals made to the Protestants of the North? In one of its leading articles the latter journal makes the emphatic declaration—"The Irish Presbyterian Church can form no alliance, direct or indirect, with Anglican Prelacy for the support of the latter in any shape, even though all the riches of the British Exchequer should be freely held out as the reward of its apostacy." It goes so far as to quote Our Lord's temptation as an appropriate parallel, and says: "The 'kingdoms of the world and the glory of them' were once exhibited as an aggregate temptation to the abandonment of Divine obligation, and every true Church of Christ must be prepared, in every parallel emergency, to follow the leadership of its Mediatorial Head."

The abolition of the Regium Donum is contemplated as an ultimate necessity, for which provision must be made in due time, but to avoid which no principle must be sacrificed. In the meantime, "Prelacy and all other unscriptural organizations" are to be left "to fight their own battles, under a rigid system of Presbyterian 'non-intervention.'" The Belfast paper, the Northern Whig, declares that "Protestantism will thrive all the stronger in Ireland without the aid of this factitious Establishment." It adds that, taken as a representation of Ulster and of Protestants of all denominations, the Hillsborough meeting was "an ignominious failure," and that the efforts subsequently made to organize local demonstrations have encountered the same fate. The defenders of the Establishment it compares to a company of strolling players, so that two demonstrations in places apart cannot be held on the same day: "They are obliged to go from one place to another," it says, "and take part in the same proceedings in different localities; but such displays are not, and cannot be considered genuine and spontaneous expressions of the opinions of the inhabitants of those districts." It declares that the Protestant Defence Association know their position to be desperate, that the public voice refuses to respond to their appeal, that the sensible part of the Protestant public are more inclined to laugh at the performance than to sympathize with it, and finally that "it is useless for the defenders of a Church that only exists in glaring defiance of public opinion to appeal to public opinion for its maintenance."

The defenders of the Establishment have succeeded in completely isolating it. There can no longer be any doubt about its position. It is disliked and denounced not only by the Catholic millions, but also by the majority of the Protestants of Ireland, for the Dissenters and Liberal Protestants are much more numerous than the supporters of the Establishment. It remains simply as an appanage of Toryism, and why should the State be disturbed even for one day to preserve a mere party endowment?