The Establishment and the Irish Protestants

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

By 'An Ulsterman'

To judge from the press of the country no question more seriously occupies the public mind in Ireland, at the present time, than that of the disendowment of the Church Establishment. Journals in the popular interest incessantly assail it; and one of them even issued "a commission" to report upon the condition of the several dioceses. The instalments of the Report periodically appearing thoroughly familiarized the public with its anomalies On the other hand, the friends of the Establishment have been bestirring themselves, and apparently considering the danger imminent, have attempted a double defence. They have sought to combine the two principal denominations of unestablished Protestants in a demonstration in favor of the endowment, and to inflame the Orange Society of Ulster, so that they may use its passions as a means of intimidating the Government.

The demonstration at Hillsborough, in October, first showed how far they had succeeded in both objects They have moved the Orange Society and the Irish Tory members, because the latter are personally interested in maintaining the Establishment, and because the former is in reality an electioneering society—a sort of Tory Trades' Union But with regard to the rest they have receded rather than advanced. Their great demonstration has proved a great blunder. Previous to it Englishmen might conceivably have believed that Protestants of all denominations in Ireland were favorable to the maintenance of the Establishment; but the opinions elicited from the Dissenting bodies at the prospect of the Hillsborough demonstration have been fatal to such an argument, especially after the pathetic appeal which was made to them in the address convoking the meeting.

This address was for some time flown over the country like a kite, with a tail of noble names appended to it. Its authors went aside to pay unskilful compliments to the Presbyterians and Methodists, condescending much, in order that they might be able to proclaim that the Hillsborough meeting was a demonstration of "the Protestants of Ireland." They have had their humiliation for their pains The Dissenters were not caught by their suddenly declared friendship and admiration, and did not throw their weight as religious congregations into the scale with the Establishment.

The Methodists and Presbyterians are by far the largest of the several dissenting bodies in Ireland.

The Census Commissioners reckon 45,399 Methodists, only 9 per cent, of whom, at the age of 5 years and beyond it, could neither read nor write; of Presbyterians there are 523,291; taken at the same ages, 11.1 of these were found unable to read or write. The total number members of the Established Church is 693,357, of whom 16 per cent, at the same ages, could neither read nor write.

The proportion of ignorance here is least among the Protestant Voluntaries, it appears to increase in direct ratio with the increased amount of endowments given to the other two bodies; and it is not unnatural that under such circumstances the Methodists should fail to see the advantage of maintaining a wealthy Establishment. Several letters have appeared from them, stating distinctly that "the Methodists as a body take no interest in the proposed demonstration," and in the Northern Whig of Belfast a correspondent declared that "no Wesleyan minister could be induced to sign the requisition calling the meeting." Besides this, there is a communication from a minister, quoting an extract from the address of the Methodist Conference, which he considers appropriate to the occasion. "We solemnly warn you, dear brethren," it says, "meddle not with political discussions or meetings; they have a direct tendency to injure the mind by leading to the forming of connections and associations that are unfavourable to piety." The minister does not believe that it was needful for the Methodists to appear at Hillsborough to attest either their "Protestantism" or their "loyalty;" their going, he said, would not tend to advance the principles of the Reformation, or to strengthen the hands of the Government in an impartial administration of the law. Another Methodist correspondent in a Dublin paper declares that "if for no other reason than for her own prosperity and advancement in spiritual life I hope to see the day when the Established Church will cease to receive State aid." He wishes the country to understand that the scant attendance of Wesleyans at such a demonstration is due to the fact of their declining to be led, by an irrelevant compliment in an advertisement, to participate in a political movement which is at variance with their own system of Church government, and "rather inimical than favourable to the interests of true Christianity."

Whilst rebuffs of this kind have been administered to the party of the Establishment by the Methodists, the reception given them by influential Presbyterians has not been encouraging. It was otherwise thirty-three years ago. Then as now the Church Establishment was threatened, and a commission appointed to take its case into consideration and report upon it. To sustain its cause an agitation was begun similar to the one now attempted, and a monster meeting was held at Hillsborough, of which that of last October was an imitation. Then, however, the Corporation of Dublin petitioned for the maintenance of the existing state of things; and the Lord Mayor presided at a mass meeting held in Dublin to express views to that effect. Now the majority of the Corporation would petition in an opposite sense; and a Lord Mayor lately presided over a Reform meeting where the Establishment, as such, was vigorously denounced. Then Mr. Cooke, speaking for the Presbyterian body, assured the Hillsborough meeting of its cordial co-operation with the Church Establishment. He even proceeded to solemnize a marriage between the Presbyterian Church and the Church Establishment. "Who forbids the banns?" he cried. "None, I presume." No Presbyterian came forward to express dissent; and Mr. Cooke then sealed the union by declaring, "What God has joined let no man put asunder."

The preliminary attempt to publish banns for a new marriage — for it seems that the former one was not long held binding — has, however, been forbidden early. As soon as it was hinted at, the Presbyterian organs began to denounce it. They reminded their brethren of the Establishment that six years had scarcely elapsed from the period of the so-called marriage, when their favoured friends raised a point which made many Presbyterian marriages void, and many Presbyterians themselves illegitimate. This was the well-known Presbyterian marriage question, first raised in the Consistorial Court of Armagh, and decided in the Irish Court of Queen's Bench, the appeal to the House of Lords having resulted in a tie. The question turned on the validity of the ceremony when performed by a Presbyterian minister in certain cases, and the judgment declared it invalid. The Presbyterians, they said, had been made tools of, and then flung aside when they were no longer needed.

"The Irish Prelatical party," observes an Ulster Presbyterian journal, published in Londonderry, "exerted all their influence in order to prevent Presbyterians from obtaining an Act of Parliament to undo the unparalleled mischief which had been wrought—a proceeding indicating an amount of sectarian bitterness which charity would have been slow even to suspect beforehand." A recent Charge of the present Primate, it seems, characterized other Protestant denominations as "numberless sects—at once the weakness and disgrace of the Reformation" Commenting on this, the same paper speaks of the hardihood of summoning Presbyterians, Methodists, and other Protestant Dissenters to Hillsborough in order to preserve, maintain, and perpetuate in the country the ascendancy and State emoluments of a spiritual oligarchy which dooms them to the condition of outcasts from the commonwealth of Israel. The Belfast journal opens its columns to similar plain speaking One of its correspondents, for instance, a "true blue Presbyterian," says he must be excused from attending the Hillsborough meeting, and gives his reasons in a systematic impeachment of the Church Establishment. Another warns the Established Clergy that they would serve God and their country better by minding their parochial church duties, and by "devoting the time spent in Orange Lodges, getting up agitations, and gadding about the streets, in house-to-house visiting—to attending more to the poor, sick, and afflicted, and less to politics."

More remarkable perhaps is the correspondence which is published as having passed between Mr. Rutherford, a Presbyterian minister, dating from Banbridge, and the Secretaries of the Hillsborough meeting. He invited the conveners of the meeting to appoint one or more of their number to meet him in a public discussion on the propriety of continuing the endowment of the Established Church. A Secretary replied, somewhat evasively, that no one would be allowed to speak without permission from the chairman; and in commenting on the reply, Mr. Rutherford says: "Is it then to be endured by any civilized community that a nation of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians shall be compelled, at the point of the bayonet, to pay such enormous emoluments for the support of the religion of a sect so numerically contemptible..... I would rejoice in the total disendowment of all parties in Ireland; and rather than the Royal Bounty (Regium, Donum) should stand in the way of the removal of the huge injustice and wrong of the Establishment, and of the pacification, progress, and prosperity of this land—rather than my native country should be a bye-word and hissing among the nations for its misgovern-ment, oppression, and wretchedness—and I speak in the name of all the thoughtful, earnest, and intelligent members of the assembly, lay and clerical—we like Moses of old with the golden calf 'would burn it in the fire, and grind it to powder, and strew it on the waters.'"

From indications like these it is evident that no demonstration in favour of the maintenance of the Church Establishment can be taken as expressing the views Of "the Protestants of Ireland." The Dissenters, who in number approach the members of the Established Church, do not as a body support its claims. A few perhaps may incline in its favour; but it has been shown that many influential voices amongst them oppose it strenuously; and—what is even more significant—that the Establishment has been losing support and converting adherents into enemies. That it should have thrown itself into the arms of the Orange Society may perhaps be excused on the plea that it only follows a natural instinct.

Its identification with Orangeism, however, disposes at once of various arguments based on its assumed acceptance by the nation at large. No one can say that Orangeism is popular with the Irish people; and the Church Establishment, which has chosen to cast its lot with Orangeism, would clearly have destroyed its popularity with the nation, if popularity it had ever had. This, however, was never anything but a pleasant fiction; and the expression of the sentiments of Protestant Dissenters in Ulster has sufficed to scatter the last shreds of it to the winds.