ON Monday, February 24, an historic and defining moment in the history of the Church of Ireland will be re-enacted in Cork.
It will be part of a contribution by the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross to the current 150th anniversary commemorations of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.
Bishop Paul Colton, with the support of chaplains at the three diocesan second level schools — Ashton School, Bandon Grammar School and Midleton College — has invited drama students to join him and some of the clergy of the diocese in period costume to re-enact the moment on February 19, 1870, when his predecessor, Bishop John Gregg, read aloud the first draft of the Preamble and Declaration. The event takes place at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral on Monday morning, but is not open to the general public.
This was a statement of fundamental characteristics in the belief and governance of the Church of Ireland, affirming its continuity with both the ‘Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland’ and also its character as ‘a reformed and Protestant church’.
That day 150 years ago yesterday was a significant one in the history of the Church of Ireland. It was the fifth day of the General Convention of the Church of Ireland, which had been meeting at the Antient Concert Rooms at 52 Great Brunswick Street (Pearse Street today).
The Archbishop of Armagh, Marcus Gervais Beresford, was in the chair and the proceedings were opened with a bible reading and prayer conducted by the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chevenix Trench.
During that morning session, the Preamble and Declaration to the draft Constitution of the Church of Ireland was proposed by the Bishop of Cork and seconded by the Archbishop of Dublin.
It was read aloud by the Bishop of Cork, Dr John Gregg. Clearly, everyone present recognised that this was a solemn moment.
They stood up and removed their hats while the Bishop read out the document which, following discussion and amendment was adopted on February 22, 1870. It has a special character within the polity of the Church of Ireland; it has never been amended since and is often referred to as ‘one of the title deeds of the Church of Ireland’.
Bishop Colton will be joined by two retired bishops at the re-enactment. Bishop Richard Clarke, recently retired as Archbishop of Armagh, will fulfil the role of his predecessor Archbishop in Armagh, Marcus Gervais Beresford, and the former Bishop of Limerick will play the part of Archbishop Richard Chevenix Trench. Barrister Tim Bracken will be present as the assessor. Drew Ruttle, chaplain at Ashton School, has sourced the costumes for the occasion.
“One thing we haven’t been able to ascertain,” says Bishop Colton, “is whether or not in those Antient Concert Rooms, women attended as spectators or not .
“We know from the lists that no women were members and it would be many decades more (the early 1950s) before women took their place as members of the General Synod, so we have taken a liberty of assuming that women may have been in attendance to view proceedings, although not as members of the Convention itself.
“There is a certain irony that in later years the same Antient Concert Rooms would be used as the offices of the first suffragette society in Ireland: the Irish Women’s Franchise League.”
The re-enactment will be videoed and photographed for posterity.
The General Convention met for two extended sessions in 1870; the First Session was 41 days between February 15, 1870 to April 2, 1870, and the Second Session for 16 days sat between October 18 and November 4 the same year. Its task was to prepare the Church of Ireland for its disestablishment (when it would cease to be the State church) on January 1, 1871, following the enactment of the Irish Church Act 1869.
Bishop Colton said: “Most of the events to mark the 150th anniversary years of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland are, understandably, Dublin-linked and based.
“Although this moment of reading the Preamble and Declaration on February 19, 1870, also happened in Dublin, at the Antient Concert Rooms on what was then Great Brunswick Street in my own grandmother’s home parish, we have latched onto the Cork connection through my predecessor Bishop John Gregg to create the opportunity for a local commemoration.
“While it should be fun, there is also a serious side. It holds before us all the fundamental principles of belief and governance as set out in that document.
“From our 21st century perspective, it also highlights the fact that it was only men, and men of a particular socio-economic grouping at that, who participated in that General Convention.”
Following the re-enactment, Bishop Colton will be hosting the cast of about 50 people to lunch at the Bishop’s Palace, where they can see, at first hand, the portraits of Bishop John Gregg, and his son Bishop Robert Gregg who succeeded his father as Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross.
Later this year, Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral Cork will begin a year of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the Cathedral, another historic moment overseen by Bishop John Gregg.