250th Anniversary of Bishop John Brinkley ~ Bishop Paul Colton’s Address

Address given by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,

Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross following Evensong on

Sunday, 18th September 2016

in the Cathedral Church of Saint Colman, Cloyne

on the occasion of the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the birth

of Bishop John Brinkley

I’m very pleased to be here this afternoon as Bishop of Cloyne, to assert afresh my claim to the Diocese (albeit as Bishop of the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross) in the face of the suggestion I’ve seen in a number of places in relation to your weekend of commemoration, that John Brinkley was the last Bishop of Cloyne.  Of course, I know what people mean when they say that, but please let me assure you that you do indeed, very much have a bishop here in Cloyne today, as you have in the years since Brinkley’s death in 1835..

News headlines at the end of August, caught my eye – ‘Scientists looking for alien life investigate interesting signal from space.’  ‘Astronomers have detected an “interesting” and possibly alien radio signal coming from a sun-like star’, proclaimed another.  In more populist terms the Daily Mail asked ‘Is earth being contacts by ALIENS? Mystery radio signals come from a sun-like star.’  Some people got very excited.  Within hours it was all being dampened down by the scientists.

I am reminded of the youth club I organised when I was a curate in Lisburn in the 1980s. I recall the glee of youngster who told me how, late one night one of their friends,  young lad who loved his shortwave radio, became really excited.  He thought he had made contact with a fellow radio ham from as far away as China. The voice came and went, crackled,  disappeared and returned; it turned out to be Jimmy who worked a mile away from him in the Silver City Chinese Takeaway, on Longstone Street.  

Scientific exploration and endeavour, and commonplace curiosity, the search for meaning and the desire to set out a narrative that makes sense of everything, have always been innate human quests.  When it comes to the sky we stare at passing clouds by day, and at the stars on a clear night;  ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God …’

While I have a strong and widely read interest in history and am not scientifically illiterate, it is, nonetheless, my precarious predicament on an occasion such as this that among the people present are those who, inevitably, know more about the subject matter from the perspective of those two disciplines than I, as a bishop, do.  Thankfully, of course, my role is neither historical analysis nor scientific pursuit.  Equally addresses in a liturgical context cannot be so compartmentalised as to ignore the rigorous insights of other disciplines.

People like Bishop Brinkley with their expertise in different disciplines, in his case not only mathematics, physics and astronomy, but also botany and church history, remind us that the theological enterprise, cannot be explored in remote isolation from other spheres of knowledge, human pursuit and concerns. On the contrary, ‘the Word became flesh and lived for awhile among us …’ says Saint John.  The incarnation is caught up with the here and now and the things of earth and flesh, of time and place, and, of light and darkness.

Nonetheless, you will be glad to hear, therefore, that I do not intend to begin with Brinkley’s account in 1815 ‘of Observations Made at the Observatory of Trinity College, Dublin, with an Astronomical Circle, Eight Feet in Diameter, Which Appear to Point out an Annual Parallax in Certain Fixed Stars. Also a Catalogue of North Polar Distances of Forty-Seven Principal Fixed Stars, from Recent Observations, and a Comparison Thereof with Those of the Same Stars, Obtained by Other Instruments, and by the Same Instrument, at a Former Period .’  Besides, your weekend has already been devoted, predominantly to his work as an astronomer.  

As it happens, however, as Rector of Castleknock in Dublin in the 1990s I had Dunsink Observatory in my parish, visited it often, and was good friends with the then Andrews Professor of Astronomy  – Patrick Wayman – as well as his wife Mavis.  Their daughter Sheila, still a friend, was our church organist. Professor Wayman had been one of the parochial nominators who appointed me to the parish.  He presented me with a copy of a history of Dunsink published to mark its bicentenary, and it was there that I first encountered the name of John Brinkley.  Often we would bring young people to visit Dunsink and Professor Wayman would say to them at the start of his tour:

There is no conflict between the bible and science.  Where there appears to be conflict it is due either to a misunderstanding of the Bible or a misunderstanding of science.

But what of John Brinkley?  I gather that I have been asked to reflect principally on Brinkley’s ministry as Bishop.  It is very difficult for a speaker on an occasion such as this who is not immersed in the primary sources, to get beyond the secondary sources.  The preponderance of that written about Brinkley focusses on his work as an astronomer, and many records then simply state, tersely, ‘he was elected Bishop of Cloyne in 1836 where he remained for the last nine years of his life.’    What of that period?  I’m sure he must have done much more than ‘just remain’ for nine years.

I did find the record of Brinkley’s baptism, however: 17 January, 1767 in the Parish Church of Saint Mary, Woodbridge in Suffolk in England, a parish mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.  The church Brinkley was baptised in is still there; it was built at the start of the 15th century.  Only Brinkley’s mother’s name, Sarah, is recorded.   We know that John was taken under the wing of local clergy, two in succession, who educated him. At the age of 17, on 29th August, 1783 he entered Caius College, Cambridge. He graduated with a first class honours and a Smith’s Prizeman (awarded in mathematics or theoretical physics) in 1788.  Three years later he was awarded his Master’s degree and became a fellow of the College.  He was ordained that year (1791) too in Lincoln Cathedral.  The following year he was appointed as the second Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Dublin University (Trinity College) with responsibility for the Observatory at Dunsink. The professorship carried with it the new title of ‘Royal Astronomer of Ireland.’  

Within the United Church of England and Ireland he held livings in Elphin, in Meath and in Clogher, where he served as Archdeacon from 1808 to 1826.  While there, in 1822, he was elected President of the Royal Irish Academy, a position he held until his death in 1835. By Letters Patent, dated 28th September 1826 (190 years ago) he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne, and was consecrated in the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle by the Archbishop of Cashel, assisted by the Bishop of Meath and the Bishop of Kildare, a mere ten days later, on 8th October: none of the waiting and palaver of modern episcopal consecrations.

As I say, piecing together some analysis of Brinkley’s episcopate has been no easy task within the time available.  We can look at the context – the Diocese of the day, the wider Church, and what was going on in society.  Contextual information is important because it has been difficult to pin down what sort of person Brinkley was as a bishop and what he actually did during his nine years here, keeping in mind that for a number of years latterly, he was ill.  Nine years is a short episcopate in a place, at least I think it is, given that I am now in my eighteenth year, and feel I still have a lot to do and give.

We know from Samuel Lewis that, two years after Brinkley’s death in 1837, close enough to his time, Cloyne as a market and post-town with a population of 2227 and 6410 in the wider parish.  The Bishop’s Palace, in which Brinkley lived, was described as ‘a large edifice, built by Bishop Crow in 1718, and enlarged by several of the succeeding prelates.’  About 100 people were employed in the town making brogues and hats.  Market day was Thursday.  Fairs were held 5 times a year, including on Tuesday in Easter Week and the Tuesday after Whitsunday. The Diocese owned 12,482 statute acres, most of it ‘rough unprofitable mountain’, but nonetheless the annual income in 1831 was £3,402.  The Chapter here at the time comprised the dean, precentor, chancellor, treasurer, archdeacon and fourteen prebendaries.  In addition there were 5 vicars choral.  There wre 125 parishes in the Diocese in 22 unions – 91 benefices.   There were 64 churches and 21 school or other houses in which Divine Service was held until churches could be built.  That’s pretty much the Diocese around Brinkley’s time.

This was the era when, following the Act of Union, the Church of Ireland was of course, in fact and in law, ‘The United Church of England and Ireland’, a polity that pertained until 31st December 1870 and disestablishment came into force the next day, 1st January 1871.  During this period the Irish Canons of 1634 were set aside and here in Ireland, the canonical framework – the law of the Church – was, instead, the English Canons of 1603.  This was Brinkley’s ecclesiastical world.  William Howley, an old style High Churchman in the tradition of the Caroline Divines was Archbishop of Canterbury.  John George de la Poer Beresford, also an old-style High Churchman, was Archbishop of Armagh.  He knew something of this part of the world; he had been Bishop of Cork and Ross from 1805 to 1807.  

An historian of the Church of Ireland, Alan Acheson, says that Brinkley was a ‘useful ally’ of Archbishop Beresford.  Beresford was keen to implement reforms but managed to do so only with the support of the Whig Government. Acheson says that in a private letter to Brinkley, and some others, Beresford set out his objectives:  the abolition of church cess (or tax), settling the question of First Fruits by taxing benefices, restricting pluralities (rector holding a number of parishes), enforcing residence, dissolving unions, paying curates adequately, and providing a fund for the erection of glebe house and churches, and ‘the more equal diffusion of the Established Church throughout Ireland.’   It was a time of great upheaval.  How keen and supportive Brinkley himself was on all of this I have been unable to corroborate, but clearly Beresford saw him as an ally.

When Brinkley became Bishop in 1826, the Archbishop of Dublin was a former Dean of Cork, William Magee.  Magee was an evangelical fundamentalist who was a staunch opponent of Catholic Emancipation.  His grandson also later became Dean of Cork and afterwards Archbishop of York.  Magee’s evangelicalism made him a firm supporter of the so-called second reformation in Ireland in the 1820s, and we are told that Brinkley ‘invited evangelical clergy into the Diocese … who cooperated with orthodox churchmen ‘over a range of common issues’ (Acheson) and that the bishops ‘reached a modus vivendi [a way of living] with them.’  

Brinkley did attract many young clergy to Cloyne.  During the winter of 1831-32 the area was badly affected by famine and disease.  There was a cholera outbreak in Cork City.  A number of these young men died – Thomas Walker, rector of Buttevant, died of Typhus; he was 29.  Six weeks later his curate, Robert Disney died.  Not far from here, the rector of Tallow, the 33 year old Henry Brougham died.  On 7th July 1832 cholera reached Skibbereen on the same day as an anti-tithe meeting.  There was cholera in Schull too, and Castletownshend.  

In the wider polity of society and State, in this period, burning questions were: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (1828), tithes and the tithe war (1831-36), Catholic Emancipation (1829), the introduction of a system of national education in 1831 (Lord Stanley).  In December 1834 at Bartlemy Cross near Rathcormac, for example, the Tithe Wars came to a head;  up to 20 people were killed and many injured.  

In Brinkley’s time, the very Diocese of which he was bishop was under threat by the proposals of ecclesiastical reform.  The Church Temporalities Act 1833 was seen by many, including such as John Keble, as imperiling the Church itself. It led to a highly symbolic confrontation between Church and State.  After Brinkley’s death as current holder of the bishopric, Cloyne would be united with Cork and Ross.  

All these things happened during his time here. I would love to know what Brinkley’s response was. It was a time of religious revival, or agitation, of disease, poverty and illness, of political reform;   I would love to find, but have been unable to find, any writings by Brinkley or pronouncements on such subjects.  Brinkley was Bishop through all this, but I cannot find anything of his response, and response there must surely have been. In general Irish histories written about this period I have not been able to find mention of Brinkley of, in the main about Cloyne. I find it hard to imagine he left nothing; after all his scientific work is still readily accessible.   This might be a project for the Friends of the Cathedral and local history societies if not already researched.

Nonetheless, referring to the episcopal appointments of the period, including that of Brinkley, Acheson says that ‘[t]hese were men of ability and stature who exerted a steadying influence, and on whose counsel Beresford [The Archbishop of Armagh]… relied much at a critical time. Following Brinkley’s death on 14th September 1835 in his brother’s house on Leeson Street in Dublin, in an obituary of the Bishop published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in November 1835, this is what was said:  he ‘…promoted many exemplary curates, whose labours had been overlooked by his predecessors,  and he separated several parishes from his see, to give the inhabitants the benefits of a resident rector.’  Then there is a clue, perhaps, as to why we learn little of Brinkley in this era; the obituary states ‘From the time of his elevation, his health gradually declined and he was forced to abandon scientific pursuits altogether…’  He must have been dutiful also, for even in a state of bad health, he travelled to a conference of the Irish bishops shortly before his death.  His memorial in this Cathedral Church tells us much about the public side of the Bishop:

Quick in discerning and rewarding Professional Merit, and anxious to rule with Firmness without Severity, he succeeded in maintaining Discipline without voicing Complaint. In general literature and Natural History, as well as in Science, his Attainments were accurate and diversified, and his Communications interesting and instructive ; learned, without Pedantry, and pious without Ostentation ; unaffectedly kind to every Member of his Household ; liberal in his Charity, and given to Hospitality. His Death was generally deplored, and his Memory is justly revered by those who have raised this humble Record of his Worth.

Many of those things are good qualities in a bishop, in any leader – and this weekend here his memory is again ‘justly revered’.  I, for one, long to know more about him.  We honour again a man of humble, might even one say, uncertain origins, whose unique talents and intellect were spotted and nurtured, whose skill and erudition set him apart in his own day, to whom was entrusted a professorial chair, leadership in his field, and within the academy generally, on a national and international stage; someone, who also, in faith, heard the call of God and responded to that vocation in Holy Orders, as deacon, priest and finally as Bishop, serving in this place.

What of all this today?   I see that many sources assert that as soon as he became bishop he set his astronomy aside; his notebooks and observations were all put away.  I found that deplorable at first, but later learnt it was due to his ill health.  He must surely have brought his mathematical and scientific insights to bear somehow on his work as a bishop.  That he should have done so is a good thing.  Christian ministry is enriched by the diversity of gifts, educations,  engagements, insights and interests (sometimes peculiar and tangential)  of its clergy and lay people.

That’s the parting thought I want to leave with you.  These reflections on the life of Brinkley, priest and bishop, mathematician and astronomer prompt some lessons for this time in which we live.  Herein is a salutary warning to us in this era of renewed fundamentalism, biblicism, and an unhealthy quest for certainty.  The nature of humanity and life is of itself mysterious and uncertain.  We see the flawed and fruitless quest for certainty not only in theology and in church life, but also in other disciplines too, economics (BREXIT?), politics, and maybe even presidential elections (‘Make America Great Again’?).  We journey in a time and place, in a cosmic order that is beyond our understanding and is inherently uncertain, and requires the gift of faith.  Headlines of a different kind again this week remind us of this, and our own striving to understand:  ‘Star’s dust cloud gives birth to a giant planet’ – the BBC news website announced.
Our faith is not to be lived apart, remote, cut off, sheltered from other disciplines and discoveries.  The quest for theological understanding and our response of faith must learn the lessons acquired by others who are seeking truth in their fields. In particular, I would want to say to this generation again, we must bring interdisciplinary partnership to bear, especially, on our engagement with our reading of the books of the Bible.   Our discipleship too must engage with the issues of our own time.  And in all of this exercise of commemoration there is a terrifying challenge, personal to me as bishop, and to you as people of faith in this Diocese – when our descendants come to remember us in 200 years, what will they find of us and our discipleship in these times?  What story will they tell of us?

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