In the coming days, an historic and defining moment in the history of the Church of Ireland will be re-enacted in Cork, as a contribution by the United Dioceses of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Diocesan 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 that moment on 19th February 1870 when his predecessor, Bishop John Gregg, read aloud the first draft of the Preamble and Declaration – 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.’
The 19th February 1870 was a significant day 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 22nd February 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.’
As a workshop style event, it isn’t open to the public, but the end-result, the re-enactment, will be videoed and photographed for posterity and publication.
The General Convention met for two extended sessions in 1870; the First Session was 41 days between 15th February 1870 to 2nd April 1870, and the Second Session for 16 days sat between 18th October and 4th November 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 1st January 1871, following the enactment of the Irish Church Act 1869.
Bishop Paul 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 19th February 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.