UNLIKE the Church of England, the “mother” church of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Church of Ireland managed the introduction of women priests relatively smoothly and with little or no acrimony, certainly nothing that had any lasting effect.
And even now, while the mother church remains deeply divided over women bishops, the Church of Ireland already has one in place. The Rev Patricia Storey was appointed Bishop of Meath and Kildare in September 2013. However, this is not to say that all were singing from the same hymn sheet on this side of the Irish Sea on the ordination of women.
Donald Caird, who used to be the Bishops of Meath and Kildare (1976-1985), and then went on to become Archbishop of Dublin (1985-1996), was not convinced that the ordination of women was a wise move for the Church of Ireland. He was a cautious man and very much a traditionalist.
I saw this myself because during my time as religious affairs correspondent, I covered the annual General Synods in the old Synod Hall in Christchurch Place in Dublin for over 20 years. These were the years during which the key debates on the ordination of women took place, and I can recall many stirring speeches pro and con before the crucial votes was taken.
As the author of this biography, Aonghus Dwane (a graduate in law from UCC), says Donald Caird, who retired as Archbishop of Dublin in April 1996, was a traditionalist by instinct. “Donald, a cautious traditionalist, made an important contribution at the 1989 Synod, warning that a vote in favour (of the ordination of women) would liken the assembly to a ‘herd of lemmings’.”
Dr Caird, who was born in Dublin in December 1925, had noted that six provinces of the Anglican Communion had already ordained women to the priesthood, and one province had ordained a woman to the episcopate. But he warned “we must remember that we are Anglicans, and not lemmings, and we can still choose when to jump, or not to jump”.
When the Synod disagreed and voted to proceed with women priests, he loyally rowed in behind the decision and ordained one of the first women in the Republic, Ginnie Kennerley (a former Sunday Press journalist).
During his schooldays in Wesley College, the young Caird struggled with the Irish language. His father was advised that the boy should be despatched to the Gaeltacht. This led to County Kerry where he stayed with some local families, including Kruger Kavanagh’s, and it also led to an encounter with Blasket islands storyteller Peig Sayers.
Back in Dublin, Caird was by now fired with a new enthusiasm for the Irish language and Gaelic culture. This was later to lead to many new friendships, including one with Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh.
“Donald sought to present the Irish language as offering possibilities for mutual understanding rather than division, pointing to the Church of Ireland’s history of engagement with it. “His political hero Douglas Hyde had lamented the coming of into the Gaelic League in 1915.”
The Church of Ireland and its leaders had to cope with different and very difficult circumstances following the emergence of an independent Irish State. Throughout the 19th century the Church of Ireland had enjoyed a privileged position, and this continued even after Disestablishment in 1869.
“As the new state bedded down, a number of influences combined to push the Church of Ireland tradition from a central role to the margins of national life ... Laws in the independent state governing social mores — such as those on divorce with a ban inserted in the Constitution in 1937) and on contraception — reflected a Catholic ethos. Such a counter-reaction was perhaps inevitable,” says the author, “after centuries of state-sponsored Protestant ascendancy.”
That the transition to the new Ireland was managed so smoothly, relatively speaking, was due in no small measure to the quality of leadership in the Church of Ireland. And this biography illustrates that again.
It has struck me more than once that the Church of Ireland has been much more fortunate in its choice of bishops, and the quality of those chosen, than the Irish Catholic Church, especially since the 1970s when the long pontificate of John Paul II began.
The difference is due in large measure to the fact that the Church of Ireland is a largely autonomous province of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Its bishops are chosen locally and by locals. This is in sharp contrast to the obsession with centralised control that has become a defining characteristic of the Papacy and its Roman agents since the 18th century. The sooner local churches are empowered to elect local bishops the better.