Castletown, Church of Ireland is a small country church situated between Pallaskenry and Ballysteen, a short distance from Margaret’s home place at Ballymartin. On Christmas Eve we decided to attend the Holy Communion service there at 11.30pm. When we arrived there were already a few cars parked on the roadside and people were just beginning to enter the church , we took our place in a pew towards the back. About 40 people eventually made up the little congregation filling about a third of the seats. The interior of the church is very well maintained and looked as if had been recently painted. There is a simple altar at the front with two candles lit at either side and just above where we sat there was a large stone plaque on the wall extolling the virtues of a Cannon Waller who, according to the inscription was ‘ a fine Christian gentleman’. The service was conducted by a visiting English cleric who explained at the outset that he had come to Ireland for health reasons and to rest, but found himself frequently in situations like this, still called on to engage in active ministry. He had a warm distinctive accent with a slight impediment and was very welcoming and friendly. The hymns for the service were prominently displayed by number just to the left of the altar, all three were Christmas carols for the night that was in it. The Communion service was taken from the Book of Common Prayer which with the Hymn book was left on the pew. Almost all the prayers and readings were identical to the Roman Catholic rite of the Mass.
After singing a hymn and several prayers the rector gave a message suitable to the occasion where he spoke of the power of the Christmas story to draw us in to its heart and cause us to reflect on the sublime mystery of God incarnating Himself in our midst. The congregation were attentive and participated in the responses to the prayers and the singing of the hymns accompanied by the loud strains of the organ emanating from the loft upstairs.
The Church of Ireland is a diminishing community on this island no doubt progressed by the notorious Papal ‘Ne Temere’ decree of 1908 which required the Protestant partner in a mixed marriage ( with a catholic) to sign a document that promised that any children from the union would be brought up as Catholics. This of course effectively prevented the the church from any significant growth through marriage or births. The Church of Ireland describes itself as ‘an autonomous province of the Anglican communion’ which of course came out of King Henry V111’s falling out with Rome over his attempts to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Henry cut off contact with all the ecclesiastical power of Rome and the Anglican church became an autonomous British institution which later would be heavily influenced by leading figures of the reformation. In this country the C of I was always associated with the British occupation and so had little effect on ordinary Irish people. To this day many Protestants are well regarded in their communities as hard working and honest people, but their efforts at sharing the ‘gospel’ with their Catholic neighbours have historically failed. In part this failure can be attributed to their too close association with the ‘old enemy’ but in recent times it is debatable whether there is any ‘gospel’ dynamic remaining within its fold.
I enjoyed our midnight encounter with the members of the Church of Ireland congregation at Castletown this Christmas Eve where the carols and the service certainly focused the mind on the central Christian truth of that first Christmas night. The Book of Common Prayer seems to have replaced the Bible as the book in the pew, as the Missal has in the Roman Catholic tradition. This lack of Bible in both settings means the Word is relegated to chosen excerpts and consequently looses its autonomy and power. I think it was Martin Luther who once compared the Scriptures to a lion, who cannot be ‘tamed’ by man’s traditions or scruples ! A vibrant Christian witness requires the Word to be unfettered and free to do its work as God’s Spirit moves upon it.
Once again I am reminded of the rich Christian tradition that existed in this country and both the inspiration and the limitation of that great legacy. Up to 1871 the Church of Ireland was the official state church here until its disestablishment under Gladstone and the Liberals. Perhaps we need to roll back the pages of history further to a time when this island had the accolade of being a land of saints and scholars. As Patrick and his fellows preached the gospel to a pagan society and broke the old Druidic power system ,the Word was given a pre-eminence throughout the land with powerful and life-changing repercussions. While neither the Church of Ireland or the Roman Catholic Church may reach the dizzy heights of our Celtic spiritual forefathers, my prayer would be that the ‘church’ in Ireland will yet arise and become again that city shining on the hill !
. Gerard O'Shea