The Catholic Church in Ireland is losing market share. Some would call this a healthy development
An almost unnoticed, but historically dramatic, social change has occurred in Ireland over the past few years: more and more Irish Catholics are joining the Church of Ireland.
After a long decline ever since 1861, Irish Anglicanism is undergoing a quite remarkable period of growth.
In the early Nineties, there were 82,840 members of the Church of Ireland in the 26 counties. This has increased by 50pc, to 121,229.
Some of this expansion is due to immigration. But a substantial amount is due to conversion -- cradle Catholics turning to the Reformed faith.
Some 10pc of Irish Anglicans studying to be ordained were former Roman Catholics. In Ennis, Co Clare, the Church of Ireland population has increased from 68 to 400 -- a sixfold growth, in what was, numerically, the least Protestant county in Ireland.
In Navan, Co Meath, the Protestant population has grown from 111 to 541: virtually a five-fold increase.
The current Dean of Dublin's Anglican Christ Church, Dr Dermot Dunne, was previously a Catholic cleric who broke with the Vatican over the issue of married priests (Dr Dunne is now married). Catholics are joining the Church of Ireland for a variety of reasons, which add up to a general discontent with the church in which they were baptised and brought up.
The Catholic Church in Ireland, in other words, is losing market share. Some would call this a healthy development. The Church of Ireland is a fine Christian denomination, and the days are well gone when Catholics were taught that Martin Luther's Reformed faith was simply "in error".
Didn't Jesus Christ himself say that "in my Father's house, there are many mansions?" We are all much more easy-going, these days, about where people find their spiritual life. Many would agree with Frank Sinatra's comfort guidelines: Whatever gets you through the night.
And I think in matters of faith, as well as in other fields, a little competition is no bad thing. Remember how in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, the one suggestion that would generally yield assistance from the Catholic charities was the threat of the poor turning to Quaker charities instead?
The social consequences of more Irish Catholics becoming Anglican will be fascinating. In his wonderful series of essays about modern Ireland, Luck and the Irish, Professor Roy Foster suggested that socially, Catholic Ireland had already become more Protestant: that is, more a la carte about matters of worship, more individualistic, more guided by personal conscience than by a Vatican Magisterium.
This is all true: but, by the same token, Irish Protestant culture had also become more Catholic. The SPCK bookshops, which once only sold Biblical tracts, now sell Rosary beads, holy pictures, and pamphlets about pilgrimages. Anglican (and even Methodist) clergy go in for blessing homesteads, and some even accept such folk religious practices as the veneration of holy wells.
It is well known that a "tipping point" occurs whenever the numbers game changes in any social group. When women enter the legal profession in substantial numbers, the concept and practice of law alters. Thus, it will be interesting to see what happens to Irish Anglicanism if cradle Catholics continue to switch to the C of I.
In England, the traffic has until now been in the other direction, as more English Anglicans have become Roman Catholics -- again, for a complexity of reasons, mainly to do with the apparent fragmentation of world Anglicanism. In "popeing" -- Ann Widdicombe is a famous example -- these cradle Anglicans have gradually altered English Catholicism. The hymns are better, there are more harvest festivals, and sermons are noticeably longer than was usual in the Catholic church, where the five-minute special was considered quite sufficient, thank you.
I predict that the numbers game will make Irish Anglicanism more Irish in a variety of ways. The regimental flags will come down from the old Church of Ireland cathedrals -- many have already done so -- and the cult of local saints will emerge. There will be grottos to the Blessed Virgin at various Churches of the Holy Trinity, and a Month's Mind prayer for the dead. There will be more lighting of candles, and the odd Novena might even make an appearance -- it only means a nine-day prayer cycle.
Religion is inextricably linked with culture, and it always takes on the context of the culture in which it flourishes. The Church of Ireland was bound to decline when it seemed to represent something which was not inherent to the custom of the country. But its renaissance is a signal that root and branch it too draws on the faith brought to us by St Patrick.