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The Reconstruction of the Church of Ireland: Bishop Bramhall and the Laudian Reforms, 1633-1641.

John McCafferty. The Reconstruction of the Church of Ireland: Bishop Bramhall and the Laudian Reforms, 1633-1641.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiii + 268 pp. index. tbls. map. bibl. $99. ISBN: 978-0-521-643-18-4.

John Bramhall is best known today for his part in a pamphlet war with Thomas Hobbes during the 1650s. But in 1633 he followed Thomas Wentworth to Ireland, where as Bishop of Derry he became the chief executive agent of the campaign launched by Wentworth and Archbishop Laud to reform the Irish Church. McCafferty's study is only indirectly concerned with analysis of the religious culture of Ireland or developments at the grassroots level. He instead provides a painstaking account of the measures imposed on the Irish Church by Bramhall and his two patrons.

In its formal structures the Irish Church was essentially a mirror image of its English counterpart, but on the ground the religious situation played out very differently. Twelfth-century reforms had given Ireland more than twenty bishoprics, many poorly endowed and remote from areas of English settlement. It often proved impossible to fill them with capable men and several sees went unoccupied for long periods. The dissolution of the Irish monasteries resulted in just over half of Irish parishes becoming impropriated by Old English Catholic gentry or New English settlers, who usually took little care to provide qualified incumbents. Catholicism remained the island's dominant faith and a Catholic clergy existed alongside that of the official church. By failing to provide a liturgy and a Protestant literature in Irish, the Tudor Church left a clear field for Catholic apologists and secular writers unfriendly to Protestant control. James I, who expressed horror over the state of the Irish Church at the Hampton Court Conference, attempted to promote systematic reforms. He succeeded in filling most of the Irish bishoprics but his attempts to reendow Irish parishes were sabotaged locally. In the late 1620s William Laud communicated with James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and effective primate of Ireland, about recovering Irish impropriations. But their efforts were again blocked by the Irish Council.

Wentworth arrived in Ireland determined to tackle abuses head-on and relied on Bramhall to carry through his plans. They began by attempting to recover church revenues through litigation, backed by an aggressive use of the prerogative, aimed at impropriators and men enjoying beneficial leases of church lands. Bramhall exhibited formidable research skills in this effort. In 1634 Wentworth convened an Irish Convocation and demanded that it adopt the Thirty-Nine Articles--an English doctrinal formula dating from 1562, which the Irish Church had never ratified--and the English canons. But resistance soon mounted in the Lower House, tactfully abetted by Ussher, who was determined to resist what he saw as Laud's attempt to reduce the Church of Ireland to a dependency of Canterbury. In the end Convocation adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles but dropped thirty of the 141 English canons, while modifying others. McCafferty provides an exhaustive analysis of the sparring over these issues and the canonical formulas that resulted.

He next examines Bramhall's efforts to recruit bishops and deans and his relatively successful efforts to increase income of Irish sees. Bramhall saw this campaign as a model for what might later be attempted in England. An Irish High Commission was authorized in 1635 and began sitting the next year. Although it mainly dealt with issues of property and assorted moral abuses, it also cracked down on Puritan nonconformity, an issue of particular concern of Bramhall, who set out to impose uniformity in the diocese of Derry, which included large numbers of Scottish settlers and clergy that he regarded as especially refractory. Like Wentworth and Laud, he viewed Scottish nonconformity as an expression of disobedience and cover for greedy assaults on episcopal property, and believed that depriving the most obdurate offenders, while making it clear that conformist clergy would benefit from his campaign to recover Church property, would solve the problem.

The whole program collapsed in 1641, when an Irish Parliament made common cause with Strafford's English enemies. Bramhall was impeached and imprisoned, although the outbreak of the Irish rebellion aborted his trial. This is a somewhat dense study that will not be accessible to undergraduates, but it does provide a guide for those seeking a detailed account of Laudian reforms in Ireland.


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Author:Smuts, Malcolm
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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