The Church of Ireland officially bids farewell to Archbishop Robin Eames at a service in Armagh this evening. His official retirement is not until the end of the year, but it is appropriate that people from the four provinces will gather at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to pay tribute to a long and distinguished primacy. It is appropriate that among the gathering will be the Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of our younger sister church in England.
Dr Eames’ retirement marks not just the end of a personal ministry. It marks the end of an era. He will be the last Church of Ireland Primate of national significance. His successor will not command a similar status either within the Church or in wider society.
At the wider level, the end of the Troubles has meant there is no longer the role of peacemaker and reconciler. Tensions of course remain, but they are between communities for whom the Church has no part to play. It is unthinkable that a future Primate would command such a profile in the political process that he be granted a peerage by the British prime minister.
The material prosperity that has made Newry the town with the fastest rising property prices in the United Kingdom over the past decade has loosened people in Northern Ireland from their traditional roots and religious loyalties. The churchgoing constituency has shrunk and the Church of Ireland has had to compete with a plethora of small evangelical churches for support. Younger clergy competing in that market are likely to be of a more narrowly conservative evangelical or even fundamentalist disposition than their predecessors. The days of the gentle, avuncular country parson, ministering to all people without question or consideration of theological nuances are a thing of the past. The times when clergy were regarded as men of learning with insights to offer to the wider community and with a role to play in civic life are laughed at by those certain of their own mission and their own salvation.
If the new archbishop will have a much more limited role in the wider community, he will also find that his authority within the Church hardly stretches further than his own front door. The Church of Ireland always had a Protestant constitution, placing the power in the local parishes rather than in the hands of the bishops. The Drumcree episode demonstrated to the world the powerlessness of church authorities to make any parish do something it did not want. Sad episodes in a number of rural parishes have shown that even when clergy cease to perform anything but the most rudimentary parochial duties, there removal is nigh on impossible.
When Robin Eames became a bishop in 1975 and archbishop in 1986, the Church over which he presided was still filled with clergy ordained in the 1940s and 1950s, men who might have been aware of the constitutional limitations of a bishop’s power, but who nevertheless accepted that he had moral authority to which they would defer. Those generations have gone. The social revolution that began in the 1960s, together with a collapse in confidence in all authority that permeated Irish society after the scandals surrounding the Roman Catholic Church, have contributed to the spirit of the present age being one of independence and congregationalism. Every cleric now knows that it is possible to do whatever is right in one’s own eyes – and even the Archbishop of Armagh can do little about it.
Dr Eames’ successor will be appointed under the terms of the Constitution of the Church of Ireland. Unlike other dioceses, Armagh has no electoral college, the eleven remaining bishops must appoint one of their own number. Each of them say that they are not the person for the job, but they wouldn’t they? Whoever is appointed, they will inherit a Church very different from 1986.