Friday 23 November 2012

Church Reform

To close this series of essays, below is an introduction to the subject of Church Reform by scholar Dorothy Africa.

Church Reform

The medieval church had to adapt its institutional organization and administrative system to a new cultural environment in Ireland. The dwindling in size of population centers and the weakening civic powers of the state were already evident as Christianity was carried into the frontier regions of Gaul and Britain, but in Ireland even the vestiges of Roman culture and imperial administration in sub-Roman Britain were absent. Consequently, ecclesiastical organization in Ireland was as decentralized as its native systems of secular governance, and its centers of ecclesiastical prominence were monastic rather than metropolitan. During the sixth century, monastic communities were founded throughout Ireland. These centers followed customs of life established by their founders, but only a few monastic Rules survive from the early monastic period in Ireland between the sixth and twelfth centuries. This dearth of information makes references to reform movements somewhat misleading because there appears to have been no standard practice to reform. The term is useful, however, as a description of periodic efforts made within the Irish church to gain or recapture a larger Christian unity of practice.

The earliest movements noted in the annals and other written records were both internal dissensions within Ireland, though with larger ramifications extending to England and the continent. The first dispute, which erupted in the early seventh century and was not resolved until the early eighth century, concerned the proper calculation of Easter. The problems over the calculation of Easter had their origins in continental practice. The mathematical calculations were difficult, and so the church issued standard tables, or cycles, listing when the date would fall over a period of years. These tables were subject to change or refinement, however, creating a potential rift in practice. This potential was realized in Ireland, where the most influential communities at Counties Armagh, Bangor, and Iona employed an eighty-four-year cycle established in the fifth century, but Irish communities in the south appear to have adopted a sixth-century version attributed to Victorious of Aquitaine and also favored on the Continent. Leading ecclesiastics from both north and south attempted to resolve the matter by appealing to Rome, but the papal response failed to settle the question. The conflict between the two systems was a major factor in two major political confrontations outside Ireland. One took place on the Continent between the churches of the insular mission led by Columbanus of Bangor and Frankish ecclesiastics in 610, the other in England at the Synod of Whitby in 664 between supporters of Iona and those backing Wilfrid of York. Eventually, the adherents of the older cycle were persuaded to abandon it in favor of the majority view in the early eighth century.

A second issue of potential discord arose within Ireland's monastic culture in the mid-eighth century when some influential figures and communities became advocates for the adoption of a stern ascetic regimen. By the early ninth century, adherents of these practices had become known as Céli-Dé (Culdees), or the companions of God. The term was itself probably older than this ascetic movement but became closely identified with it. The ascetic model for the movement was the communal life of the early Christian monastic communities in Egypt and the desert hermits as described by John Cassian, and other hagiographical texts such as The Life of Anthony by Athanasius. The attempts to emulate these holy men prompted some to seek out sites of extreme isolation. The large number of medieval Irish place-names with the element dysert or disert (desert) in them shows that the ideal of the desert hermit was popular across Ireland.
There were also groups of Céli-Dé attached to larger monastic communities or forming separate monasteries. The monastic community of Tallaght under its abbot Maél Rúain (d. 792) was an early proponent and center for the asceticism favored by the Céli-Dé. There are some texts attributed to the community, the most famous of which is the Martyrology of Tallaght. It is clear from their books that communal life was as important as that of the hermit to the Céli-Dé, but the focus was clearly on the spiritual purification of those committed to the religious life rather than to missionary work or pastoral care. In the eleventh century there were a few reports of groups of Céli-Dé at some large monasteries, but asceticism no longer figured as a flourishing ideal within the church.

Even as the ideals of the Céli-Dé ossified as a monastic ideal within the Irish church, a new reform movement was on the horizon. During the eleventh century, Ireland had come into closer and more frequent communication with England and the Continent through a variety of channels. By the late eleventh century some of the Viking port communities established in Ireland, such as Dublin, Waterford, and Limerick, had subordinated themselves to English ecclesiastical centers, notably Canterbury and Winchester. There was also a series of papal legates to Ireland in the twelfth century, with both connections serving to assist indigenous Irish reformers in their efforts to renovate and reform Christian social and religious life in Ireland and to establish a diocesan system of governance. Reports of the divergence in Ireland followed in ecclesiastical customs and law from the rest of the church brought intense criticism and rebuke from the outside, heightening the concerns of native Irish churchmen. Beginning in the later eleventh century and extending into the twelfth, another reform movement arose in Ireland, this time centering its attention on ecclesiastical organization and institutional structure rather than the inner religious life.
As noted earlier, prominent abbots and other officials of monastic communities dominated the affairs of the Irish church in the early medieval period. These clerics often came from ecclesiastical families closely related to local secular dynasties. In addition, annal records name abbots and other ecclesiastical officials who inherited their positions from their fathers or were succeeded by their sons, indicating either that they remained laymen, or that the Irish church did not require them to be celibate. The Irish church was also castigated for its neglect of pastoral care and instruction to the laity, in part, perhaps, as a consequence of the ideal of the reclusive ascetic cultivated by the Irish religious. Some of the Irish reformers came from the same prominent families historically associated with powerful monasteries. This insider status gave these men the social and political access essential to effecting changes, and the discernment necessary to gauge the pace of change acceptable to contemporary society.
In 1101 there was enough internal sympathy toward the cause of reform for a synod to be convened at Cashel. The most prominent ecclesiastic at the synod was Bishop Maél Muire Ua Dunáin. Little is known of his early life and career, but he was clearly of high office and greatly revered. Ua Dunáin may have begun his ecclesiastical career at the community of Clonard, an old and prominent foundation in Meath, where he died in 1117. He was also probably acting at the synod as the papal legate of Pope Pascal II. The brief reports on the resolutions of the synod indicate that it took cautious steps toward reform. The synod moved on several fronts to limit lay control and influence over ecclesiastical property and offices. It also issued a decree against marriage among close family members.
Perhaps encouraged by the gains of the Cashel synod, another meeting convened ten years later at Rath Breasail. Ua Dunáin was in attendance, but the presiding ecclesiastic was Gille Easpuig (Gilbert), the bishop of Limerick and successor to Ua Dunáin as papal legate. The details of Gilbert's origins and career are also largely unknown. He was probably of Norse-Irish origin and is known principally for his surviving work, De statu ecclesiastico, on the organization of the church. Also present was Cellach, the prominent reform-minded abbot of Armagh. The gathering at Rath Breasail adopted for Ireland a full-scale reorganization of the administrative structure of the church under two metropolitans, each with a dozen suffragan (diocesan) bishops. The two metropolitan seats were assigned to Counties Armagh and Cashel, and the dioceses assigned to each were generally named according to the old monastic and tribal centers. This allocation was immediately challenged by entrenched contemporary powers, secular and lay, resulting in substantial changes to the original plan in the immediate aftermath of the conference. Continuing the work begun earlier at Cashel, the synod also formally removed all churches in Ireland from lay control.
The period between the meeting at Rath Breasail and the Synod of Kells in 1152 was politically very turbulent, but the reform movement continued to advance under the guidance of the successor to Abbot Cellach of Armagh, Maél Maédóc Ua Morgair (Malachy). Malachy had ties to native ecclesiastical families through both his parents, but he allied himself firmly with the cause of reform. He became abbot of Armagh upon the death of Cellach in 1129, and, despite initial hostility toward him, he instituted there the observance of the canonical hours, the practice of regular confession, and other customs of the church. Malachy left the abbacy of Armagh to become first abbot of Bangor, and then a regional bishop, but he continued to work for the national cause of reform. He was instrumental in the introduction into Ireland of the Cistercian order and the spread of the order of Augustine canons. He also presided over meetings to amend the diocesan system drawn up at Rath Breasail. In 1140 Malachy made a trip to Rome, where he requested palls (church vestmants, or cloaks, worn by archbishops) for the two metropolitans from Pope Innocent II. The pope directed Malachy to convene another meeting to confirm the choice before he would grant the request. Malachy returned to his work in Ireland, but did not abandon his hopes for formal recognition of the Irish ecclesiastic centers. He presided over a synod at Inis Pádraig near Dublin in 1148, which provided the needed confirmation, but he died at Clairvaux in 1149 on his way back to Rome. The palls that Malachy had sought arrived in Ireland in 1152 and were conferred upon the metropolitan sees established by the Synod of Kells held in that year. That synod added two additional metropolitan seats at Tuam and Dublin to the original ones at Armagh and Cashel, as well as additional dioceses, but otherwise the earlier scheme was left largely intact.
The arrival of the Normans in Ireland in force after 1170 brought new leadership to the Irish church, but the organizational structure created by the reformers remained. The Normans assisted the introduction of continental orders and practices into Ireland, but they were not any more successful in curbing the Irish social practices so disturbing to the church than the earlier reformers had been. Throughout the late medieval period complaints about the marital failings of the native Irish and the crassness of the Irish clergy continued, though these reports are often suspect in light of the political and religious divisions of the period.
Bernard of Clairvaux. The Life and Death of Saint Malachy the Irishman. Translated and annotated by Robert T. Meyer. 1978.
Bethell, Denis. "English Monks and Irish Reform in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries." Historical Studies 8 (1971): 111–135.
Carey, John. King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings. 1998.
Charles-Edwards, Thomas M. Early Christian Ireland. 2000.
Gwynn, Aubrey. The Irish Church in the 11th and 12th centuries. Edited by Gerard O'Brien. 1992.
Hughes, Kathleen. The Church in Early Irish Society. 1966.
Dorothy Africa

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