Wednesday 15 April 2015

The Structure of the Early Irish Church

Recently while reading a paper on the early church in County Tyrone, I came across the following model of church structure proposed by scholar Richard Sharpe. The examples given here obviously relate to Tyrone specifically, but the model is intended to be applied more generally. What is most challenging about Sharpe's theory is his contention that the accepted view of the early Irish church as predominantly monastic in character is mistaken. I hope I can track down Sharpe's original paper as I would be keen to read his views directly for myself. For now, here is a summary by archaeologist Ann Hamlin:
Richard Sharpe has offered a very helpful model of the possible range of churches which may have existed in the Early Christian period. At the highest level were the senior or chief churches, probably few in number where bishops were based and from where the training of clery and the pastoral work in the smaller churches were organized. These chief churches were often closely connected to secular kingdoms and in Tyrone it is reasonable to identify Ardstraw and Clogher as churches of the first rank. At the second level were churches which could be described as 'mother churches' responsible for organizing missionary work in the early period and later the pastoral ministry within an area. Bishops seem to have been based at some of these churches as well as at the chief churches. The clearest example in Tyrone is Donaghmore, already identified as an early missionary foundation. At the third level, and certainly the most numerous group, were the local churches with a church, a graveyard and a priest, who may have cared for several churches. The relations between the people and these churches are spelled out in legal sources and rules. The people received the sacraments, especially of baptism and burial, and in return paid the church dues and fees.
 The early Irish church was certainly not a 'monastic' church in the way that has often been claimed. It is increasingly accepted that although many written sources like saints' Lives, are couched in monastic terms, other sources make it clear that the monastic element from the 6th-century onwards, was only one aspect of a church which remained dominated by bishops. It is not at all clear whether monasticism survived to any great extent in the later centuries of the Early Christian period, and Richard Sharpe questions whether there was 'any general continuance of regular monastic life in Ireland in the ninth and tenth centuries'. 

A. Hamlin, 'The Early Church in Tyrone to the Twelfth Century' in C. Dillon and H.A. Jeffries (eds.), Tyrone- History and Society (Geography Publications, 2000), 85-126 at 113.

Sharpe's original paper, 'Churches and Communities in Early Medieval Ireland' can be found in J.Blair and R.Sharpe, eds., Pastoral Care before the Parish (Leicester University Press, 1992), 81-9.

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