The truth about the Reformation in Ireland is that it hasn’t happened (yet).

The pattern of the main Christian denominations in Northern Ireland does not reflect divisions that occurred within the Church in this island, but the importation of divisions that originated elsewhere. The distribution of adherents of the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and the Church of Ireland denominations across these six counties still largely mirrors the pattern of the plantation of Ulster in the early seventeenth century, corresponding respectively to land left to the native Irish, places settled by Scots and areas where English and Welsh people came to live.

There were attempts before the Plantation to spark a Reformation in Ireland, but it never took hold. There was little in the way of the kind of bottom-up, popular movement of Protestant ideas among the people that was initiated through pre-Reformation leaders in England (John Wycliffe and the Lollards) and Scotland (the martyr George Wishart and the powerful preacher John Knox) and which prepared the way for the acceptance of politically led reforms of the Church in those countries. The English crown’s attempts to extend to Ireland the reforms it succeeded in bringing to England also failed.

The remarkable fact that Ireland was the only country in northern Europe where the Reformation did not take hold was surely influenced to a great degree by the linking of Protestantism with English over-lordship. Attempts to bring Protestant ideas to the populace – not least through the translation of the New Testament into Irish in 1602 – were overshadowed by restrictions imposed on Roman Catholics (as well as, to a lesser degree non-Anglican Protestants). Indeed, allegiance to Roman Catholicism remained so strong that Ireland contributed significant manpower across the continent to the Catholic Revival (sometimes known as the Counter Reformation) that followed the Reformation. 

The failure of the Reformation in Ireland may seem either a great shame or a great victory depending upon one’s perspective. As with so much else in Irish history, two different narratives present themselves: one describing staunch Irish loyalty under intense pressure to the true Church under Rome’s authority; the other telling of bold Protestant settlers labouring in vain to reach their neighbours with a truer understanding of the gospel that would free’ them from Rome. It is, however, more important to consider what opportunities and challenges face Christianity in Northern Ireland today.

Much has changed for Christianity in Northern Ireland in recent decades. Allegiance, or at least obedience, to Rome has markedly declined among Irish Catholics. A growing number of people, mainly from a Protestant background, no longer identify as Christian. Church attendance has fallen among Protestants and continues to fall among Catholics and there is a sense that the influence of Christian values in political and social matters is diminishing.

Northern Ireland may not yet be truly post-Christian’, but it is certainly heading that way. There are, of course, still many vibrant Christian churches and a relatively high proportion of Roman Catholics and Protestants describe a sincere personal faith in God and commitment to traditional Christian beliefs. Nevertheless, for a growing number of people who long for the rift between the two communities” to be healed, or who reject the very idea of two communities”, the Reformation and its legacy appears, at best, to be irrelevant or, at worst, a toxic relic of the past.

How, then, should Christians respond? Firstly, we must not ignore the real and important differences which the Reformation brought into focus. It would be naïve in the extreme to think that the whole project of the Reformation, however much politics and power struggles shaped it, had nothing to do with genuine disagreements over theology and practice. It matters whether authority over the beliefs and behaviour of God’s people is in the Bible alone (the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura) or whether bishops in communion with the pope have authority to determine its true interpretation and application.

It matters whether saving grace comes to the individual through faith in Christ alone (the Reformation principle of sola fide) or through the sacraments officiated by priests. It matters whether prayer to the saints and veneration of Mary are legitimate expressions of Christian faith or distractions from devotion to Christ (the Reformation principle of sola Christus). It matters whether true Christian unity requires recognition of the primacy of Rome over the whole Church or rests in sharing in the Spirit and agreement in the gospel. These are important matters that should be explored and that should rightly continue to distinguish churches in the legacy of the Reformation from Roman Catholicism.

Perhaps it is time for the long-overdue Reformation of the Church in Ireland, but it is my conviction that the most important question is to what standard the Church is seeking to be reformed or restored. A new way of being the Church in Ireland should arise from both deep reflection on Scripture and a profound commitment to this unique context. The Church must re-examine itself in light of the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, recorded in the New Testament, and renew its faith in God, devotion to Christ and dependence upon the Spirit.

A true Reformation means forming the Church according to the qualities that make it the Church. Locally, this means communities of diverse people committed to Christ in the pursuit of holiness and to one another in sacrificial love, rather than separation into groups defined narrowly by ethnicity, culture, age or theological convictions of secondary importance. More widely, it will entail concerted efforts not to further the fragmentation that is the Reformation’s saddest legacy and, instead, to pursue visible expressions of oneness in the core gospel truths derived from Scripture that the Reformers championed. Equally importantly, it will mean a recovery of the truth that the Church exists not to dictate to the world, but as God’s servant in the world demonstrating through good deeds and declaring through truthful words the reality of God’s reign through Jesus Christ.