Church of Ireland Gazette Digital Archive Completed as Archbishop John McDowell Reviews 1990s Editions
Archive of the Month February 2021
The Church of Ireland Gazette Digital Archive is now complete. All editions of the newspaper from its foundation in 1856 up to and including 2010 are freely available electronically, allowing the worldwide audience to view and search it using any name, place, or other search term. This gifts everybody from the cursory reader to the academic researcher with access to this extensive resource here: https://esearch.informa.ie/rcb
Written and read by lay and clerical members and others, the Gazette provides the longest–running public commentary on the Church’s affairs, and as such is recognised as a valuable primary source for understanding the complexities and nuance of Church of Ireland and indeed wider Protestant identity, as well as the Church’s contribution to political and cultural life north and south. From 2010, as regular readers will know, the Gazette becomes available as an e–paper.
In 2013, the RCB Library’s ambitious goal to digitize and make freely available the complete run of the newspaper began modestly with the content of the 1913 editions uploaded. Since then, a combination of state funding, private sponsorship and the support of central Church funds has enabled evolutionary growth of the project, and thanks to the generous grant from the Irish Government’s Reconciliation Fund, administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs, this is now complete, with a permanent digital archive available online for future generations of researchers.
The Reconciliation Fund grant has further allowed for the ‘Borderless Church’ series (which commenced last September) to analyse the content of the paper during each of the five decades between 1950 and 1999, in six contrasting and varied presentations by a variety of writers. This is now also available through the Library’s online exhibition space here: www.ireland.anglican.org/about/rcb–library/borderless–church
The final ‘Borderless Church’ presentation, on the 1990s, is by the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, and is entitled ‘Flicking Through the Pages’. This aptly titled piece is all the more engaging because he was ordained right in the middle of the decade – on St Columba’s Day (9th June) 1995 for the curacy of Antrim (Connor). Looking back, he reflects that “to read through the Gazettes of the 1990s is to be transported to a different aeon, never mind a different century”. The decade “was also the aeon of the Celtic Tiger, Drumcree, the Downing Street Declaration, the first and second ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and the Omagh bombing” and represented “very difficult years” for the Church of Ireland, not least in the context of “the event/standoff/siege” that was Drumcree.
As the crisis deepened in 1996, “letters from North and South and the comments by regular contributors make it clear that this issue had become one of major tension within the Church. So much so that the Archbishop of Armagh [Archbishop Robin Eames] wrote a long, detailed article for the edition of 26th July of that year … [attempting] to address some misconceptions which were widespread at the time, particularly the impression that nothing had been done since the debacle in 1995 to address the problem. On the contrary, Eames explained, he and others had been active throughout the intervening period trying to mediate and moderate. In the same issue, [the columnist] Cromlyn cautions against a hasty rush to judgement until the full picture became clearer.”
Archbishop McDowell pays tribute to several of “the dominant personalities” who led the Church through these times, not least “Robin Eames as Archbishop of Armagh with his resilience and steady diplomacy in Church and in society.” Reflecting on the many challenges with which he had to contend, the current archbishop concludes how his predecessor “steered a course between urging greater openness and Christian compassion on the one hand and providing a shepherd’s care and reassurance to a fragile if resilient community on the other. His General Synod speeches and other major interventions during this period were reported exhaustively in the Gazette and are without exception weighty, considered and conciliatory. There is nothing florid or even particularly eloquent in the conventional sense about them. But they were what was needed, not only for the hour, but for the long haul, a prodigy of steadfast and sometimes painful endeavour.”
In addition to paying attention to the lofty issues of national and international significance, Archbishop McDowell further reflects on the miscellany of other issues where the Gazette provided the platform for discussion and discernment.
From the RCB Library, Dr Susan Hood, Librarian and Archivist, thanked Archbishop McDowell and all the ‘Borderless Church’ contributors (David Bird, Dr Marie Coleman, Dr Ian d’Alton, the Revd Clifford Skillen and Professor Brian Walker) who had used the source so effectively to deepen public understanding of the period between 1950 and 1999. She also thanked the current Editor and Board of the Church of Ireland Gazette who have collaborated so positively with the Library since the inception of the project, and the Gazette office staff whose input of PDF documents for the period between 2004 and 2010 had allowed the final bonus years to be added to the database, expertly overseen by service provider Informa. Finally, she sincerely acknowledged the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund whose generous grant ensured that this worthwhile project could be completed.