Anthony  D  Buckley

Glossary of Terms Relevant to Irish Religion

Anthony D Buckley


A glossary compiled for the benefit of students attending an MA course in the sociology of religion at the Queen’s University of Belfast.

ANTINOMIANISM: The doctrine that Christians are free from the law of God.  The term was first coined by Martin Luther in his dispute with one John Agricola. The profession of Antinomianism did not always lead its adherents to the practice of actual immorality (though sometimes it did!) and some Antinomians were very saintly.  Antinomianism was found, for example, during the Cromwellian period in England where it was espoused by the groups known as Ranters . Calvinists, who believed that man could do nothing to ensure their salvation, sometimes slipped (or were accused of slipping) into Antinomianism.  Indeed, the Epistle to the Romans is partly a denial that Christians lived outside the moral law (see especially Romans 3,8, but passim).

ARMINIANISM: In Ireland, Arminianism is today the commonest Protestant doctrinal position. It is the doctrine of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) who opposed the Calvinist theory of predestination.  He insisted that Christ died for all men, not just for the predestined elect, and that men could choose to seek God.  The Anglican Archbishop Laud was accused of Arminianism in the early 17th century and was executed for it.  Arminianism became effectively the creed of the "High and Dry" High Church Anglicans in the eighteenth century and beyond, and of the Methodists and Anglican Evangelicals.  Conflict between the Calvinists and the Arminians was fierce in the seventeenth century and beyond, the Calvinists accusing the Arminians of a quasi-Catholicism.

ARIANISM: A Unitarian doctrine which questions the divinity of Chris t, and stresses the unity of the Godhead.  Many Non-Subscribing Presbyterians who were accused of Arianism thought Christ and the Holy Spirit were manifestations of the one God.  This view, though heretical to most churches, is not really Arian.

BAPTISTS: Descended lineally from the Anabaptists of the 15th century, Baptists have the distinctive practice of adult baptism through total immersion in water.  An implication of adult baptism is that the individual is of an age freely to choose Christianity.

BRETHREN:  Established in 1828 in Ireland by J N Darby (1800-1882) and later in Plymouth (hence the misleading name "Plymouth Brethren").  They have no formal ministry, and have a strong congregational independence. The Brethren are divided between "Open" and "Exclusive" congregations which have respectively Arminian and Calvinist theologies.

CALVINISM: Doctrine of John Calvin who taught that, in the beginning, God chose (elected) some people to be saved, and others to be damned.  For Calvin, man can do nothing to change his fate.  All human works (even "good" ones) are sins.  Calvin taught that the Holy Spirit can lead the elect to have faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and that a person can therefore eventually become convinced that he is saved.  Calvin also taught that the state should be subject to the church, not the other way around. (See also Arminianism.)

CHRISTIAN SOCIALISM: A group that arose in the 1840s out of the somewhat paternalistic (and somewhat Tory) Tractarian party in opposition to capitalism and liberal economics.  It emphasised the importance of community, and the need to help the poor.  It had a major impact throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the Church of England and in Methodism.  Significant figures included Charles Kingsley, Frederick Maurice, Archbishop Temple and latterly Donald Soper and David Shepherd.  Tony Blair lays claim to being a Christian Socialist, but this has been challenged.

CONGREGATIONALISM:  Form of church government where each congregation elects its own minister and is self-governing.  Congregationalists are sometimes called "independents".

COVENANTERS: Those groups of Presbyterians who (in the seventeenth century and subsequently) bound themselves by political oaths to maintain their religion.  In Ulster, the term refers to members of the Reformed Presbyterian Church adheres to strictly Calvinist doctrines and practices, believing, inter alia, that the state should be subordinate to the church.

DISSENTERS: Term used to refer to Protestants who were not in communion with the Established Church.

EPISCOPALIAN: A form of church government in which bishops have a crucial role.  Bishops and clergy in this system claim to be descended through the “laying on of hands” by successive bishops through “Apostolic Succession” in a continuous line to St Peter and Christ.

EVANGELICAL PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: Arose in 1927 after the failure of the Presbyterian Church to prosecute and expel alleged heretics.

EVANGELICALISM: This word now commonly indicates a strongly defined Arminian theology. More properly, it is the view that religious teaching should derive its authority exclusively from the Bible, and especially from the four Gospel-writing “evangelists”.  Though the Calvinists are “evangelicals” in this sense, in the Anglican Communion, the word “Evangelical” has historically been used especially to refer to a party that arose in the Anglican High Church that emphasised the Arminian doctrine of personal conversion.  This Evangelical group had much in common with the Methodism of John Wesley.  The word now usually refers to a range of similar Arminian-based beliefs found in most Protestant churches, including fundamentalism.

FUNDAMENTALISM: An evangelical movement, established by a group of oil magnates, and founded in early twentieth century America, was intended to counteract modernising or liberal trends in the churches.  It set out five "fundamental" beliefs: the inerrancy of scripture: the divinity of Jesus Christ; the virgin birth; a substitutionary theory of the Atonement; and the physical resurrection and bodily return of Christ.  Note that the Arminian doctrine of being “born again” was at the time not considered a “fundamental” doctrine, presumably so as not to alienate the Calvinists who might oppose it. The term is nowadays used somewhat loosely and pejoratively to refer to any extreme religious view.

GALLICANISM:  A form of French Catholicism (corresponding loosely to Anglicanism in England) in which the Church worked in close harmony with the state.  For example, in the eighteenth century, the appointment of French bishops by the Pope was subject to the consent of the monarch.  Gallicanism was a force in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Ireland when there was a growing rapprochement between Catholicism and the state.  Gallicanism gave way to Ultramontanism especially after the liberal revolution of 1830 in France and the disillusionment of the Church with increasingly liberal governments in Europe.

GOSPEL HALL: Hall used by the Brethren for their religious and other meetings. Gospel halls should be differentiated from Mission halls.

HIGH CHURCH: A body of Anglican thought emphasising the importance and historical continuity of the Church.  In the eighteenth century, it had a Tory emphasis on the prerogatives of the monarchy and was tainted with Jacobitism.  Its critics called it "High and Dry" because of its somewhat arid emphasis on reason, good order and morality.  The Evangelicals and the Methodists came from this party in the Church of England.  From the mid-1830s, the term "High Church" came increasingly to refer to followers of the Anglo-Catholic Tractarians and to their elaborate liturgy.

LIBERAL: Liberalism is a very imprecise term, referring to a belief in individual liberty. There are, however, several kinds of liberal.  Economic liberals, for example, emphasise that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests in the context of a market.  Other kinds of liberals stress the importance of tolerating a variety of different beliefs or behaviours, for example in moral matters or in relation to ethnic, racial, political or religious groups.  When used in a religious sense, liberalism usually refers to a willingness to adopt a moral, political and theological stance based on toleration. Religious liberals tend to eschew strict dependence on scriptures, creeds or the authority of the Church.

LOW CHURCH: The view within eighteenth-century Anglicanism that the privileges of the Established Church should be reduced, and that Dissent should be tolerated.  In the mid-nineteenth century, the term “Low Church” came to be identified with an inter-denominational Evangelicalism and with an opposition to the Anglo-Catholic Tractarians who were dubbed “High Church”.

MATERIALISM: the philosophical view that all existence consists of matter, and that there is no spiritual realm.  The word is also used rather differently to mean “a love of shopping and the products of shopping”.  Some people confuse these two very different meanings.

MEETING HOUSE: Name used by certain Protestant dissenters to indicate that their place of worship is not a "temple", i.e. not an especially sacred building with an altar where, for example, sacrifices might be made.  The expression "meeting house" is sometimes explicitly related to the words "synagogue" and “mosque”. The meeting house tradition is associated with a strong idea that God reveals Himself in the religious community, and not, for example, in a sacred place.

METHODISM:  Fervently evangelical movement founded in 1729 by the preacher John Wesley (1703-91) and his brother, the hymn-writer Charles Wesley (1707-88) as a ginger-group within the Anglican Church.  Later, John Wesley began to ordain ministers, and finally, Methodism became in effect a separate denomination.  In 1816-17, in the largest of several Irish schisms, the so-called Primitive Wesleyans left the Wesleyan Methodists intending to maintain the so-called “primitive” form of Methodism, which was loyal to the Church of Ireland.  The Primitive Wesleyans and the Wesleyans reunited in 1878. Methodist theology is emphatically Arminian, emphasising that individuals should choose to turn to God.

MISSION HALLS: Sometimes incorrectly called Gospel halls, mission halls are used for interdenominational religious services by Protestant religious enthusiasts especially on weekday evenings.  In Ireland, many mission halls were set up in the early 1920s following the evangelism of itinerant missionaries through the Faith Mission - an organisation now better known for its evangelical bookshops.

NEW LIGHT: A party within the Presbyterian Church demanding that each individual should be allowed to follow the indwelling divine "light" of his own reason and conscience.  Its members were accused of Unitarianism or Arianism, and a secession in 1726 led to the formation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.  The Quakers pioneered New Light theology in the 17th Century.  The idea that each person possessed an indwelling light of reason became a central idea of the 18th century Enlightenment. Similar views were upheld by the French Jansenists, a Catholic group in the late 17th century, of whom the person most remembered today was the philosopher René Descartes.

NON-SUBSCRIBING PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: Church founded in 1726 from those who refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith or to any other creed.  When the Presbyterian Church later turned towards a more strenuously Calvinist theology in the 1820s, there was a further departure of non-Calvinist Presbyterians to the Non-Subscribers. Non-subscribers are sometimes accused of being (indeed sometimes actually are) Arians. Their theology was originally that of the New Light.

PRESBYTERIANISM: A form of church government in which elders (including the teaching elder or minister) are all elected by their congregation, and where the representatives of the congregations meet together in district meetings called Presbyteries.

QUAKERS: Nickname  given to members of the Religious Society of Friends, a radical group founded by an Englishman, George Fox, in the mid-seventeenth century.  Quakers eschewed creeds, formal worship, violence and deference to civil or religious authority, and it focused upon the indwelling light of the Spirit (see New Light) .

REFORMED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH: Arose in the eighteenth century out of Covenanting Presbyterian congregations who rejected government interference in their internal affairs.

SECESSION CHURCHES: BURGERS AND ANTI-BURGERS.  A Secession in the Church of Scotland took place in 1746 to resist the power of landed "patrons" in the choice of minister.  The Seceders further split over whether would-be burgesses should swear that they "professed the true religion" of the Church of Scotland.  The Anti-Burgher Church declined to take the oath.  Segments of Ulster Presbyterianism allied themselves to these different Scottish churches.

TRACTARIANISM (also called “Anglo-Catholicism” or “The Oxford Movement”): The Tractarians were followers of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Edward B Pusey (1800-1882).  Taking a lead from the Ultramontanists in Catholicism, they set their face against what they took to be an increasingly secular state, and the growth of rationalism and liberalism in the Church of England.  In “Tracts for the Times” (1833) they lay down the basis for a distinctively Catholic form of Anglicanism.  The Tractarians also became associated with a return to allegedly medieval values of community; and to pre-Reformation forms of liturgy, architecture etc. close to those of the Catholic Church. (See also High Church.)

TORY: The Parliamentary party that, from the late 17th century, supported the prerogatives of the monarch and the Established Church.  It was discredited in the early 18th century by its association with Jacobitism.  The strength of Toryism lay in the smaller gentry.  Later in the 18th century, under George III, Toryism revived.  After 1830, the Tory Party became known as the Conservative Party, gradually changing its social base to include, for example, big business.

ULTRAMONTANISM: A form of Catholicism which emphasised the authority of the Pope and which stressed a distinctively "Catholic" Catholicism.  From the 1830s, Ultramontanism radically repudiated the liberalism and secularism of the modern state and became the dominant form of Catholicism in Ireland and elsewhere until the 1950s.

WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH: Formulated in 1646, the Westminster Confession came to be widely accepted in the United Kingdom as a definitive statement of Calvinist orthodoxy.  To this day, Presbyterian ministers in Ireland are required to subscribe their names to a copy of this document (though they may now decline to accept passages with which they do not agree ).  The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church specifically did not require their ministers to subscribe to the Westminster Confession.

WHIG: The Parliamentary party most directly responsible for expelling James II and installing William III.  The Whigs dominated the British Parliament for much of the early eighteenth century.  They were the descendant of the republican “Presbyterian” Party during the English Commonwealth.  Composed largely of aristocrats and wealthy merchants, rather than gentlemen, Whigs upheld the rights of Parliament over the King.  Whigs were generally Low Church, sympathetic to the claims of Dissenters.  Ulster Presbyterians were generally Whigs until the mid- nineteenth century. The Whig Party later became the Liberal Party.