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22. Ennis Evangelical Church

Ennis and Evangelical Christians: The 20thCentury

A general decline in the numbers of non-mainline Protestants in Ennis occurred in the first half of the 20th century. “The years surrounding Irish independence were not easy for small Christian congregations; some churches and rectories had been torched, and this was also the case in Clare. St Mary’s Church of Ireland at Clarecastle was maliciously destroyed on Sunday 18th April 1920, during the War of Independence, as was Christ Church, Spanish Point, in 1922, during the Civil War. The latter was later splendidly rebuilt, and is still in regular use. At Clarecastle, a public meeting chaired by the parish priest, Canon Bourke, expressed outrage and apologised on behalf of the local Roman Catholic community; St Mary's was not, however, rebuilt” (Butler, 185). In Ennis, the Methodists sold their meeting hall to the Franciscans in 1924 (the Franciscan Hall), and the Presbyterian community had dwindled to only 8 families by the 1940s. They eventually joined with the Limerick Presbyterian congregation in the 1960s and their church building was sold to the Ennis town council in 1971, which was later converted into a library.

The 1970s: Gospel and Culture

Evangelical Christians generally had little or no presence in rural Ireland prior to the 1970s; “efforts were thwarted by a pervasive Roman Catholic influence, where Protestantism was seen as a threat to Irish identity, wrapped up in centuries of conflict with England.” (Butler, 190). However, the era of post Vatican II saw development within Catholicism concerning the right of Protestants to be called Christians. The Second Vatican Council no longer described Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians as heretics and schismatics but as Christians and Separated Brethren (though the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church in the West of Ireland was not always as ecumenical as Vatican II would have hoped for in the 1970s). Coinciding with this shift towards ecumenism, Ireland saw an influx of Evangelical missionaries from Northern Ireland and the US coming to Ireland in 1970s (e.g. OM).

Jesus People: counterculture and evangelical religion

San Francisco in the 1960s saw the emergence of an Evangelical Christian counter culture, The Jesus People. This Jesus movement was restorationist, i.e. they regarded the modern church as deeply flawed and sought to return to a golden age of Christianity as described in the book of Acts. Generally speaking it was a theologically conservative youth movement that emerged as a group distinct from the hippie counterculture during the late 1960s and early 1970s (Eskridge, EoC 3:28). Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, led by Pastor Chuck Smith was instrumental during the Jesus People phenomenon.

Evangelical Revival in Limerick

“Moving to a mid-western context, “Operation Mobilization” was instrumental in the establishment in 1972 of a Christian house meeting in Limerick, which led to a large number of young people ‘being saved’. Operation Mobilization is an Evangelical Christian missionary organization founded by George Verwer in 1957. Their arrival in Mallow Street Hall (formerly Christian Brethren) revitalized that meeting and, within a few years, a ripple effect fanned out towards Co. Clare, initially Shannon, then Ennis, and finally Kilrush” (Butler, 190). Street preaching in Ennis by Evangelical Christians from Limerick and Shannon was occurring in 1972.

A new Evangelical Church in Ennis

In this context a handful of conversions to Evangelical Christianity occurred in Ennis in the 1970s. Ennis Christian Fellowship was established in 1979 as a small house church on the Tulla Road. In 1988 it moved its Sunday morning meetings to a rented room in the Old Ground Hotel. In the 1990s Ennis Christian Fellowship renamed itself Ennis Evangelical Church. The church later rented space at Ennis Education Centre before it purchased and refurbished a retail unit in the Quin Road Industrial Park.

What makes Ennis Evangelical Church Evangelical?

The Evangelical focus of Ennis Evangelical Church’s teaching as distinct from Roman Catholic theology concerns the following teachings:

  1. A salvation By Grace alone, through Faith alone, in Christ alone!

  2. The final authority and centrality of the Bibleto worship and doctrine

  3. The necessity of a personal relationshipof faith with Christ

  4. Believers baptism (full immersion)

  5. And a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)

  6. A leadership comprised of several elders (i.e. a non-sacerdotal priesthood)

The Evangelical Presence in Clare

“It is thus fair to conclude there were three phases in Clare evangelism: the first involved the settlement of ministers and pioneers in the period from the mid-seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, whereby limited efforts were made to witness to the local population; the second phase overlaps somewhat with the first, commencing as it did in the eighteenth century with Wesleyan and Moravian preaching tours continuing with a Methodist and Presbyterian witness to the turn of the twentieth century: extensive evangelism amongst locals met with considerable initial success but, by the 1920s, almost all of these congregations had either become extinct or were facing terminal decline. The third, most recent phase in Clare evangelism, owes its origins to the setting up of two very different twentieth century evangelical witnessing movements: 'Operation Mobilization', which complimented the earlier foundation at Clar Ellagh', has led directly the establishment of a thriving array of Christian congregations, while these in turn have benefited from immigration and the blurring of old denominational boundaries and attitudes; in addition, the economic boom has led to the arrival of African and other international evangelical groups” (Butler, 193-194).

In Summary: Jerusalem to the Quin Road

Ennis Evangelical Church draws on the Christian heritage of the past 2000 years. It draws heavily from those who have gone before: St. Athanasius’ Trinitarianism, St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Grace, St. Patrick’s call to Evangelism, St. Anslem’s doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement, Wycliffe’s view of Scriptureas the highest authority for the Church’s teaching, Jan Hus’ view of the Church as the elect people of God not a mere institution, and Luther’s justification by faith alone.

These links with the past form an Apostolic succession from Jerusalem to the Quin road, not through a theory of episcopal succession (as taught in Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy) but through adherence to the Apostolic Teaching in Scripture.

Restorationism, while certainly underlying aspects of Evangelicalism in the 1970 and 80s is a fallacy. The reality of life is that we cannot return to relive the Book of Acts and the first century Church and nor should we want to. Ennis Evangelical Church draws heavily from the diverse traditions of the church’s varied communions and expressions and its theological heritage. Studying the development and progress of Christian doctrine helps us to better appreciate the insights of those Christians who have gone before us. True progress, as Thomas Oden noted, is an advance in understanding of that which has been fully given in the deposit of faith. The faith, as Scripture teaches, that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). Evangelicalism can sometimes be marked by a Presentism that regards the early church as beginning in the 19th century and disregards or is wilfully ignoring everything that has gone before. This is to fail to see what God has done through the last two millennia.

Philip Schaff noted that History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s word, the richest fountain of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity (Philip Schaff, What Is Church History? 4-5). The history of the church is the history of God's unfolding redemptive plan for humanity; it is the story of Jesus' continuing life on earth. We should continue to reflect on it and learn its lessons.

Church History plays an important part in understanding our faith no matter our denomination or tradition. As the Bible reminds us, as a Christian, you should "remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7). Augustine, Athanasius, and Jan Hus etc. have taught the church many important lessons through their doctrine and also the outcome of their lives. The history of the Church is not without its dark chapters of corruption, heresy, persecution, and division. The story of the Church is, as Jaroslav Pelikan remarked, also an expression of the broken state of Christian faith and witness, the most patent illustration of the truth of the apostolic admission in 1 Corinthians 13:12, 'Now we see in a mirror dimly...Now I know in part.'... Whether or not dogma is refined by history, it can be better understood through its history. John Wesley once remarked bitterly in 1767 that at Ennis, Satan has wholly prevailed. He was wrong, Christ was bigger than John Wesley’s evangelistic mission, He is bigger than Ennis Evangelical Church. He will build His church, and He is building it even now.

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