The reluctant primate-Dr. Simms
What is probably a unique event in the annals of ecclesiastical diplomacy took place last month. Last month, without wanting to, George Otto Simms became the head of a Church. Perhaps only Pope John equalled this. Dr. Simms could, in charity, be called a modest, gentle, scholarly and timid man. He embodies the essence of Anglican spirituality. This spirit, like Dr. Simms, is fostered in a cloistered, academic atmosphere and thus is knowledgable, wise and lacking in social courage.
Dr. McCann was not meant to retire for at least two years as Primate of the Church of Ireland. He had previously manifestly enjoyed the privilege attached to his position. But retire he did with scant notice to his fellow bishops. Somebody had to get the job and Dr. Simms got it. He did not want it. He neither canvassed for, nor showed the least enthusiasm for the post. When he was elected he made a quite genuine speech claiming he was not competent for such a task and that he was happy where he was. Dublin offered a quite Dr. Simms" modest, gentle,life mainly devoted to simple tasks suchscholarly and timid"as the dispensation of sacraments and the pursuit of various worthy charities. The Dublin political situation was not so complex and the politicians were not so worried about the public statements of the hierarchy. Nor did they mind when none were forthcoming at all from Dr. Simms.
However the bishops had little or no choice. The other five bishops up North were nearing retirement and were not very skilled in the field of theology. There were only two other candidates of sorts, One was Dr. McAdoo, Bishop of Ossory, who will probably have the compensation of being transferred to Dublin He was theologically unacceptable for the North as he had taken part in the AnglicanCatholic Unity Conference in Italy in 1968. He was not only High Church but had a high church manner.
The other bishop who would have liked to have been a candidate was Dr. Armstrong, Unfortunately he had been raised to the office of bishop only a few months earlier and was not yet primed for the supreme position However he remains an ambitious gentleman and will be awaiting another opportunity.
Dr. Simms has had a successful theological academic career, He gained an Honours B.A., M,A., and Ph.D. This was eclipsed only by the great success he has achieved as an Irish scholar.
In 1952 Dr. Simms was given an honorary degree by Trinity College for his work on the Book of Kells. Since then he has done outstanding work on the Book of Durrow. In theology he has won a first class Divinity Testimonium and a first class Theological Exhibitioner. He has also won the Erlington Theological Prizeman and the Biblical Greek Prizeman. He won a great quantity of Medal Awards while in Trinity and was Scholar there in 1930.
His church career was successful and rapidly so. Ordained in 1936, he became a Curate-Assistant in the almost AngloCatholic Church of St. Bartholomew's which certainly does not endear him to some of the clergy in the North. For a period he lectured in Trinity in Divinity and was also a chaplain in the same College. In 1952 he became Dean of Cork and in the same year he was elected Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross. Four years later he was promoted to Dublin.
His life thus far has not been fraught with immense difficulty. Nor has it been over-exposed to pastoral experience. This shows very clearly in the man. He will never commit himself to any point of view in public. He absolutely refuses to engage in disputation whether on theology or on politics, and his clergy can rarely point to a specific bone of contention.
In Dublin his interest in Irish has been a help. He has developed a strong friendship with President de Valera. He has inclined towards a right of centre Fianna Fail political stance which has worked out pretty well since he was enthroned in 1956.
He will be greeted in the North with a good deal of suspicion. A leading Church of Ireland clergyman estimates that about seventy per cent of the Northern clergy approve of him but that the number of laity who feel likewise is small indeed. Furthermore he believes that if Dr. Simms' penchant for high church liturgy re-appears he will rapidly become higWy unpopular, The church where Dr. Simms held his first curacy, St. Bartholomew's was successfully sued before the last war, for putting a cross on the altar. It was only in the last decade that the ridiculously severe regulations forbidding all liturgy tainted with vestments, ceremonial, blessings or anything else Roman was alleviated. Liturgically Dr, McCann was as low as one could go, In the North all the trappings of prelacy which endear themselves to Dr. Simms will not merely cause disapproval but reaction.
Immediately on arrival he will encounter new pressures.These will include very strong pressure to join the Orange Order. The allies of ChichesterClarke will want to ensure that he is safely wrapped up. Whether he succumbs will depend on whether his open lack of public courage is a cover for lack of conviction or whether it is a personality trait. If it is a symptom of lack of conviction it will not be long before he will be sucked into the vortex of the floundering Unionist wreck, Members of the Civil Rights movement will look to him with little hope, the socialists of People's Democracy and Derry Labour party with none. Dr. Simms is certainly no socialist but his political inclinations, in private at least, are in sympathy both with the movement for justice in the North and the nationalist view of Irish history.
At the moment Dr. Simms looks with little desire to his future in Armagh. His unanimous election has given him a string ta3e for a dynamic reign. He disavows any intention of collaboration with Unionism of a reactionary sort, but, paradoxically, sees no contradiction in approving of the present policies of the Unionist government. If he proves an honest Primate he will have to endure the disapproval of nearly everybody in the Church of Ireland and one speculates whether he is capable of such an enormous transition in his way of life in his fifty-ninth year.