Lee, William (1815–83), Church of Ireland clergyman, was born 3 November 1815 in Newport, Co. Tipperary, eldest of six children of the Rev. William Lee (d. 1836), curate of Newport and later rector of Moyaliffe, Co. Tipperary, and Jane Lee (née White). William Lee senior was author of A compendium of Christian doctrine for the use of schools in Ireland (1825). William junior was educated at the endowed school in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, before entering TCD and graduating BA in mathematics (1837); he won the Law mathematical prize (1837) and the Madden fellowship premium (1838), was elected fellow (1839), and graduated BD and DD (1857).
He was ordained in 1841 and was appointed professor of ecclesiastical history in 1857 and later Archbishop King's lecturer in divinity (1862–83) at TCD, while at the same time accepting the college living as rector of Arboe, Co. Armagh (1862–4). He gained a reputation as a learned and systematic theologian. In his TCD Donnellan lectures (1852) he discussed the tension between the divine and human inspiration, argued against the ‘defective views’ of the liberals, and ‘endeavoured to lay down principles from which the divine authority, the infallible certainty, the entire truthfulness, of every part of the Scriptures must necessarily result’ (The inspiration of Holy Scripture, its nature and proof (5th ed., 1882), 388). Other major works include Three introductory lectures on ecclesiastical history (1858); ‘Commentary on the Revelation of St John’ in The speaker's commentary on the Holy Bible (1882), which he had begun in 1864; sermons and essays, including On miracles (1861); and The position and prospects of the Church of Ireland (1867).
In 1863 he became examining chaplain to Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench (qv), with whom he developed a close and lasting relationship, and in 1864 was appointed archdeacon of Dublin. He proved to be an energetic worker as rector of St Peter's (1864–83), the largest parish in the city. A high churchman, he was an erudite and influential apologist for the Irish church under the threat of disestablishment, and a prominent member of the convocation and subsequently of the general convention. After the passing of the Irish church act (20 July 1869), the national synod of the Church of Ireland was recalled (14 September 1869) for the reconstitution of the Irish church. An exclusively clerical body, it passed a resolution protesting against the disestablishment and disendowment of the church by the imperial government, and agreed to the preamble (proposed by Lee), clarifying the fact that the synod had not been called ‘to originate a constitution for a new communion, but to repair a sudden breach in one of the most ancient churches in Christendom’ (McDowell, Church of Ireland, 51). On the approval by the synod of the creation of a general convention of the church, which would include both lay and clerical representatives, Lee urged that each house should sit separately and that questions of doctrine and discipline should be reserved for the clergy, but his plea was rejected as not strictly relevant.
In 1871 a new code of canons was approved and Lee exercised his right under the Irish church act to dissent from them and remain bound by Irish canon law as it existed at the time of the disestablishment, thereby forfeiting his right to direct the counsels of the church. When it transpired that the laity was to be given a voice in the revision of the prayer book, he resigned from the convention. His resignation was seen as a serious loss and judged by Trench as ‘premature’ and ‘a mistake’ (Patton, 32). As an outsider, Lee remained uncompromising in his principles and contributed to discussions on the prayer book, arguing – in his sermon on The Athanasian creed (1872) – for the creed’s retention as an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, accepted as such by Christian communities throughout the world.
In 1870 the convocation of the province of Canterbury appointed two companies for the revision of the Bible, and Lee, together with Archbishop Trench, was elected to the New Testament Revision Company as representative of the Irish church. Deeply interested in the project, he regretted changes that altered the rhythm of the Authorised Version where the meaning was clear. A regular attender at the monthly meetings, he was well known at the Athenaeum Club, which he visited while staying in London. He died 11 May 1883 at his Dublin home, 64 Merrion Square, and was buried at Mount Jerome cemetery, Dublin. A memorial tablet was placed in St Peter's church. He married Anne English; they had two sons (William, who became a clergyman, and Thomas Richard, a barrister) and three daughters.