McCann, James (1897–1983), Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh, was born 31 October 1897 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the son of James William, commercial agent, and Agnes McCann; he had one brother and two sisters. He was educated at Belfast Royal Academical Institution, Queen's University, Belfast (graduating BA in 1919), and Trinity College, Dublin, from where he obtained a Ph.D. in 1944 (for his dissertaion on Asceticism: an historical study), a DD (jure dignitatis) in 1945, and an LLD in 1966. In 1920 he was made deacon, and in 1921 he was ordained priest. He served assistant curacies in Ballymena (1920–22), Ballyclare (1922–4), Cavan (1924–8) and Oldcastle (1928–30). He was incumbent of Donaghpatrick from 1930 to 1936 and St Mary's, Drogheda, from 1936 to 1945. From 1944 to 1945 he served as prebendary of Tipper and representative canon of Meath in St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin. On 15 October 1924 he married Violet Rea, daughter of James Whiteside Henderson of Ballymena, in Ahoghill parish church, Co. Antrim.
McCann was elected to the see of Meath by the diocesan synod on 4 July 1945, and consecrated bishop in St Patrick's cathedral, Armagh, on 24 August 1945. On 19 February 1959 he was elected archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland by the house of bishops, and was enthroned in St Patrick's cathedral, Armagh, on 12 March 1959. He viewed his appointment to Armagh with apprehension, taking over as he did from Archbishop J. A. F. Gregg (qv). Perhaps conscious that George Otto Simms (qv) was waiting in the wings, he referred to himself as a ‘caretaker’ bishop. During his episcopacy he attended three Lambeth conferences (1948, 1958 and 1968), the Anglican congress in Toronto in 1963, and the first Conference of the Wider Episcopal Fellowship in Canterbury in 1969, followed by the Conference of Metropolitans of the Anglican Communion. In 1956 he visited the episcopal churches in Spain and Portugal on behalf of the Church of Ireland.
McCann is remembered primarily as a pastor, preacher and conference speaker who had a capacity to make theology relevant, not least to the young people of his day. His general synod addresses tended to reflect domestic policy rather than a world view, and touched on a number of issues which were later to face the Church of Ireland, including the training of ordinands, the role of teachers, the place of the laity, and community involvement. Although he was ill at ease in dealing with the media, he was pragmatic enough to say that ‘in the sphere of evangelism there is urgent need that we should direct our attention to the use of press, radio and television’ (general synod address, 1959). In the field of liturgical revision he foreshadowed major developments when he said: ‘The Church must adopt this direct concrete kind of language if it is to make itself understood’ (general synod address, 1966). It was in the same address that he returned to one of his favourite themes, ecumenism, and observed, ‘Denominationalism is outmoded, sectarianism is no longer relevant. The major issues of evangelisation in a secular and largely non-Christian world completely eclipse the relative minor subjects debated by our forefathers.’ The following year he spoke of a new reformation, and indicated that while the sixteenth-century reform movement left the church in western Europe divided into separate groups, the current movement was towards the reunion of the various denominations.
Archbishop McCann served as primate during the 1960s, the decade when society in general was awakening from the torpor engendered by the second world war. It was a challenging time for the Church of Ireland, as indeed for all the churches. He was conscious of this and in his closing general synod address in 1969 he stressed the need for the church to embrace change, in order to live in a changing world. His retirement came suddenly in 1969 (on 17 July), just as the north of Ireland was about to enter a traumatic period in its history. The death of his wife on 23 October 1972 prefaced a life of virtual seclusion in England. He died 18 July 1983 and is buried in Wolvercote cemetery, Oxford. His death marked the passing of one of the most enigmatic figures of the Church of Ireland in the twentieth century.