Clarke opens door to dialogue as Church of Ireland primate


The new Church of Ireland primate, Archbishop Richard Clarke, is 105th in the succession of abbots, bishops and archbishops of Armagh since St Patrick.

It is “an immense heritage”, he acknowledges. His new post was “not really how I envisaged spending the next few years”, the 63-year-old archbishop says. People, he says, “know what they’re getting”. “All I can do is give it my best shot.”

He will rely on other people to help him in the job, he says, “and I hope, with God’s grace, good will come out of it.”

Facing him is the same-sex issue that has dogged worldwide Anglicanism in recent years and made its awkward presence felt at the church’s general synod in Dublin last May.

“I may sound naive but I really do believe that if we can somehow depoliticise an awful lot of the language being used and some of the attitudes we could find a way through,” he says.

At the synod a vote reaffirming support for traditional marriage was won by a two-to-one majority. It followed a contentious debate and was inspired by the disclosure in September 2011 that Dean of Leighlin Tom Gordon had entered a civil partnership that summer.

Archbishop Clarke, perceived as liberal on such matters, supported the motion. Two of his colleagues, Bishop of Cork Paul Colton and Bishop of Cashel Michael Burrows, did not. Archbishop Clarke found what happened at the synod “disappointing”. It is in the nature of synods to be adversarial, he says. “It invited that.”

He is convinced that if people “accept that we are all trying to find God’s will through the scriptures” and “would be patient and at times forbearing”, “we could well find a way through it”.

“There are homosexual people in every place, in every community, in every Christian tradition. That is where we start, with the people rather than with the issue.”

His other concern is that preoccupation with same-sex matters could mean “we are not doing some of the other work” they should be doing. One of his passions is the end-of-life debate. “Is assisted suicide justifiable? Is human enhancement something we can justify? When does life actually begin? What about experimentation with embryos, which can actually bring good to some people?”

These are “things people are really talking about, believers or not, and I feel that if the churches can say something intelligent and compassionate, we’d be listened to”. He says that on such matters “the only place a Christian should be is not in the trenches at either end”. It is so with “many moral things”, he says: “If you are not in that middle between the trenches you are probably failing in many ways.”

He acknowledges that the “place in the middle, that no-man’s land, the grey area, is sneered at as being ‘wishy-washy’.” But he sees it as “actually the most dangerous place”.

On abortion legislation he says the church “sadly” feels intervention is “justifiable” where the life of the mother is at stake. It “regarded abortion as a tragedy”. “You’re talking about two human lives, and I would use that language.”

He would be “extraordinarily cautious”, personally, where end-of-life issues are concerned. In 2009 his wife Linda died of cancer in a hospice.

“I think it [assisted suicide] is something that I don’t think Linda or I would ever have felt could be done, that that could ever have been right. But I cannot speak for other people.”

New dynamic

Being a Dubliner in Armagh is something to which he looks forward. He thought there was now “a very interesting dynamic at work”. “For the first time in nearly 40 years we have a northerner in Dublin [Arch- bishop Michael Jackson] and a southerner in Armagh.”

His priority now was “to get to know the diocese of Armagh”. “That and the Church of Ireland.”

As to the prospects of a woman bishop any time soon in the church, he says: “I’ve no doubts. We’ve two vacancies coming up.” He says “when the time comes it must be the right person for the right job”. “Tokenism would be patronising.”