Clarke brings liberal credentials and ecumenical experience to role as Primate of All-Ireland


The appointment of Richard Clarke as Archbishop-elect of Armagh surprised many, due to his liberalism and limited experience of Northern Ireland

THE APPOINTMENT of Bishop Richard Clarke (63) as Primate of All-Ireland and Archbishop-elect of Armagh has been a source of surprise and delight to many.

Although he is a popular and a widely respected figure in ecumenical and interfaith circles throughout Ireland and beyond, it was thought his liberal credentials and limited experience of Northern Ireland might go against him in yesterday’s election by the House of Bishops.

Traditionally, the northern membership like their Archbishops of Armagh to come from there and to be more evangelical than is generally the case with bishops in the Republic. The majority – 275,000 – of Church of Ireland members live in Northern Ireland, compared with 129,039 in the Republic.

Bishop Clarke is a Dubliner. He was born there in June 1949 and educated at Wesley College and Trinity College before going to King’s College London.

Following his ordination in 1976, he served as a curate in Holywood, Co Down, for two years.

Since then his clerical career has been in the Republic, culminating in his election as Bishop of Meath and Kildare in 1996.

Possibly his election yesterday is a positive sign of the times on this island.

He will be enthroned on December 15th next and from then will face problems familiar to church leaders in Ireland.

These include a falling membership, lack of interest among the young, and increasing secularisation of Irish society, north and south.

More immediately it is likely he will have to win over a possibly suspicious northern church membership.

It will also fall to his stewardship as primate to oversee how the church addresses the ongoing and troublesome issue of gay clergy and gay marriage. Following contentious debate at the church’s general synod last May, a motion reaffirming its traditional teaching on marriage was passed by a two-to-one majority.

The synod also requested the standing committee to progress work on the issue of human sexuality and to bring proposals to next year’s synod for the formation of a select committee.

The divisions exposed extended to the bishops themselves, two of whom, Bishop Paul Colton of Cork and Bishop Michael Burrows of Cashel, did not support the motion, which was proposed by Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin and Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore.

Bishop Clarke recalled afterwards how he and Bishop Miller were on opposing sides at the 1998 Lambeth conference in a resolution on sex, “but our relationship was never tainted, never damaged . . . if Harold and I can do it, I think the rest of us can as well.”

That marriage motion followed a special two-day conference on human sexuality last March. It was called by the bishops after disclosures that the Dean of Leighlin (Carlow), Rev Tom Gordon, and his male partner of 20 years had entered a civil partnership.

Last night, one of the many cordial messages of congratulations extended to Archbishop-elect Clarke came from Bishop Miller.

He warmly welcomed the appointment “as both a fellow bishop and a friend over more than 40 years”.


Dr Richard Clarke, a 63-year-old widower and Dublin native, hopes to be enthroned in Armagh in mid-December as Primate to Ireland’s 390,000 Church of Ireland members.

His wife Linda died three years ago and he has a son, Nicholas, and daughter, Lindsey, who are both doctors.

Dr Clarke will bring with him to the city of St Patrick a boxer dog, a brown MGB 1979 sports car, boxes of books of poetry and an ambition to spread the Gospel, challenge secularism, and prevent the Church of Ireland splitting over homosexuality and gay marriage.

The Church of Ireland press office described him as “105th in the succession of abbots, bishops and archbishops of Armagh since St Patrick” and while his soon-to-be neighbour Cardinal Seán Brady might take issue with that portrayal, they are unlikely to fall out over the issue. He sees the Catholic Primate as a friend.

Dr Clarke was educated at Wesley College in Dublin and studied history at Trinity College Dublin and theology at King’s College in London. Somewhat unusually for recent Church of Ireland primates, most of his ministering life was in the south although he was a curate in Holywood, Co Down, from 1975-1977.

He also served in Dublin, Bandon and was dean of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork.

He is a keen reader of poetry and is author of And Is It True? which examines the relationship between literature and theology. He also wrote, The Unharmonious Blacksmith and A Whisper of God.

He is a rugby and cricket enthusiast and was a little hazy yesterday on whether his loyalty now would be with the Ulster or Leinster rugby teams.