Church of Ireland Primate issues stark warning against ‘populism’

Archbishop Richard Clarke says discourse ‘pointing back to that terrible decade of the 1930s’

Church of Ireland Primate  Archbishop Richard Clarke  delivered the presidential address at the opening session of the Church of Ireland General Synod which began in Derry on Thursday morning. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Richard Clarke delivered the presidential address at the opening session of the Church of Ireland General Synod which began in Derry on Thursday morning. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Populism is imperilling the very roots of democracy and if this does not frighten us, it should, the Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Richard Clarke has said.

“This is pointing back to that terrible decade of the 1930s when, in more than one country, self-appointed messiahs sprang up and offered to remove corruption, to steer their country to a better future and to a new prosperity, but at the price of being given absolute and unaccountable power over the lives of their people,” he said.

“Anyone who believes this scenario is an impossibility in the world of today, but also as close to home as it is possible to be, is – I regret to say – living naively in a state of abject denial.”

Archbishop Clarke was delivering the presidential address at the opening session of the Church of Ireland General Synod which began in Derry on Thursday morning.

“Men and women the world over now feel that they have been stripped of their dignity and have become deeply resentful of what they perceive [and are encouraged to perceive] as corrupt and unaccountable elites who are taking their dignity and their identity from them. This is at the very heart of what we call, on an almost daily basis, ‘populism’,” he said.

He recalled how “in a recent survey in Britain, more than 50 per cent of those who responded said that they would favour a strong leader who did not mind breaking the rules. If this does not frighten us, it should.”

In Ireland “we need to be conscious also of how we all – wherever we may live on this island – can too easily be carried along mindlessly on a wave of popular and populist emotion, where mantras and knee-jerk soundbites are replacing reasoned, respectful and nuanced discussion.

“In the public square, anger has too often replaced decency, and a binary ‘black and white’ polarisation has replaced any supple, generous and complex discourse. Christian disciples cannot opt out of what is happening around them, privatising their religion so that it has no function other than ensuring their individual salvation,” he said.

“As responsible Christian citizens – which means in practice being both thinking and active citizens (and, I would add, voting citizens) – very aware of the massive dangers that a political vacuum inevitably poses to the wellbeing of all our people, particularly the most vulnerable,” he said.

Milestones

Where this year was concerned Archbishop Clarke noted how it marked “one of those occasional milestones in the life of the Church of Ireland. It is 150 years since the Church of Ireland was disestablished by act of the Westminster parliament in the summer of 1869.” It meant it was no longer the State church in Ireland.

“Over the next year or two there will be a number of events that will mark this sesquicentenary, and there will also be two publications which I hope and believe will be of note, and which should be available before the end of this calendar year.

“One of these is a ‘review’ of the Church of Ireland as it now is, by a group of colleagues from other Christian traditions, who over recent months have been looking in at us from outside, from a perspective of what we might think of as critical generosity. Also in train is a book of essays considering the many developments within the Church of Ireland over the past 50 years, since the church celebrated the centenary of its disestablishment.”

The synod continues at the Millennium Forum in Derry until Saturday.