A frontline evangelist

Martin O’Brien meets the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland Dr Richard Clarke

Given his strong ecumenical convictions, it was particularly fitting that it was in the Catholic Benedictine monastery outside Rostrevor, Co. Down where Dr Richard Clarke was elected Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland in October 2012.

The Church’s 11 bishops had chosen the monastery as the place where they would hold a retreat and then decide who among them would succeed Archbishop Alan Harper. Months earlier enhanced ecumenical relations by appointing Dom Mark-Ephrem Nolan OSB, the monastery’s superior, an Ecumenical Canon of his cathedral, St Patrick’s in Armagh.

Two years on and over a cup of tea in his office in Church House, a stone’s throw from that cathedral, Archbishop Clarke appears determined to lead a Church that will be above all a beacon of hope in a rapidly secularising Ireland.

But while Archbishop Richard stresses “the huge honour and huge opportunity” bestowed on him by his confreres, not to mention “the huge responsibility” placed on  his shoulders, he concedes that, at the age of 63 “and a half” (in October 2012), it was “a wrench” to leave Meath and Kildare where he had been bishop for 14 years. 

Long illness

“At my age, [Armagh] didn’t seem an obvious career opportunity” he chuckles, and one is left with the impression that having lost Linda, his wife, and mother of their two grown-up children, after a long illness in 2009, he would have remained content in Meath and Kildare until perhaps retiring in his late sixties.

He would have been expected to maintain his sustained ecumenical outreach and perhaps to have increasingly indulged his love for writing about theology and history, having written three books already, including A Whisper of God (Columba 2006).

But now, health permitting, he can remain in the top post in the Church of Ireland until he is 75. While there is little time for writing and scholarship, there are even greater opportunities for ecumenical endeavour for a Church leader who trained as an historian at Trinity College Dublin and as a theologian at King’s College London.

His role involves doing three jobs: being diocesan bishop in Armagh where he doesn’t have an assistant bishop, being a national Church leader/Primate of All-Ireland and being an Anglican bigwig, one of 38 Primates in the worldwide Anglican Communion. 

Richard Lionel Clarke is the son of a Church of Ireland rector of Drumcondra whose elder brother, John, recently retired as rector of Wicklow. First and foremost, he is a diocesan bishop with a mission to encourage every member of his Church to be “a frontline evangelist in the secularised and secularising world that we live in”.

He has lost no time in getting out of his residence to get to know his flock and has organised a series of “road shows” in parish centres throughout the diocese both last year and this year. These take the form of a talk, workshops, questions and answers and a wrap-up by himself.

They have each attracted around 200 people in parishes around towns such as Markethill, Dungannon and Cookstown.

“This is different from confirmations and ceremonial occasions and the response has been very encouraging when people see me in their own parish contexts.”

With the assistance of his six rural deans and the laity, they are about “going into every parish and seeing what kind of community do you want to be” with the intention “to encourage people to understand their own responsibilities as disciples, what it means to be an apostle today”.

Warming to his theme, the archbishop says: “If we are talking about [a] faith that is actually alive, then we all need to be able to communicate it, not just the clergy. It should be  a reasonable faith, able to stand up to the scrutiny of [Richard] Dawkins, it should be a biblical faith because that is what we are and it should be an active faith. It should be seen to be working.”

Asked what is most distinctive about the Church of Ireland’s contribution Dr Clarke says: “We believe we are very much part of a Catholic tradition, but also part of a reformed understanding of that tradition, and this should [ideally] be a sort of bridge between that which we believe is our Catholic heritage and that which we believe is part of a Reformation belief of being ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda, always reforming, always in need of reform.

“At our best, I would hope we do show an attentiveness to the world as the world is.”


Speaking of that wider world, the archbishop exemplified that attentiveness in his address last month to the Armagh diocesan synod in which he devoted much attention to ISIS and Ebola “two things that symbolise globally the fears of today”.

Archbishop Clarke’s ecumenical credentials are underlined by chairing the Church of Ireland Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, being a member of the International Anglican-Orthodox Commission for Theological Dialogue and regularly addressing the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome. 

And it is when speaking of the Bishop of Rome that Archbishop Clarke gets particularly animated. He clearly feels that the arrival of Pope Francis is a game changer, while not being unmindful of the Holy Father’s vulnerability. 

First though he has words of tribute for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “a theologian par excellence he was probably the only Pope in modern history who could have made such a staggering decision”, even though there was provision for resignation in Canon Law. As a result, the office of Pope has been demystified and is “no longer ontologically distinct from other episcopates”.

All this allied to Pope Francis’ “sheer openness to everyone and his new style means we are, by any standard, in a fascinating time”.

There was no end to the Pope’s openness to everyone including Muslims, Jews, Orthodox, Evangelicals, Anglicans, humanists and atheists, he noted. 

Dr Clarke stressed that he has “no inside track” in relation to what is going on in Rome but “it seems to me Pope Francis has moved to a much more conciliar notion of what the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is”.

“I think we all needed to take a very deep breath because we are seeing a much more conciliar concept of Church which would, of course, link with the Anglican and the Orthodox way of doing Church leadership. It’s breath-taking by any standards.”

Archbishop Clarke describes Cardinal Brady as a good friend and says that he has already established good relations with Archbishop Eamon Martin. Although he is new to the role, “we can speak the same kind of language very easily and not just in the social sense. I can talk to him very straight, he is that type of person.”

Dr Clarke thinks that secularisation is following “quite different contours North and South” with much more “active hostility” to the Christian Church generally in the Republic. 

Regardless of Northern Ireland’s “jurisdictional future”, there would “always be paralysis if people don’t address the question of what type of society  are we looking for, not just today and tomorrow.

“The enforced coalition [at Stormont], which we are calling power-sharing, is not the same as power-sharing and, because of that, I think there will be an inbuilt capacity for impasse,” he said, although he accepts its creation was probably necessary.

Asked if, as the leader of an all-Ireland Church, he could foresee an all-Ireland political entity coming together, he replied: “I do not know how it will pan out in my lifetime, I have no idea.”

His “greater fear” than any jurisdictional issues in Ireland is “this new rise of right-wing nationalism” which could “in the face of depression and recession contaminate the whole of Europe”.

As an historian, he has a particular interest in the decade of centenaries and stresses “an overlap between the Irishness of Easter Monday 1916 and the carnage of the European War”.

“At its best”, these commemorations “would not be separate” and he evokes the memory of the dying Nationalist MP Major Willie Redmond being stretchered off the battlefield at Messine Ridge by soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division.

Such challenging and thoughtful commentary can only encourage a more constructive and creative approach all round as these crucial centenaries draw closer.