Faith Matters

Building for future generations

As the Church of Ireland General Synod opens in Derry today, Archbishop of Armagh Richard Clarke talks to William Scholes

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Richard Clarke, pictured right, with his Catholic counterpart Archbishop Eamon Martin at this year's St Patrick's day procession in the city

TIME spent with Richard Clarke is always stimulating - and not only because he shares my own keen interest in motorsport.

So although we dip into the relative fortunes of the Mercedes and Ferrari teams in this year's Formula One championship, we also talk about a broad range of subjects including the nature of public debate, sexuality, marriage, faith and identity politics. And Brexit - because no encounter is complete without it...

Dr Clarke, who has been the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland since 2012, is one of the more thoughtful public figures.

Thoughtfulness, one might say, is in short supply in today's public discourse, including much media coverage.

So too are nuance, rational debate based on facts and a willingness to engage respectfully with alternative viewpoints.

Nor does the amplifying effect of the social media echo chamber particularly edify the public square - Plato's observation that "An empty vessel makes the loudest sound, so they that have the least wit are the greatest babblers" seems particularly apt in 2019.

There's a sense in which nuance is embedded in the Church of Ireland's DNA.

For example, one of its foundation documents, the Preamble and Declaration to its first Constitution, sets out how it is both "the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland" and also a "reformed and Protestant Church".

Today, we have reached a point where "Catholic" and "reformed and Protestant" are widely regarded as contradictory rather than complementary.

That Preamble and Declaration dates from 1870 and the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. It legally stopped being the state Church on January 1 1871, but the process started in 1869, and the Church is preparing to mark the landmark anniversary with a series of events over the next 18 months under the 'Disestablishment 150' banner.

A sense of history is essential, says Dr Clarke, who read the subject at Trinity College Dublin.

"You don't know where you are until you know where you have come from," he says.

"And you certainly don't go into the future with any confidence or competence unless you have some sense of what brought you to where you are and how you might move from there."

We are speaking in Armagh ahead of the Church's General Synod, an annual meeting of its legislative and decision-making body which consists of lay people, clergy and bishops. This year's Synod is being held in Derry, with three days of deliberations starting today.

He notes that the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe Ken Good is soon to retire. "It will be quite a wrench," he says; Bishop Good is well thought of in the north west and has forged an effective partnership with his Catholic counterpart Dr Donal McKeown.

Liturgy is also on the Synod agenda this week - a prospect that reminds me of PG Wodehouse and the observation made by Bertie Wooster's nemesis Sir Roderick Glossop that "a lay interest in matters to do with liturgical procedure is invariably a prelude to insanity"...

Lay involvement in all its structures and committees is a hallmark of the Church's synodal polity, and it is something that many Catholics look upon with a degree of envy.

However, Dr Clarke says the Synod is exploring the possibility of reducing its size. There are 660 representatives for 12 dioceses, but as Dr Clarke acknowledges, "we rarely get more than 400 on a good day".

Different permutations have been tried over the years - a Saturday session to encourage lay members' involvement is part of the programme, for example - and there is a realisation that it is generally easier for clergy to make themselves available on weekdays than laity who have other work commitments.

"If we are looking ahead, which we should be doing, one of the things we should be doing is looking at whether the size of Synod is practicable," says Dr Clarke.

"It's a big ask for people to come together for a Synod over three days."

Allied to that is the issue of building the involvement of "younger, keen people who have an interest and a concern for the life of the Church but who probably also are at a stage in life where they are busy with work".

As well as reducing the size of the Synod itself, the Church is also preparing the way for reducing the number of its dioceses.

"It looks like Tuam and Limerick dioceses are quite happy to work together to have a single bishopric," explains Dr Clarke.

"There's enough sense of a diocese that people would rather join with another diocese than be split off into different bits."

It is likely that the dioceses, which cover the west of Ireland where the Church's population is sparse, will join when an episcopal vacancy arises.

With proposals to reduce both the size of the Synod and the number of dioceses, one might draw the impression that the Church of Ireland is managing decline and looking at maintenance rather than mission and growth.

Dr Clarke strongly disagrees, and explains that building God's kingdom is not a matter only for clergy and the institutional Church but also individual Christians.

"I would encourage every member of the Church of Ireland to see themselves as frontline, in that they are the people who can convince others of the reality of Jesus Christ," he says.

The idea of "transformational discipleship" is important, too: "If it transforms me, then my discipleship is going to transform others."

He has not long returned from a meeting, held in Hong Kong, of an international body called the Anglican Consultative Council.

To illustrate his point about how Christians should be willing and able to explain their faith, he refers to one of the meeting's "brighter moments", when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby unexpectedly set them a task.

"'I want each of you in 60 seconds to tell the person next to you why you are a follower of Jesus Christ without using any churchy language'," he told us.

The exercise "struck deep down", says Dr Clarke.

"How many people would not only want, but actually be ready, without using churchy language, to say why they follow Jesus?"

I ask Dr Clarke what he told the person sat next to him: "I did grow up in a Christian family, my father was a clergyman, so it was always part of the background.

"But I'm a fairly 'left brain' kind of person, and therefore I had to work through for myself: does the person of Jesus Christ makes sense of life as I experience it?

"And the conclusion I came to was the only thing that could make sense for me of what life was and what life could be..."

His use of the phrase "the person of Jesus Christ" is a reminder that one makes up one's mind on Christianity on the claims of Christ; our conversation turns to the Belfast-born apologist CS Lewis and his trilemma - that idea that Jesus was 'mad, bad or God' - and how the ideas of metanarrative and story are deep in the human psyche.

Lewis also talked about the idea of the Gospel story being "true myth".

"It's a brilliant concept," says Dr Clarke. "We're used to the idea of myth meaning the untrue... The American poet Jane Hirshfield talks about how the great poems have three ingredients - hiddenness, uncertainty and surprise.

"Why don't we look at the resurrection like that? There's a hiddenness - Jesus isn't always visible; there's uncertainty - Simon Peter was not quite sure what to do; and there is the sheer surprise of Mary Magdalene in the garden."

The resurrection is "the true poem", he says. "It's poetic in every sense, but it's true."

That inherent sense of transcendence is at odds with a spirit of the age in which "humankind is hurtling into a dangerous future which is consumed by the idea of identity".

Beside this, says Dr Clarke, is the rush towards what is referred to as the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'.

"Robotics and connectivity is bringing us into a world in which as human persons we are almost becoming redundant in terms of our usefulness," he says.

A near-future in which more and more jobs can be done by machines and computers poses profound questions.

"We think of ourselves and our self-worth in terms of our usefulness. If we have to recalibrate that, we are going to have to ask a fundamental question: what is it to be a human person?" says Dr Clarke.

"We understand it from a Christian perspective - I am created by God to bring love into the world.

"But even those who are not of faith will have to ask that question, and will want to ask that question if they have any serious side to them at all."

We are in a perilous place. The future is taking us in one direction, but our present is asking us to reach back

Israeli futurologist Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, comes from "an entirely secular background", notes Dr Clarke, but also "spends some weeks every year on what we would call a retreat, to think through the implications of what it is to be a human person".

"We do have an opening there. It's not that we don't have to puzzle and think and reflect. We don't just define ourselves in term of our usefulness, but in our value to God and the value we ought to bring to the world," he says.

That speaks of identity as "rooted in being made in the image and likeness of God".

"Identity is a supremely Christian notion," he says.

But that sense of identity is not what the practitioners of identity politics peddle.

"It is a reach back into the past," says Dr Clarke.

"I get very alarmed when you realise that we could almost be reliving the early 1930s again - there's the idea of scapegoats, the sense that we are a better people than other people...

"I read a recent survey where over 50 per cent of people in Britain said they would be happy to have a strong leader who didn't mind breaking the rules. Where does that take you to?"

Taking identity politics and technological developments together, Dr Clarke says: "We are in a perilous place. The future is taking us in one direction, but our present is asking us to reach back."

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote about how, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, humanity had reached "the end of history".

"But Fukuyama's newest book," - Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment - "is on identity because he has realised it wasn't the end of history."

As with Trump-era politics in the United States, Brexit has been catalysed by, among other forces, identity politics.

"Brexit has been hugely divisive, even within families," says Dr Clarke, with some understatement. "You can't go anywhere without hearing discussions about it.

"It has done what populism tends to do, by dividing people who see themselves as being the 'real' people against the 'elite'."

There is, he says, "a clear and present danger" that the divisions exposed by Brexit could result in violence.

Archbishop Richard Clarke, pictured centre, was part of the Church delegation which met with political leaders at Stormont this week

Liberal democracy depends on different groupings being able to function together, he explains.

This means there will be mutual toleration - "the other side is your competitor rather than your enemy, which is quite a distinction" - and institutional forbearance: "You don't push your own particular agenda to the degree that you have destroyed the other, because you have to accept that in another five years you might be out of office."

"The peculiarities of the political situation here in Northern Ireland mean that has never been allowed to develop," he says.

"The bigger question is the coarsening of public discourse and polarisation - if you're not on this side, you're the enemy.

"That is something new. The way we speak of one another to one another is crucially important.

"I think as a Church and as Christian disciples we can set an example in how we do that."

The engagement by Church leaders with political figures, including at Stormont on Tuesday this week, is an outworking of that desire.

The bigger question is the coarsening of public discourse and polarisation - if you're not on this side, you're the enemy. The way we speak of one another to one another is crucially important

Referenda have meant that, in quick succession, gay marriage and abortion have been legalised in the Republic, with pressure for similar changes to be made in Northern Ireland.

Dr Clarke is troubled at how marriage and beginning and end of life issues are often conflated and is clearly unconvinced that they can all be bracketed together under the umbrella of personal rights.

"On same-gender marriage, it is more than nomenclature," he says. "It is a matter for the state how it effects marriage.

"Christian tradition has its own view of marriage and I hold to that - marriage is between a man and a woman for life.

"But if the state - and let's face it, marriage predates the Christian Church and it has different forms in other places - wishes to give a different definition to marriage, we have to try and live with that, while not turning our back on the Christian tradition of marriage.

"I have a difficulty with the idea of 'equal marriage' because it seems to me that what we are talking about is homogeneous rather than equal.

"Equality and homogeneity are not the same thing. I have no difficulty with the rights.

"Where I do find it difficult and more dangerous is on the beginning and end of life issues - these are existential issues, and are of a different character."

From the Christian perspective, explains Dr Clarke, "if all life is a gift of God then you are very, very careful when you are dealing with such matters as the beginning and end of life".

"It comes back to a lack of subtlety and nuance, and people don't want to look at these as separate things...

"It is very plausible to talk solely about rights and a word like equality. Aristotle says equality is treating the same things the same but different things differently. We haven't quite got that."

Dr Clarke, who was ordained in 1975, has exercised ministry on both sides of the border. The social changes are one example of how "Northern Irish society and the society in the Republic is more different than I can think of in my lifetime".

Now, when entering the public square in either jurisdiction, Christians "have to be able to speak a language that is not just a language of traditional churchiness", he says.

"The idea of life as 'gift' is something that many humanists, even atheistic humanists, can sometimes grasp, and therefore we can speak in a way that others can say, 'Well, I may not agree with them but I understand why they are saying it and why they are saying it.'

"That does require a different kind of public discourse, which is not polarised, which does see reason and decency as two essential components.

"We can contribute to that... and be ready to explain why we take the view that we do, without falling into that which other people see as cliché and truism."

Traditionally, the bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Church of Ireland is part, meet in England every 10 years for a gathering called the Lambeth Conference.

The conference which should have been held in 2018 was postponed because of continuing tensions with the global Church over same-sex marriage and the authority of Scripture.

That meeting is now due to take place next year, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who hosts it, inviting bishops and their spouses.

This will bring a new dynamic - "It could bring good fruits," says Dr Clarke - but also raises the thorny prospect of gay Anglican bishops and their partners both participating in proceedings. This, in turn, means many bishops who hold to the Biblical view of marriage may stay away.

Nonetheless, Dr Clarke says there remains "a hope and a willingness to find a way through" the sexuality issue.

"There are so many other things" for the Anglican Communion to work on, he points out.

These include "the sheer horror at how women are treated in some parts of the world", he says.

"During the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Hong Kong, we heard the most moving things in a presentation from a women's network - it's not just rape, but women are brutalised and murdered publicly in order to send a message. As Christians we have to take this seriously."

Climate change - "we are contributing to the absolute destruction not only of the environment but of people" - and safeguarding are other areas the Church can do more on: "If we ever get smug about that, that will be our destruction."

Shifting our focus from the global and back to the Irish Church, we talk about the challenges it faces.

Clergy face being overburdened by the demands of civil legislation, with GDPR and charity law among the most recent and onerous examples.

Dealing with those is not, says Dr Clarke, "a giftedness for ordination".

"It does mean that clergy are sometimes in more danger of burnout, of the frustration of not doing what God was calling them to do, which was probably not sorting out data protection...

"If lay people can step up to the mark, I think most clergy would welcome any help they can be given."

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the whole Church is avoiding an 'it will last our time' attitude.

"Every member of the Church should have that conviction that bringing the gospel into the world depends as much on them as it does on the 'professionals'."

This means that people, "though their daily life being able to convey and convince others that Christianity as a way of life is the way, the truth and the life, by what they say and what they do".

"We have got to be thinking into the future and of future generations."

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access

Faith Matters

Today's horoscope

Horoscope


See a different horoscope: