Belfast Telegraph

Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke: 'I struggled with faith when my wife died of cancer, but I've never been angry with God on my own behalf'

In our continuing new series, we talk to leading figures about their beliefs

Richard Clarke (69) was born in Dublin and ordained as a curate, working in Holywood, Co Down, in 1975.

He served there during some of the worst years of the Troubles, and in 1996 became a bishop for the Dioceses of Meath and Kildare. He has been Archbishop of Armagh since 2012.

Archbishop Clarke has been a widower since 2009. His wife, Lynda, took ill with cancer and was in her early 60s at the time of her death.

He has two children (both doctors) and three grandchildren, and is the author of three books on religion, the latest of which was published last year.

During his six years as Primate, he - like other Church leaders - has had to deal with significant problems, including dwindling attendances at services, issues around same-sex relationships and secularism.

He has drawn attention to the internal challenges facing the Church of Ireland, but he has also faced outwards and has maintained the policy of his predecessors by liaising closely with members of other denominations.

He works closely with the Catholic Primate, Archbishop Eamonn Martin, and together they have visited the First World War battlefields of France and also in the company of young people from both main communities here.

Archbishop Clarke preached this year on the First World War poet Wilfred Owen at the annual Remembrance Service of the Royal Irish Regiment in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, just a week before the Armistice centenary service in the cathedral.

He has a wide range of leisure interests - he is a long-time supporter of Arsenal Football Club and has a fondness for vintage cars.

His other interests include music - he enjoys both classical and jazz - and following rugby and cricket.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. I grew up in a Church of Ireland rectory, so faith and belief were always part of the background of my growing up, even though, at times, I have, of course, had to question my faith and think through its implications. Belief and the implications of faith are something that are always there, even though they are also part of my daily job.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt about your faith?

A. I have had to struggle at times - for example, at the time of my wife's illness and death from cancer. But I have always interrogated my faith from inside rather than from outside, if that makes sense.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?

A. No, I have been deeply disappointed by things that have happened (and perhaps hence with God), but I am not sure that I have felt actively angry. If you read the Psalms, you can read about people being angry with God. I do not think that anyone should feel guilty for being honest with God. I honestly think I haven't been angry with God on my own behalf, but I have probably been more disappointed than angry on occasions by what has happened to other people, particularly children who have died from an illness.

Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? Are you able to live with that criticism?

A. Some people perhaps find it strange that I should believe, particularly friends who are not believers, but I don't apologise for my Christian faith, nor do they expect me to do so.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church, or your own denomination, the Church of Ireland?

A. I would not wish to belong to any other tradition, but, sometimes, yes, I am disappointed by things that we see happening inside the Church, where we don't live up to the standards we profess. I am also saddened to see priorities we set, that we pretend are vital, when it's hard to believe they really are.

All Christian traditions tend to be far too insular and concerned with their own survival. The Church of Ireland is no exception.

Q. Are you afraid to die, or can you look beyond death?

A. I don't know what life beyond death might be like, but I trust in the love and mercy of God, so I believe that this life is not the end and that there will be a resurrection.

Q. And are you worried about hell?

A. All I can ever do is throw myself on the love and mercy of God, which is our only ultimate hope in this life, or the next.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. As far as other denominations are concerned, I do not believe that the only path to God is through the Church of Ireland.

It is, however, the way that I find my relationship with God strengthened.

As far as those of other religious faiths are concerned, I would try hard to explain why I believe that Christianity is indeed 'the way', but it will be for God to decide on the salvation of those of other faiths, or of none.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. I am always happy to learn and recalibrate, but not from a perspective that suggests that I am not committed to my own religious faith.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. I do not believe we can ever be satisfied that we are totally living up to the call of Christ to make disciples.

Q. Why are many people turning their back on organised religion?

A. People are living in a culture where belief is seen as one option for feeling better about oneself.

They cannot find religion to be relevant to their lives, which, of course, it should be if it is properly grasped and communicated.

Faith is not seen as of ultimate importance, something that everything else should hang on, but, instead, it is seen as an optional extra to 'real' everyday life.

We won't counter that by simply shouting louder that people have to believe.

We have to show that our faith works in our lives and in the life of the Church.

Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Northern Ireland?

A. I believe that things would be a great deal worse were it not for the faithful Christian witness of good people.

Of course, community divisions have created huge harm, and too often these have followed the contours of different religious traditions.

Q. And what about regrets? Do you have any?

A. I have many regrets, but many of them are not for public view.

Q. What is your favourite book, film and piece of music?

A. I enjoy reading biography, history and poetry.

My favourite book would probably be the collected poems of RS Thomas.

He was a Welsh poet and Anglican cleric who was noted for nationalism, his deep spirituality and opposition to what he termed the 'Anglicisation' of Wales.

My favourite film is A Room With A View, based on the 1908 novel by EM Forster and starring Helena Bonham-Carter, Maggie Smith and Julian Sands.

My favourite piece of music is Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. In private prayer, but also when I am caught up in an atmosphere in a church service.

Q. What inscription would you like on your tombstone?

A. I would like 'He did his best' as an inscription.

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