Church of Ireland Synod: ‘Populism is imperilling democracy’, Dr Clarke warns

24 May 2019

Gregg Ryan reports from the Church of Ireland’s General Synod in Derry

Annette McGrath

The Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, delivers the presidential address

The Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, delivers the presidential address

THE Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, praised Derry for its resilience and example in the face of adversity, in a presidential address to the Church of Ireland General Synod, on Thursday of last week. He was referring to the murder recently of the journalist and LGBT campaigner Lyra McKee by dissident IRA terrorists (News, 26 April). He also warned of a “menacing future” in which populism threatened the value and dignity of the individual.

The Synod met at the Millennium Forum, Derry, from Thursday until Saturday.

“We cannot, of course, but be aware of the challenges and the great sadness that recent events in this city have brought to its people, and they are indeed in the prayers of us all,” he said. “Our prayer is that, as this city has, in so many ways, demonstrated to us over the past years that there is a wholesome way forward following decades of division and violence, so the people of Derry . . . will be enabled to show us again what can be done for the good of all the people of the city, and hence for the whole country.”

The Synod took place as the Church of Ireland began a series of events and publications to mark 150 years since its disestablishment.

“What I have described as a milestone demands, however, that, even as we look back over the past, and as we work within the present realities, we are also looking forwards into the future,” Dr Clarke said. “And we must be ready to live in a real world and address real issues in that world. If the Church is to be, as Christ calls it to be, a beacon for grace and truth, it cannot live in a ghetto designed only for self-preservation and self-congratulation.

“We should therefore be aware that, in a strange way, the world around us, which we are to serve in the name of the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ, is harking back to what it believes is a golden past, but is also hurtling forwards into a very different and somewhat menacing future.”

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History, he said, was turning out rather unexpectedly, and populism posed a grave threat. “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’, and it is something which is imperilling the very roots of democracy, and which we can see growing in strength in many countries throughout Europe and further afield.”

Dr Clarke continued: “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. 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.

“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 naïvely in a state of abject denial.”

He warned of the dangers of a political vacuum, and the responsibility of Christian citizenship to avoid being influenced by what he termed “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 spoke of a fourth industrial revolution, where, “wirelessly, anything can be connected to anything, and can also be directly linked to advances in computerised robotics, which means that machines can, increasingly, do most of what needs to be done for humans. It is also a world where complex and complete data on anything and everything can be sent from anywhere to anywhere, and then processed, within milliseconds.

“I do not find the term ‘artificial intelligence’ very helpful, but we are certainly living in an age where computers can, literally, teach themselves, and the robots that serve them, to improve their performance exponentially, and where humans are becoming ever less necessary for production, or even for the well-being of others.’

God, he said, did not evaluate humanity in terms of usefulness. “Through grace, we each have an infinite and unique value in the eyes of God, and the call of God in Christ to us is to convey that truth to those who do not see this, or who have never had the opportunity to see it. But it is a truth we can only convey in how we love and in how we live, and in what we believe to be crucial to human living on this Earth: how we care for others, including those who are, in human terms, no ‘use’ to us, and how we care for the creation that God has given to us to protect.

“We are reminded of this within the Anglican five marks of mission, where we are called to respond to human need by loving service, and called to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and to sustain and renew the life of the earth; for the mission of the Church is the mission of Christ.”

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