The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, has told delegates at the 2017 General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Limerick that their understanding of Christian identity should be expanded to include “utter solidarity with those who need us”.
The event is being held at the South Court Hotel – the first time it has ever met in Limerick. Archbishop Clarke’s Presidential address focused on the theme of identity and confronted issues such as the global refugee crisis and what he called “the terrifying incidence of domestic abuse and violence in Ireland today”.
“As Christian disciples,” the Primate suggested, “we recognise that we do indeed have a basic identity that we must share with all others, that of being made by God in His image and likeness. This means that others – all others – must be treated with a complete dignity and with an utter respect, regardless of who and what they are, what they think or what they do.”
There were other identities we needed to be aware of, Archbishop Clarke said, identities of culture, of religious affiliation, of ethnicity, of sexuality, of nationality – but these could not be allowed to deface our essential fundamental identity of being loved equally by God. “We are called to find another identity within our Christian calling. This comes through strongly in the Gospels where Christ calls us to find a true identity, not only with those who are like us, or with those whom we find it easy to like or admire, but with those who most need our love and our care. Hence, the Good Samaritan finds an identity with someone who would avoid and despise him in any other circumstance but who now needs his help.
“The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is a stern reminder” Archbishop Clarke said, “that we find identity with Christ in those to whom we hold out our hand in unselfconscious care – those who are homeless, regardless of why they are homeless, those who are in prison, regardless of whether they are guilty of some crime or not, or those who are without the means to have decent clothes or any clothes at all, regardless of whether or not it was fecklessness, dishonesty or addictions that put them into that situation. The identity that we must have and truly believe we have is with those who need us, and therefore we must hold to such an identity willingly and ungrudgingly.”
Archbishop Clarke suggested that the most obvious area in which we should be able to see this related to the refugee crisis, which had become a focus for many people’s complaint that ‘their identity’ was somehow being threatened by immigration. “This is a supremely practical matter,” the Primate said. “We need to be ready to protect, in every way we can and in every part of this island, those refugees and asylum seekers who are already here in Ireland, but who are now being treated with indifference, or with suspicion, hostility and even violence.
“All people who are here as refugees or asylum seekers should be met with the dignity, justice and humanitarian support that they deserve, and ideally within a programme that is integrated across the entire board. This should include those asylum seekers who are already in the country and have been so for some time, a category that can very easily be forgotten. But one thing of which we must be certain is that those who are here among us as bona fide refugees have not left their homelands for motives other than sheer desperation.”
Dr Clarke told Synod that – in addition to xenophobia – there were other more hidden but equally dangerous aspects to human insecurity. “One of the terrible outcomes of this is in the terrifying incidence of domestic abuse and violence in Ireland today. Inevitably victims are more often female than male but this is not the entire picture.
“What is immensely disturbing is that the incidence of reported violence is so high (and we know that it cuts across all social classes and all socio-economic groups) that we must therefore assume that it is present within every community represented here today. Globally, at least 1 in 3 women, or up to one billion women, have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetimes. In the Republic of Ireland, one in five women in a relationship have been abused by a present or former partner. In Northern Ireland, the Police Service responds to an incident of domestic violence every nineteen minutes on average, day and night, seven days a week.
“In Ireland as a whole, 1 in 7 women and 1 in 17 men experience severe domestic violence. Domestic abuse may be violent, but it may also be more subtle – economic or psychological – but nonetheless devastating in its impact. And we know, much domestic violence and abuse goes unreported, whether through fear or manipulation.
We could continue with statistics indefinitely, but what is most important is to realise that this is not an issue out there, among those we think of as other people, utterly unlike us. It is in every community. It is under our noses, perhaps even in our own families. People who suffer in this way must be encouraged to seek help.”
Archbishop Clarke told Synod that one of the possibilities they were investigating in Armagh Diocese was how parish churches could be designated as “safe places” for those who were suffering domestic abuse. “For many people, in every part of this island, the Church does not have a reputation as being a place of safety – far from it. Surely we can work together to reverse this notion of what we are.”
Dr Clarke concluded his address by suggesting to delegates that they expand their understanding of identity. “It is in a world well beyond the comfort of our pews that people are living without meaning or identity, who need love and care, and who do respond, not to proselytisation or badgering, but to unaffected generosity and concern in the name of Jesus Christ. They will not find us of their own volition. We need to find them and to be there for them. Can we have the courage and the faith to believe that our identity is not simply among those who resemble us in ways that give us pleasure, but with those whom Christ also loves, who need his love and hence our love?”
During his address, Archbishop Clarke remembered present or former members of general synod who had died during the past year, among them Dean Victor Griffin. The one-time Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin, who had served as curate and rector in the Diocese of Derry, was – the Primate said – “a debater of a type we rarely see or hear today, where passion and cogency, combined with a knowledge of the Church of Ireland as a whole and a great love of the Church, made him a very able and fearless contributor to the deliberations of synod over many years.”
(Photograph: By Church of Ireland)