By Mark Michael
The Rt. Rev. F. John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher, was elected Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland by the Church of Ireland’s House of Bishops on March 11. McDowell, who has served his rural diocese in North-Central Ireland since 2011, succeeds the Most Rev. Richard Clarke, who retired from the post on February 2. McDowell will assume his archiepiscopal duties on April 28.
McDowell said of his new responsibility, “‘I am overwhelmed by the confidence which my fellow bishops have placed in me to fill this ancient office. I look forward to working with them in the time to come and to serving the people of the Diocese of Armagh and the Church of Ireland in whatever way I can.’
Bishop McDowell is a native of Belfast and had a career in business before answering the call to ordained ministry. He was trained at the Church of Ireland Theological College at Trinity College, Dublin, but his ministry has been mostly in Northern Ireland, where the Church of Ireland is strongest. After ordination in 1996 and a curacy, McDowell served as rector of Ballyrashane in the Diocese of Connor and of St. Mark’s, Dundela in the Diocese of Down and Dromore. The latter was C. S. Lewis’ family church.
He has been involved in wider church service for many years, and has a particular interest in ecumenical work. He served as honorary secretary of the Church of Ireland’s General Synod from 2008-2011, and was the Church of Ireland’s representative for six years to the Porvoo Communion — the interchurch fellowship between Anglicans in the British Isles and Lutherans in Scandinavia created in 1992, when full communion was established between the respective churches. He also served as president of Ireland’s Council of Churches. He currently serves as chairman of the Church of Ireland’s Commission for Church Unity and Dialogue.
McDowell will be the 106th man to hold the archbishopric of Armagh, which was established by St. Patrick around 444. There is a long and complex succession of archbishops, bishops and abbots of Armagh. Since 1560, there has been a parallel Roman Catholic archbishopric of Armagh. The current occupant of that see, the Rt. Rev. Eamon Martin, also holds the title “Primate of All Ireland.”
Archbishop Martin, in a recent public statement, described relationships between the two churches in Armagh as friendly, and said that he looks forward to working closely with McDowell. “I have known Bishop McDowell for several years and have already worked closely with him in his previous role as President of the Irish Council of Churches,” he said. “I hope that Bishop John and I can nurture a similar, shared mission in proclaiming the joy of the Gospel as brothers and friends.”
McDowell figured in Northern Ireland’s recent conversations around Brexit, as the Diocese of Clogher includes parishes in both Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the independent Republic of Ireland. He issued an open letter last July, warning of the consequences of a “no-deal Brexit” that did not secure provisions for the easy passage across the border in his region. The provision has also been described by many as important for preserving peace between Roman Catholics and Protestants in the region.
“The long-term well-being of men and women like these, and their neighbors all along the border,” McDowell wrote, “requires and deserves a clearly spelt-out, sustainable agreement between both sides.” He added, “some people like the Border and others do not, but positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously, it is pivotal to how politicians and people here assess almost all policy alternatives.”
Bishop McDowell’s most significant recent predecessor is Archbishop Robin Eames, the self-described “divine optimist” who served as Ireland’s primate from 1986-2006. Eames chaired a series of Communion-wide commissions handling controversial matters, most notably the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which produced the 2004 Windsor Report, which attempted to chart a way forward for the Communion in the face of strong divisions between its member churches over human sexuality. Eames, like McDowell, served as rector of St. Mark’s, Dundela prior to his consecration.
Notable earlier Archbishops of Armagh include the 12th-century St. Malachy, legendary author of a prophecy about the papal succession; John Bramhall, a famous 17th-century anti-Puritan controversialist; and James Ussher, a 17th-century patristics scholar who famously dated the creation of the world as “the entrance of the night preceding the 23rd day of October… the year before Christ 4004.”
McDowell and his wife, Mary, are the parents of one daughter, Dorothy, who is currently studying at Oxford University.