Canon Harold George Clarke (1929 - 2018)
The text of the homily by The Revd Professor Thomas Watkin given at the Requiem Mass for Harold George Clarke, priest, on Saturday, 7 April 2018 at Saint Martin's Church in Roath, Cardiff.
“I am come that they should have life, and have it in its fullness”. (John, x. 10)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Bringing life in its fullness, in abundance, was said by Our Lord to be the purpose of his mission, when he described himself to his disciples and his critics as the door leading to such life and as the good shepherd guiding and guarding the sheep safely towards it. The meaning of life in its fullness may not have been obvious to those who first heard those words, but some of them would later witness its unique revelation in the appearances of Our Lord following his resurrection on the first Easter Day. To them would be entrusted his commission to proclaim the good news of that abundant life along with the task of guiding others towards it and safeguarding them within it. The pattern by which they were to inspire others to experience and achieve that fullness of life which God intends for his people was the example, shown in Jesus’ own earthly life, of being among them as one who serves. Thus would they bring others to that life through baptism, instruct them by word and sustain them by sacrament to mature their baptismal commitment, share their joys and sorrows as fellow pilgrims along the way, offer them counsel in times of difficulty and assurance of God’s forgiveness for their inevitable shortcomings.
And it is within the octave of Easter, as we celebrate Our Lord’s revelation of that abundant life in his resurrection, that we come together to give thanks to God for the life and ministry of one who gave himself to that task – Harold George Clarke, priest – to pray for the repose of his soul, to mourn his passing, and to plead Our Lord’s Sacrifice for his benefit.
Many here this morning will have very personal memories of his ministry. Some will have been baptized by him, some prepared and presented for Confirmation, some for Holy Matrimony. Many will have received the Blessed Sacrament at his hands. Some will have known him as a spiritual director and confessor; most as a convivial companion and friend.
Harold Clarke was born on 29 November 1929, and according to his own account he was ‘born wearing a biretta’. Historians will attach different weight to those two statements – but the second merits consideration, and the reasons for that are threefold. First and foremost, it tells us how he perceived himself. For him, his vocation and priesthood were part of his very being, were of his very essence. He did not choose the priesthood; he was chosen for it. He agreed with the Psalmist in seeing such things shaped from the womb. Not that predestination led him towards Calvinism. The second thing that being ‘born wearing a biretta’ tells us about him is that he regarded his spiritual home as being within what can perhaps best be described as the on-going Catholic tradition of the Church in these islands. There he found both the beauty of holiness and the rock of spiritual discipline. There can scarcely have been a priest who followed more closely the Apostle Paul’s enjoinder that everything should be done decently and in order. A strong sense of vocation combined with an unflinching devotion to discipline could make for a very daunting individual, were it not for the third thing his oft-cited claim reveals – his warm and lively sense of humour. His claim of being ‘born wearing a biretta’ tells us a lot about the man.
With or without a biretta, he was born in 1929 in the village of Rede near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. It was there that he was brought up and received his early education before undertaking military service in the Royal Air Force. He served in the Middle East and rose to be a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer. While serving in Egypt, he formed what would become a life-long friendship with Colin Hector who is here today and to whom and to whose family we offer our condolences. Colin recalls how, in those years, the two friends would on occasion say the office of Compline together in the station chapel, with Colin singing the hymns and Harold playing the organ. On return to the United Kingdom, it was to south Wales that Harold came, with his mind set upon training for ordination. He entered St David’s College, Lampeter in 1958 and was ordained deacon in Monmouth diocese in 1961 and priested the following year. He served his title first as a curate at Christ Church, Ebbw Vale, and then moved to Llandaff diocese for his second curacy at St German’s here in Cardiff.
He would often reminisce about his time at St German’s. It appeared a golden period in his ministry – and those to whom he ministered speak with affection as well as respect about his years there. One, now in her nineties, who taught at St German’s school at that time, still speaks fondly of his visits and the children’s regard for him. Another, a former patient at the Royal Infirmary where he ministered, and who was later to become a home communicant in this parish, spoke with lasting appreciation of his pastoral care during her very lengthy time of need. It was at St German’s also that he nurtured Fr. Christopher Fry’s vocation to the ministry, and also while there that, having introduced the couple, he officiated at Colin’s marriage to Valerie. He would later baptize all three of their children, officiate or assist at the children’s weddings, and baptize some of the grandchildren.
The Ebbw Vale and the Adamsdown where he served were at that time still communities based on heavy industry, albeit set to decline. By the time he moved to his first incumbency at St Mary’s Glyntaff in 1973, that decline was changing the economic face of south Wales. Profound changes were also taking place in the social life of Britain and in its moral outlook, with consequences for the traditional place of church and chapel in the life of the people. It was a challenging time to be a parish priest, whether in Pontypridd, Cardiff or anywhere else, but it was a challenge which devotion, dedication and discipline could meet.
It was to Cardiff and to this very parish that Fr. Clarke returned for his second and final incumbency, teaching the faith by preaching the word and by his example of devotion to the sacraments, dedication to the daily offices and observances, and personal spiritual discipline. His gifts were recognized in election by his fellow clergy to serve on the Governing Body of the Church in Wales, and his appointment as a Residentiary Canon of Llandaff Cathedral in 1991. During his final decade at St Martin’s, he also served as Rural Dean of Cardiff. The Church, like the RAF earlier, recognized the worth of his doing everything decently and in order.
There was indeed a military precision to his planning and execution of the liturgy, and many here will know that his plans for this funeral stretch back decades rather than years. Some, myself included, were originally recruited as reserves on the bench rather than principal players on the field, winning our caps only as the first choices were transferred to the premier league. One cannot help suspecting that many of the departed fellow-priests who will now greet Fr. Clarke may begin by offering their apologies for absence.
Yes, we laugh, and it is fitting that we do so, because it honours his lively sense of humour. More than once some minor mishap in the sacristy would produce a devastating one-liner leaving servers and sacred ministers struggling to recover their composure. The sparkle in his eyes that would presage some apt remark was still to be seen occasionally until very recently. His was a lively faith, and its centre was the life-giving Sacrament of the altar. As Rural Dean, he organized the Lenten Quiet Day for the Deanery clergy, conducted by Bishop Roy Davies. One of Bishop Roy’s addresses at the 1994 Quiet Day hosted at All Saints, Llandaff North by Fr. Fry, spoke of those who strove to keep the altar at the centre of their lives. Canon Clarke was one such. I was privileged to celebrate Solemn High Mass with him here at St Martin’s on literally hundreds of occasions in the last decade of his incumbency. He was always at his most relaxed, least stressed, most at home, at the altar. For him fulfilling Our Lord’s commission to do this in remembrance of him and thereby give ourselves up to his service was life in its fullness, and it brought him joy.
Having to retire at 70 did not, but he remained active in ministry while his health allowed, officiating regularly at first in St German’s and later in the parish of Roath, as well continuing to act as a spiritual director to many. Retirement also coincided – cruelly – with the loss of several of those dear to him. The early death of Fr. Fry in 1994 had been a severe blow, and within a short space of his retirement, he faced the death of his sister, Ruby, her husband, and one of their sons. The friendship group from early days in south Wales was also diminished by the loss of his great friend and fellow priest, Fr. Dewi Davies, as well as Valerie Hector. The last years saw a gradual decline in his physical health, borne with a mixture of frustration and humour at first, but less easily after his protracted if not atypical stay in hospital robbed him of the hope of any meaningful independence. His one final piece of good fortune was the warm care and attention he received at Willowbrook during his final months, for which all who visited him there will ever remain grateful.
The Post-communion Prayer of Thanksgiving speaks of us offering ourselves as a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice to God. Originally, the word used was not living but lively. Neither in modern English conveys exactly what is intended. The Welsh, bywiol, which needed no change, perhaps conveys the meaning better – that our giving of ourselves, our souls and bodies, should be ‘full of life’ − so full of life that it gives life to others. Our Lord’s sacrifice was not merely living but life-giving. He died that we might live, and live that life in its fullness which he stated to be the purpose of his coming amongst us. For Fr. Clarke, living a life that was dedicated to proclaiming the fullness of life which faith in Christ affords and bringing others to that faith and sustaining them within it was to live life in its fullness.
On the eve of his retirement from this parish, as we gave thanks for the life, example, fellowship and prayers of St David on the eve of Gwyl Dewi, I said in my homily that it would be an empty sham for us to praise virtues in those we had never known if we were not prepared to recognize them in those whom we did. Today we thank God for the life, example, fellowship and prayers of Harold George Clarke, Priest, and ask that Our Lady and the saints join their prayers to ours as we commend his soul into the hands of the God who made him, redeemed him and continues to sanctify him as he enters the next phase of life in its fullness. We commend him to God, and leave it to God to decide the most appropriate headgear for his arrival on this occasion.
May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.