The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, John Neill, has said that the unprecedented conversion to Catholicism of Anita Henderson -- the wife of a west of Ireland bishop -- will not affect his capacity to continue working effectively as a bishop.
Archbishop Neill yesterday told the Irish Independent that the Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, Richard Henderson, was "a well-established figure in the Church," whose contributions to the Church of Ireland and to ecumenism were "greatly appreciated".
"Bishop Henderson has a brilliant mind," the Primate said. "He is a brilliant preacher, and he is a socially caring pastoral bishop of deep spirituality."
Archbishop Neill also commended Bishop Henderson and his wife, Anita, for "not covering up" the news of her reception last Sunday into the Roman Catholic Church by the Catholic Bishop of Killala, John Fleming.
"Anita's decision was a personal matter which she had thought about for some time," Dr Neill added. "Everyone has the right to change their denominational allegiance. As a former bishop of the United Diocese of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, I know from personal experience the great ecumenical atmosphere that exists there at both parish and episcopal levels. We shall see how people react."
But the Archbishop admitted that Mrs Henderson's conversion to Rome was contrary to a trend which in recent years had seen a sizeable number of Catholics joining the Church of Ireland.
Dr Neill was speaking to the Irish Independent before delivering his annual address last night to the United Synods of Dublin and Glendalough, in which he noted that the growth of the Church of Ireland was the result of both immigration and people joining from other religious traditions.
This expansion was providing the Church of Ireland with new opportunities and challenges, he added. "We have to get away from the idea that the Church of Ireland community is in decline," he said. "It is now bigger than it was 50 years ago."
A second challenge identified by Dr Neill was to develop community spirit within a church whose members were living in an increasingly secular society, in which "Christian belonging, let alone allegiance to a particular church, is often much looser.
"We will only shrink if we cease to plan for growth, if we fail to grasp the new opportunities that God is putting there for us to grasp, or if we simply cling to everything as it always was."
On education, the Archbishop called for a debate on how the State would continue to provide schools for a much more diverse Ireland, and he hoped that new initiatives would not undermine the contribution of church schools by diluting them beyond recognition.