Pioneering figure in ecumenical relations

Sat, Feb 11, 2006, 00:00

Bishop Noel Willoughby: The Right Rev Noel Vincent Willoughby, who died in Wexford General Hospital aged 79, was the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cashel, Ossory and Ferns for 17 years. He promoted a visionary approach to ecumenical relations and the provision of pastoral care for inter-church marriages in the Diocese of Ferns.

Noel Willoughby was born in 1926, the son of George Willoughby of Tinahely, Co Wicklow, and his wife, Mina (née Rothwell). The family were strongly committed to education and to the Church of Ireland: one brother Jim became a history teacher at the High School, Dublin, where he inculcated a lifelong love of the subject in his pupils; another brother, Charles, became archdeacon of Derry.

Noel Willoughby was educated at the Tate School, Wexford. From there, he went to Trinity College Dublin, where he became a Scholar in 1947 and graduated with a first-class degree in philosophy in 1948. He then studied theology at the Church of Ireland Divinity Hostel, where he won the Bishop Forster Prize in 1950.

He was ordained deacon in 1950 and priest in 1951 for Drumglass, Co Tyrone, by Archbishop John Gregg of Armagh, and he received his MA from Trinity in 1952. Today it is unusual for clergy to serve a second curacy in the Church of Ireland, but in his days Noel Willoughby was unusual in serving three. While he was working with Norman Commiskey in Saint Catherine's, Dublin, he married Kathleen Valerie Moore in Dungannon. Within a year, they moved to Christ Church, Bray, where his predecessor as curate was Dr Samuel Poyntz, a future bishop of Cork and of Connor.

In 1959 he became rector of Delgany, Co Wicklow, in succession to Canon Billy Wynne, founder of the Samaritans and Irish Times columnist ("Thinking Anew"). The Willoughby family stayed in Delgany for 10 years until he was appointed rector of Saint Paul's, Glenageary, Dublin, in 1969.

During his time in Glenageary, Noel was a canon of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin (1977-80), archdeacon of Dublin (1978-80) in succession to Dr Poyntz, and honorary clerical secretary of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland (1976-79).

When John Armstrong was elected archbishop of Armagh in 1980, Noel Willoughby succeeded him as bishop of Cashel, Waterford, Lismore, Ossory, Ferns and Leighlin.

He was consecrated on April 25th, 1980, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, by Archbishop Henry McAdoo.

The Willoughbys lived in Kilkenny Palace until he retired in 1997. During his time there, he wrote What We Believe (1984).

In his 17 years as bishop, Noel Willoughby was a pioneering figure in ecumenical relations. His closest friend on the bench of bishops was Archbishop Walton Empey, a former curate of Glenageary.

But he had warm relations with his Roman Catholic episcopal colleagues, particularly Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns, and those relations were built on the firm foundations of personal friendship, openness and trust, complemented by a broad sense of humour and sharp insight.

Brendan Comiskey and Noel Willoughby took every opportunity to be seen in public together. They promoted new diocesan guidelines for the joint pastoral care of inter-church marriages in Ferns. Those guidelines overcame any residual legacy from the Fethard-on-Sea boycott and provided practical approaches for many other dioceses.

He was buried at Saint Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny, yesterday. The preacher on both occasions was his dear friend, Archbishop Empey.

Bishop Willoughby is survived by his wife Valerie; their two sons, Canon Paul Willoughby, a former curate of Glenageary and now rector of Bantry, Co Cork, and Tim Willoughby; their daughter, Rosaline (Ros); their wives and husband, Amanda, Dermot and Rhonda; six grandchildren, and a wide family circle.

Right Rev Noel Vincent Willoughby: born December 15th, 1926; died February 6th, 2006