It is not often that an open letter to a bishop is published in
a truly irenic spirit. I had known for some time that the late
Canon Roger Greenacre had wanted to write such a letter to me
because of our disagreement over the ordination of women, in spite
of our common cause in working for Christian unity. After the
General Synod's decision on women bishops, his hesitation and my
response are topical.
Traditionalist Anglicans have emphasised the need for continuity
with the past and conformity with Rome and the Orthodox. Roger
developed his argument by reference to the Patristic tradition and
its central significance for development of Anglicanism. My
response to Roger affirms that the ordination of women to all three
orders of ministry is an authentic development of the classical
Dr Colin Podmore, a friend in common and Roger's literary
executor, has edited a number of Roger's papers, the first of which
is his unfinished and unsent open letter (Part of the One
Church?: The ordination of women and Anglican identity,
Canterbury Press, 2014). Although addressed to me as an old friend
and ecumenical colleague, it is really a contribution to the
painful debate between Anglicans of the Catholic tradition who
differ over the ordination of women.
Nevertheless, as Dr Podmore acutely observes in his
introduction: "The open letter . . . was . . . to a significant
degree, directed not to its addressee or to its wider audience, but
to Roger himself."
This is not just an argument about the figures on whom we focus
- Vincent of Lérins and John Henry Newman - two dead theologians of
the fifth and 19th centuries respectively. It is an argument about
continuity and change in the Church today. How do we judge what is
good in the new, and how do we discern what is fake? Both Vincent
and Newman lived at times of profound change, and are highly
relevant to the 21st-century Church.
Central to Roger's argument is his understanding of classical
Anglicanism, which accused - to use the less than ecumenical
language of the day - both "Papists" and "Puritans" of innovation;
Roman Catholics adding, the Reformed subtracting from the "faith
once delivered to the saints". Roger considered these two
theologians from different epochs because of the way they wrestled
with the inescapable question of innovation in the life of the
My response to Roger looks especially at Vincent. His famous
canon, or rule, was itself the starting point for Newman's
Essay on the Development of Doctrine. Vincent was special
to Roger. He once sent me a postcard of his beautiful church in
Beaulieu-sur-Mer, close to which are the islands of Lérins, where
Vincent's community lived and prayed, and where he wrote his
Pilgrim against the Heretics.
Note the word "pilgrim", which can also be translated as
"journeyman". The great German Protestant Church historian Adolf
Harnack speaks of Vincent's work as bringing fresh air and light
into the question of tradition.
But the rule, or Vincentian Canon, for which he is famous has to
be understood imaginatively. Roger quotes it as central in the
classical Anglican appeal to "what is always, everywhere, and by
He notes that Vincent went on to sketch an early version of a
doctrine of development, and Newman, especially in the second
edition of his Development, explores this. But the
firstrule - accept only what has been always, everywhere, and by
all believed - is what most people remember.
That rule was central to classical Anglican apologetic and the
wider Reformation and Counter Reformation debates. No less than 35
editions of Vincent's work were published in the 16th century.
Understood as a kind of fossilised tradition, the Vincentian Canon
might seem to rule out the ordination of women. But it need not be
read in this way.
Applied rigidly, it can be argued that nothinghas ever been
found always, everywhere, and by all. Distinguished theologians as
diverse as Yves Congar, Joseph Ratzinger, and Karl Barth have in
different ways rejected the utility of Vincent's rule. But
contemporary interpreters of Vincent - and I acknowledge a debt to
Thomas Guarino, in his Vincent of Lérins and the Development of
Christian Doctrine (Baker Academic, 2013) - deny that his
argument is either impossibly idealistic or antiquarian.
We need to look at Vincent's "always", which Roger highlights.
It cannot mean fossilised antiquity, because Vincent also expounds
a doctrine of development as his second rule. While he certainly
uses language of preservation, he also uses the metaphor of organic
growth, later used by Newman. He also sets out multiple criteria or
tests for authentic development.
Vincent starts with scripture as determinative, but if scripture
is not decisive (or more often quoted by heretics), then next come
councils. He was utterly committed to the Council of Nicaea, which
took place about a century before him. But the "always" also
included the very recent Council of Ephesus of 431.
Both councils introduced new teaching and non-scriptural
language, yet with the intentionof preserving the true meaning of
the incarnation. So Vincent's "always" is subtle. After creeds come
bishops (the Bishop of Rome is given a special place) and also
theological teachers, and the emergent mind of the laity.
All these criteria are relevant. Other than scripture, no one
criterion trumps the others. The way Vincent that uses the
intention of the councils is important: innovation with the
intention of true continuity. For Anglicans, the ordination of
women is in intended continuity with apostolic faith and order, and
My irenic reply to Roger would be to welcome a positive
engagement with Vincent of Lérins. His exploration of development
can be regulative, without being static; open to development,
without "mummification" of tradition.
If we explore Vincent's criteria for organic development
(scripture, councils, bishops, teachers, the lay voice), and the
ordination of women, we find that scripture is not explicit or
decisive (as the Pontifical Biblical Commission pointed out many
years ago); there are no formal conciliar judgements against, and
the nearest Anglican equivalent, in the Lambeth Conferences, have
deemed the question a matter for each province.
Bishops in a divided Church universal do not give a clear
verdict, and Anglican bishops - again the Lambeth Conferences - are
generally in favour, although the Bishop of Rome, through the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and Benedict XVI,
has spoken against it.
Yet even here, Congar believed it significant that the
definitive CDF statement fell short of claiming that its teaching
was of "divine right". Moreover, theological teachers - Anglican,
Protestant, and many Roman Catholics - weigh in favour. The view of
the laity is clearly favourable in places where women's ministry is
I would therefore argue that, in a divided Church, while it is
less easy to test the authenticity of development than even in
Vincent's day (and it was not easy then, which is why he wrote his
book), the ordination of women must be open for provincial
Roger was not an "impossiblist". He was really questioning
provincial autonomy in this matter. Elsewhere in his writings, he
cites approvingly an earlier statement of mine to the effect that
provincial autonomy, understood as independence, is one of the
"hair-line faults" of the Reformation. This is a view that
Archbishop John Habgood concurred with.
In an ecumenically divided Church, however, there are
fault-lines in all the Churches. Before their resolution, and
towards our reconciliation, Vincent's exploration of development -
and Newman's - is still a good starting point for An-glican
While the universal ecumenical reception of the ordination of
women is still to come (as the third principle which the Bishops
included in their declaration decision, and which is now part of
the women-bishops package, states), Anglicans should both welcome
the Synod's decision and the continuing place (as in the Bishops'
fourth principle) of those who read Vincent differently from me.
But it is my conviction that Vincent's criteria for development,
taken as a whole as he intended, point positively, not
Dr Christopher Hill is the Presidentof the Conference of
European Churches, and a former Bishop of Guildford.