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Catholic, critical, and in the C of E

26 September 2014

Paul Avis assesses a legacy to thinking on women's ordination

Part of the One Church? The ordination of women and Anglican identity
Roger Greenacre, author
Colin Podmore, editor
Canterbury Press £24.99
CT Bookshop Special Price £19.99

CANON Roger Greenacre, who died in 2011, was a senior Anglo-Catholic ecumenist who was deeply distressed by the Church of England's decision in 1992 to ordain women to the priesthood, and who agonised over whether, as a consequence, he should stay in his Church or become a Roman Catholic.

The ordination of women is the presenting issue, but Greenacre's reflections in this collection of his occasional writings centre on ecclesiology, and specifically on the question of Anglican identity and catholicity. Thoughtful and fair-minded, he was never an "impossibilist" on whether women could be priests, but was exercised by the question whether the Church of England, or even the Anglican Communion, had the authority to make a change in the faith and order - the doctrine and ministry - of the Church Catholic.

Apart from "An Open Letter to Bishop Christopher Hill", who is a fellow Catholic Anglican but holds a different view of the ordination of women (and has responded in the Church Times: Comment, 25 July), the material in this book is arranged in chronological order and spans the period 1976 to 2000.

Some items are slight, if not ephemeral, while others are substantial and merit revisiting. There is much covering of the same ground, which is inevitable and acceptable up to a point. Dr Colin Podmore provides a clear introduction and helpful footnotes. Besides being a handsome tribute to a passionate ecumenist and much-loved priest, the book is a representative documentary record of the struggles of a section of Anglo-Catholicism with developments in Anglicanism in the last quarter of the 20th century.

The question implied in the title is whether the Church of England or even the Anglican Communion has the authority to make a significant change in its ministry when it regards itself as belonging to the wider Catholic Church and sharing Catholic order. Not everyone will agree with Greenacre's premise that women priests and bishops represent a change of doctrine. It is arguable that the doctrine of the historic threefold order and of ministerial priesthood remains unchanged. Even within the realm of order, it could be argued that women's ordination is actually an overdue reform of practice.

The crux is the question of "development", as posed by Newman in his famous book of 1845. No Christian Church believes that it has the right to innovate in doctrine. But sometimes it needs to "get back on track", returning to the primitive purity of the faith. In an unguarded phrase, Greenacre hails two developments in the Second Vatican Council as "radical innovations": the statement that the one Church of Christ "subsists in" (i.e. is not completely identical with) the (Roman) Catholic Church, and the concept of episcopal collegiality. These were reforms, harking back to patristic teaching, rather than innovations.

In 1994, Pope John Paul II decreed that the Church had "no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women". At one point, Greenacre proposes that, since the Bishop of Rome has a special role in the unity of Church, he should be obeyed. But how far would he take obedience to the Holy See? Not far, it seems. Greenacre is highly critical of the centralisation of authority in the modern papacy, and the stifling of local bishops' conferences that were advocated by the Second Vatican Council. He is appalled by the decade-long delay in the Vatican's response to The Final Report of the first Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission - a response that turned out to be a dousing with cold water.

As Podmore notes, Greenacre was an advocate of the "classical" Anglican understanding of the Church and of the Church of England's place in it. But there is one difference: "classical" Anglican theologians, not only in the 16th century but right up to modern times, were not at all deferential to Rome, and did not crave Rome's approval. Anglicans, however High Church, typically took strong exception to Rome's sitting in judgment on their Church and its ministry and sacraments. Rome's veto on the 16th-century reforms that brought in an English Bible, a vernacular liturgy, communion in "both kinds", and a clergy that could marry was regarded as insufferable. Thankfully, the climate is different now, but profound ambiguity remains in Rome's attitude to Anglicans.

What enabled Greenacre to remain an Anglican was the recognition by the General Synod that the Church's decision to ordain women was to be set within "an open process of reception". This concept is perpetuated in the House of Bishops' "five guiding principles" that paved the way for the recent synodical decision to open the episcopate to women, where there is a recognition of "a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God". This is to acknowledge with appropriate ecclesial humility that, though we must follow the light we have, we remain part of the one Church.

The Revd Professor Paul Avis is a former General Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity and editor-in-chief of  Ecclesiology.


FIRST published in 2002 as No Women in Holy Orders?, The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church's First Millennium is by John Wijngaards, who, analysing texts from the first 900 years of the Church, argues that women were once ordained deacons, and there is no good reason for them not to be now: his focus is today's RC Church (Canterbury Press, £18.99 (£17.10); 978-1-84825-121-2).

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