Anglican Catholicism

Colin Podmore reflects on the life and thinking of Canon Roger Greenacre, who died on 30 July, aged 80

Roger Greenacre’s ember card of 56 years ago is a reminder that he was ordained in a different world – and a different church – from those of today. That a diocesan bishop should ordain new priests in his cathedral at 9.30 on a Thursday morning is now only less incredible than Roger’s intention to celebrate his first Mass at 6 am the following morning. The necessary facts were communicated with great – Anglican – simplicity; only the word ‘Mass’ intimated a distinctive stance. Simplicity remained Roger’s style: catholic faith expressed in clear and firm catholic teaching without party ‘branding’.

Roger read history and divinity at Cambridge and trained for ordination at Mirfield: history, theology and monasticism remained powerful interests. At Cambridge Roger would have encountered a liberal (in the sense of reasonable) Anglican catholicism and at Mirfield a sparse, monastic liturgical style. Such influences were formative.

Roger’s ember card may not have invoked Our Lady, but he became a Priest Associate of the Holy House in 1957 (the year before Fr Patten’s death), when the Shrine was still perceived as extreme and marginal, and spent some months there in 1960 as Assistant Priest to Colin Stephenson. In later life he served on the Council of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In lectures and articles, mostly in ecumenical contexts, he traced the (often almost hidden) history of Anglican Marian devotion and its flowering in modern Anglican life and liturgy.


Roger spent the academic year 1961–2 at the Catholic University of Louvain, as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Priest Student.

Following the announcement of the Second Vatican Council in 1959, the Louvain theology faculty had invited the Archbishop to send a series of priests to study for a year. Of the eight who went, four in particular – Martin Reardon, Roger, John Halliburton and Hugh Wybrew – repaid the investment by contributing significantly to ecumenical relationships. Already widely read in contemporary French theology, in Louvain Roger encountered many of the Belgian theologians who would be so influential at the Council, which opened in October 1962.

He also visited Chevetogne, the Benedictine monastery whose vocation was ecumenical and liturgical – as his own would be. Twenty years later, in 1982, when he sealed his relationship with the Abbey of Bec (which he had first visited in 1952) by becoming an oblate, Roger chose as his name in religion ‘Lambert’ – after Chevetogne’s founder Dom Lambert Beauduin, whose vision of ‘the Anglican Church united [with Rome] not absorbed’ inspired him to the end.

Holy Week and Easter

Back in England, Roger moved to Central London as curate of St Mark’s, North Audley Street, and then Chaplain of Liddon House, ministering to the William Temple Association (for intelligent young professional people starting work in London). In 1963 he preached a series of Lent sermons at the Annunciation, Marble Arch, and St Mary’s, Bourne

Street, giving the biblical, theological and spiritual background to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. These were informed by Roger’s knowledge of Continental liturgical scholarship and practice. Eric Mascall, who heard them, persuaded him to publish them. The Sacrament of Easter (1965) was influential and of lasting significance.

France and England

In 1965 Roger became Chaplain of St George’s, Paris. He was just 35 but, having been ‘made deacon’ at 24 (typical then, but exceptional now in most parts of the Church of England), he already had ten years’ experience of priesthood, including a five-year first curacy. St George’s is the Church of England’s ‘flagship’ in France, and in the heady days of ecumenism following the Council Roger became the pre-eminent English interpreter of the Church of England to the French Church. That role he retained, through lecturing and writing, for over forty years.

In 1975 Bishop Eric Kemp brought Roger back to England as a residentiary canon of Chichester Cathedral. He retired, aged 70, in 2000 (leaving Bishop Eric still in office) and became Chaplain of St Michael’s, Beaulieusur-Mer, on the French Riviera. Returning finally to England in 2010, he spent his last year as a Brother of the London Charterhouse.

During his 25 years in Chichester Roger brought into the Church of England insights gleaned from his knowledge of the Church in France and Belgium and his experience of ecumenical dialogue – lecturing in the Cathedral and Theological College, writing, speakinginthe GeneralSynod, as a member of the Archbishops’ Group which produced Episcopal Ministry (1990) and of the Liturgical Commission, and as Convenor and then Chairman of the Church Union Theological Committee. He contributed to ecumenism through the English Anglican–Roman Catholic Committee, and The Catholic Church in France: An Introduction (1996) presented to an Anglican audience the French Church’s history and character and the story of its relations with the Church of England.


If in 1955 the Church of England was ‘a different church’, that could be said even of 1992. Roger remained agnostic about whether women could in principle be priests – a common stance among Anglo-Catholics then but now probably a minority view, especially among younger generations. He was unable to accept the 1992 decision not for reasons concerned with Christian anthropology or the nature of priesthood, but on two other related but distinct grounds: he saw it as damaging not only ecumenically but also ecclesiologically – jeopardizing not only the ARCIC process but also the Church of England’s self-understanding as ‘a fragment of a divided Church’ that ‘does not have the right to act as if it were the whole’.

In his powerful and still topical ‘Epistola ad Romanos’ (The Month, March 1993) Roger set out the multi-stranded dilemma he now faced. One strand concerned the Anglican tradition:

‘I [have] always valued and lived fully within the Anglican tradition and would miss it terribly… In Anglicanism there has always been a mutual interaction between theology and liturgy and the formation of a spirituality, pietas anglicana, which has been both profoundly theological and profoundly liturgical… It is no use preserving artificially an Eastern rite unless there is a genuinely Eastern character to the theology and spirituality which accompany it. If nothing of Anglicanism is to survive within the Roman Communion but some elements of its liturgy, then some of the most tragic and divisive features of “Uniatism” will be perpetuated and the lessons of history ignored.’

The Act of Synod enabled Roger to remain in the Church of England. In the Synod debate on it he contrasted two ecclesiologies. According to one, ‘The Church of England is a sovereign and independent Church and can decide all issues which affect its life without having to defer to any other Christian body’ and ‘When it has made a decision it …has the right, even the duty, to demand compliance… from all its members.’ This was ‘basically, perhaps unconsciously, a Roman Catholic ecclesiology’.

According to the other, ‘The Church of England … only constitute[s] part of the universal Church. There is, therefore, an inevitable fragility or provisionality about decisions that it may make which affect more than its own domestic life… “To make provision” (to quote the preamble to the Act of Synod) “for the continuing diversity of opinion in the Church of England” is not a measure of generosity nor a concession but a necessary consequence of this second model of Anglican self-understanding.’ What was at stake in debating the Act of Synod, therefore, was ‘Our whole understanding of the place of the Church of England within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ.’


Against this background, Roger contemplated the possibility of women bishops two decades later ‘with a great sadness’. He had never served under a bishop who ordained women to the priesthood, and perhaps rarely needed to make the sort of principled compromise to which many have become accustomed. After a life in the mainstream, for much of which Anglo-Catholics were in the ascendant in the Church of England or at least in the dioceses in which he served, the counter-cultural or even nonjuring situation familiar to earlier generations would have been difficult. Roger might have faced a choice comparable with that which the Act of Synod had spared him. Before his final illness, he commented more than once, ‘If the Lord is kind, he will take me before the first woman bishop is consecrated in the Church of England.’


Roger’s life, thought and liturgical style were summed up in the Eucharist in Chichester Cathedral on Michaelmas Day 2005 which celebrated the golden jubilee of his priesting. Roger concelebrated with a number of fellow-priests, the diocesan bishop presided at the Liturgy of the Word and gave the Blessing, and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran preached – surely the first curial cardinal to fly to England from the Vatican to preach at a celebration of Anglican priestly ministry? In a warm personal greeting read by his chaplain, the Archbishop of Canterbury praised Roger as representing ‘a particular style of Catholic Anglicanism that is deeply rooted in liturgy and personal prayer, critical and generous all at once’.

The most memorable moment came towards the end. The congregation stood while the choir sang John Tavener’s ethereal Magnificat (with its refrain ‘Greater in honour than the cherubim … thee do we magnify’) and Roger, accompanied by his Deacon (the Revd Elizabeth Carver), walked down into the nave and censed an image of Our Lady of Walsingham. Nothing was said: it didn’t need to be.

At the party afterwards, this comment was overheard: ‘What a wonderful idea to have your memorial service before you die. That way you can really enjoy it.’ Sadly, on 23 September in Chichester Cathedral it will be for real. ND