RIP: Yale Professor Emeritus Rowan Greer dies at 79

Posted Mar 24, 2014

Rowan Greer headshot[Yale Divinity School press release] Rowan Allen Greer III, the Walter H. Gray Professor Emeritus of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School, died on March 17, 2014 after a long illness. He was 79 years old.

Professor Greer received his undergraduate degree from Yale University in 1956 and his doctorate in 1965. He joined the Yale faculty in 1966 as assistant professor of New Testament, was named associate professor of New Testament in 1971, associate professor of Anglican studies in 1975, and eventually professor of Anglican studies in 1981.

Greer was the author of several books, including The Captain of Our Salvation: a Study in the Patristic Exegesis of Hebrews (J.C.B. Mohr, 1973), co-author of Early Biblical Interpretation (Westminster, 1986), Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Pennsylvania State, 1991), and The Fear of Freedom: A Study of Miracle in the Roman Imperial Church (Pennsylvania State, 1990). As an authority on Anglican history, Greer also wrote Anglican Approaches to Scripture: From the Reformation to the Present (Crossroad, 2006).

He specialized in patristics, the study of the church fathers, particularly the relation between the theological development of the early church and its social setting. His research has included the impact of the Diocletian persecution and the Constantinian Revolution on Christian theology.

“Rowan was an internationally recognized expert in the interpretation of scripture and the early church,” said Dean Gregory E. Sterling. “He also touched the lives of students profoundly. He was one of the great scholars at YDS who leaves an enormous legacy.”

Sterling Professor of New Testament Harold W. Attridge stated, “Rowan Greer was a highly respected scholar and teacher. He made many memorable contributions to the study of patristic theology and Biblical interpretation, including one that I particularly appreciated, The Captain of Our Salvation, on the interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the fourth and fifth centuries.”

Greer was also an Anglican priest. After earning his bachelor of sacred theology at General Theological Seminary, he was ordained in 1960. He served as curate at two Connecticut churches—St. Paul’s Church in Fairfield, and Christ Church in New Haven. He was a chaplain for Edinburgh Theological College of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

According to Joseph Britton, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, “Rowan Greer was the quintessential scholar-priest. His academic work deeply informed his priestly identity, and vice versa, which is why so many Divinity School students looked to him not only as a teacher, but also as a mentor. His presence was deeply felt in the classroom and chapel alike.”

After he joined the Yale faculty, he served as an assisting priest at St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, and served weekly as the Celebrant at Berkeley’s Morning Prayer.

Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures, remembered, “[He] was there faithfully every morning, always in the same chair in the back row. As the Scripture lessons were read, he would follow along in the original languages, having marked a small Biblia Hebraica for the Old Testament and Nestle Aland for the New Testament beforehand.”

Greer was well loved as a teacher, as much for his style as his scholarship. “Rowan was seen on campus in the company of his beloved golden retrievers, MacGregor and (later) Montgomery,” Sharp recalls. “They stayed in his office; one or the other would come with him to class, snoozing under his chair while he lectured.”

“Rowan taught an unusual range of classes, including History of Christianity I and II, From Hooker to Temple: A Survey of Anglican Theology, Spirituality of the Desert Fathers, and Patristic Greek,” according to Sharp. “He turned student papers back within a few days, always with learned and meticulous handwritten notes covering two, three, even four sheets of yellow lined paper.”

After retiring from teaching in 1997, Greer was awarded emeritus status by the Yale Corporation. He continued to serve the church, moving to Charlotte, North Carolina where he served as curate at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. He returned to New Haven in 1999 and resumed teaching for two more years.

Attridge said, “He was much beloved as a mentor by a generation of YDS and BDS students.  When lecturing [at YDS] several years ago, Stanley Hauerwas dedicated his lectures to Rowan, as the faculty member who had been most influential on him during his time as a student on the Quad. Many other students of Rowan’s years as a teacher would no doubt echo that sentiment.”

Faculty and students remember Greer as a strong, gracious and thoughtful presence on campus. Sharp explains, “He knew the patristic literature so well—including, of course, the heresies—that he could spot a dubious theological point in a sermon or prayer immediately. Berkeley worship went through a brief phase in the 1990s of naming God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer in place of the standard Trinitarian formula. In those days, Rowan could be heard muttering under his breath about Modalism on his way to morning coffee, but always with good humor. Students loved him.”

The burial service will be private, according to Greer’s wishes. A reception in Rowan’s honor will be held at the Christ Church parish hall on Friday, March 28, from 5:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Christ Church is located at 84 Broadway at the intersections of Broadway, Elm, and Whalley Avenues. You may enter the Christ Church grounds through the gate on Broadway or Elm Street. 

Plans for a memorial service at YDS are underway, and will be announced on the YDS website when they are finalized.


Comments (6)

  1. stuart kenworthy says:

    Thank you for this remembrance. It is so well written and with much care. I never met Professor Greer but I do know one of his students who now serves our the staff here at Christ Church, Georgetown, Washington DC. . This writing makes me wish I had met him. A saintly man who loved God and those whom God placed before him. Fittingly, the Rev Deirdre A. Eckian (YDS) preached a beautiful sermon yesterday and ended with her own remembrance of how Fr Greer embodied Christ’s presence. + May he rest in God’s eternal peace + s

  2. Vicki Smith says:

    My primary memory of Rowan is not his scholarship, though that was remarkable, what I remember is the day in Marquand chapel when Rowan served as “Nellie’s voice” reading the sermon Nellie had written but could not deliver due to physical limitations. That was the only time I ever saw Rowan in a shirt and tie rather than a clerical collar, and I suspect it was the only time the word lunkhead ever passed his lips. Thank you Rowan for being an amazing scholar and an even better priest.

  3. About 6 years ago, Mike Carlson and I called Rowan to thank him for his ministry of peace. YDS can be a tense atmosphere but Rowan’s pipe smoke was like the cloud of glory bringing comfort. His words flowed with the grace of his golden retrievers flowing behind him. His ministry left us richer and more beautiful inside. The man was in love with Jesus.

  4. Rev. Ron Hooker says:

    Dr. Greer was an outstanding Professor and a life-long friend. I can remember taking three
    courses with him at Yale. His courses were highlighted by his keen mind and great memory,
    as well as his rich sense of humour (I used the English spelling – he would always note that
    in my papers.) I still have some of his written reviews of my exams taken over 35 years ago.
    Rev. Ron Hooker, Retired Professor & Pastor Emeritus. He now belongs to the ages. May
    Perpetual Light Shine upon him.

  5. Phillip Ayers says:

    I mourn Rowan’s death. What a singularly wonderful, holy, articulate man and spokesman for the Christian faith and life. Stories abound, but one stands out with me: I invited him to lunch with a visiting English friend at the old Berkeley Divinity School Chapel (no longer there as it was razed a few years ago) which, in 1980, had become a cafeteria. While another guest rather monopolized the conversation, Rowan listened intently in his gracious way. I was not privileged to have taken any course from him, but was glad to have been a part of his presentations at the now-late College of Preachers in 2003. May he rest in peace and rise in glory! Amen!

  6. Chi Chuen Chan, PhD says:

    I took his courses while I was in YDS in the 1990’s. I always remember him and I miss his teaching. Me and my wife, Fong, will always remember him. he is always my teacher.

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