History of our Institute

Our Institute was established as an educational charity in 1983 by Dr John Wijngaards. Named Housetop Centre for Adult Faith Formation, it was based in the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster, England. The inspiration for the name came from Jesus’ injunction that we should proclaim his message from the housetops (Matthew 10:27).

Work on Spirituality

During our early years we focused on producing resources for spirituality in our age.

  • Nation-wide research in the UK produced material for a video course on the practice of meditation: The Seven Circles of Prayer (1987), winner of the award for ‘Creative Excellence’ at the 1987 Video Festival in Elmhurst, Illinois, USA.
  • It was followed by two other video courses: Peace in your Home (1988) on ways of fostering prayer in the family, and Loaves of Thanksgiving (1989) on re-vitalising the celebration of the weekly Eucharist).
  • Our Walking on Water (1990-1992) video courses for training community leaders has been adapted by catechetical centres in all continents in 14 languages. They comprised three textbooks and nine 30-min short stories on accompanying video. The stories were filmed in Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Kenya and the UK. Again, several of those videos won awards.
  • In 1995 we published How To Make Sense of God. The course book received a prize from the Catholic Press Association (USA) for ‘best adult reading’. Its accompanying video film Journey to the Centre of Love comprises 5 episodes of approximately 45 minutes each. It won the Grand Prix at the Catholic International Film Festival at Warsaw in 1995, as well as the prestigious Columbus Award (the top award) at the International Film Fair of Columbus, Ohio, in 1996. We have now made its English version freely available on our YouTube channel and on our website on God in the modern world www.mysteryandbeyond.org.
  • Our latest video course focused on Christian marriage. We produced For Better, For Worse in 2000 with academic advice from INTAMS. It was broadcast in English on Boston TV (USA) and in Dutch on the Belgian Catholic television network KTRC in 2000 under the title Tussen Man & Vrouw (‘Between Man & Wife’). It is being distributed in the UK and Ireland by Veritas Publications.
Work on Ordained Ministries for women

The initial focus of Housetop on creating educational material on Christian spirituality eventually expanded to tackle the discrimination of women in the church, as one of the biggest factors affecting Catholics’ material and spiritual growth worldwide. Our clash with traditional views came to a head in 1994 when the Vatican declared that the exclusion of women from the ordained ministries was definitive and should no longer be discussed (John Paul II, ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’).

We felt that the Pope’s judgment not only overlooked key evidence from the New Testament and church history, but was also based on mistaken theological arguments that were indebted more to embedded patriarchal prejudices and ideology than to the liberating Good News of Jesus Christ. It provoked a response in conscience from John Wijngaards who in 1998, in protest, resigned from exercising his priestly ministry.

We decided that our specific contribution to the debate in the Church would be to focus on the academic arguments: to provide reliable guidance to priests, teachers, professors, students, lay leaders, religious and general church members. The Housetop team also decided to make full use of the then rapidly growing potential of internet, and in 1999 created a website gathering the historical evidence as well as the scholarly arguments for and against the ordination of women. This first website, www.womenpriests.org,  has grown to be the largest collection of academic material on that topic in the world, with 10,000+ documents in 26 languages. It is accessed annually by more than 500k Catholics worldwide from 212 different countries: laypeople as well as clergy; academics as well as non-experts; from the first as well as the developing world. Through it we present in full the case for women’s ordination from the points of view of scripture, theology, tradition and church teachings. Equally, we provide in full the reasons the Vatican uses to justify the exclusion of women. In doing this, Wijngaards Institute serves the Catholic Church worldwide by helping its members (lay and clerical alike) judge for themselves what makes sense on either side of the debate.

Work on Church Authority, Sexual Ethics, Science and Faith

Research on the arguments advanced since the Middle Ages against the ordination of women brought to the attention of the Housetop team the extent to which many of them stemmed from mistaken prejudices affecting other areas of Christian thought and practice, from sexual ethics to church governance. As a result of this realization, Housetop decided to develop websites tackling some of those issues:

Main Website www.equalityforwomen.org
Historical Evidence about the ordination of Women to the Diaconate and the Priesthood www.womenpriests.org
Christian Sexual Ethics www.thebodyissacred.org
Church Authority and Governance www.churchauthority.org
Spirituality, Science and Faith www.mysteryandbeyond.org
Natural Law & Conscience www.natural-law-and-conscience.org
Catholics & Contraception www.catholicsandcontraception.org

Since 1999 our team has been at the heart of a successful online campaign of education and awareness-raising on important topics of debate within the Catholic Church. Through our websites we provide a unique collection of online books, articles, PowerPoint presentations, and videos of both a scholarly and a pastoral character. Among the scholarly material we have relevant extracts from the works of the Fathers of the Church, conciliar decrees, papal documents, early, medieval, and modern theologians, saints, etc.

paula2We have also carried out original research which has brought to light previously unpublished primary sources: for example, the www.womendeacons.org website presents evidence of more than 110 women deacons, mostly from headstone inscriptions whose photocopies lay forgotten in archeological records and from contemporary writing. We uncovered and published the original sacramental ordination rite for women deacons from manuscripts found in Oxford, London, Paris, Berlin, Cairo and Athens.

The pastoral content of our websites comprises videos, podcasts, picture galleries, online interactive courses, historical analyses, documentation for discussion groups, concise statements by renowned Catholic scholars as well as key-point summaries of the academic content. Those summaries which we have translated in 26 languages, including several widely used in developing countries, so as to reach as many sections as possible of our large Catholic community.

This was made possible thanks to volunteer translators from all over the world. What is unique about our material is that unlike most online library catalogues, we have obtained permission from authors and publishers to scan and upload complete texts. The fact that the we provide that material for free is particularly beneficial to students and scholars from developing countries, who may not otherwise have a way of obtaining the original texts. Many websites have a provisional nature: they produce content addressing the needs of the moment but which can easily get out of date. In contrast, we are building up open-access Internet libraries of documents which are likely to retain their value for a long time to come.

Scholarly Publications

The fruits of our research have not just gone online, but have also been published in a number of scholarly books, of which three are especially worth mentioning here:

  • John Wijngaards, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church: Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition (London: DLT) 208pp. ISBN: 0232524203;
  • John Wijngaards, The Ordained Women Deacons of the Church’s First Millennium (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012), 262pp. ISBN: 9781848251212;
  • Luca Badini Confalonieri, Democracy in the Christian Church: An Historical, Theological and Political Case (London: Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012), 304pp. ISBN: 978-0-567-52815-5.
Academic Declarations

John Wijngaards’ work recovering the ancient sacramental ordination rites of women has been instrumental in raising the profile of the cause seeking restoration of the ordained women’s diaconate. In 2004 the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece did just that. In 2008, we spearheaded an approach to Pope Benedict XVI, asking him to reinstate the sacramental diaconate for women. The petition was eventually endorsed and co-sponsored by 26 Catholic movements representing more than 30,000 people from around the world. It was delivered to the Pope on October 1, 2008 during the Vatican’s Synod on the Word.

In March 2013 we launched in the British House of Commons the Declaration on Authority in the Church, signed by 216 Catholic scholars including Leonardo Boff, John N. Collins, Hans Küng, as well as members of the hierarchy such as Bishop Tom Gumbleton.

In preparation to the October 2014 extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis invited all Catholics to submit their experiences, insights, and evaluations on that subject. In response we prepared, with the help of moral theologians, the Catholic Scholars’ Statement on Marriage and the Family, which was signed by 87 academics, and sent to the Pope. This declaration contains a professional assessment of present Catholic doctrine and practice with regard to sexuality in life and marriage.

Catherine of Siena Virtual College

Finally, in 2007 we founded Catherine of Siena Virtual College (CSVC), which has been providing leadership courses to 1100+ students in developing countries, 90% of them women. It grew to such an extent that it became difficult for our small team to provide an adequate infra-structure to do justice to its great potential. For this reason, in September 2014 we decided to hand over its management to Roehampton University, London. CSVC has been the latest of many success stories achieved by us on a budget which is a fraction of similar academic institutes. Thanks to a wonderful network of generous volunteers and academic cooperators, freely giving of their time, it has managed to punch far above its weight.