Receiving Mary

On May 16 in Seattle, ARCIC II completed its work with the presentation of its agreed statement on Mary. Martin Warner welcomes its teaching and considers how we may learn from it in the coming years

 

I recently attended a Roman Catholic ordination as an ecumenical guest. Many moments were emotionally charged, but one phrase from the ordination rite stood out: ‘Know what you are doing.’

The simple directness of this statement is characteristic of the best liturgical texts. It is a powerful instruction that should last a lifetime for the ordinand.

The publication of the latest ARCIC statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, could come with a similar instruction to both Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians when we consider the place that we give and have given to Mary in the life of the Church.

The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission make it clear that they are well aware of what they are doing, in tackling the place of Mary in the Christian tradition, and its interpretation in the centuries that have passed since Anglicans and Roman Catholics separated.

From the beginning of the ARCIC process, it was recognized that there would have to be an inquiry into the extent to which ‘doctrine or devotion concerning Mary belongs to a legitimate ‘reception’ of the apostolic Tradition in accordance with the Scriptures’ (p.5). In Ut Unum Sint (1995) ‘Pope John Paul II identified as one area in need of fuller study by all Christian traditions, before a true consensus of faith can be achieved, of the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.’

In this article I propose to look first at what the statement accomplishes in re-discovering common faith, beneath language and formulas that have appeared irreconcilable. We next consider what may have been done, without knowing it, to distort the rightful place of Mary in the lives of our respective communions. Finally, we come to the challenges of how we are called now to grow in our understanding of the revelation of the Word of God, in which Mary plays an indispensable part.

One of the strengths of the ARCIC statements is that they present us with a process that builds theologically and consistently on previous statements. So we are reminded in this statement of what was agreed in The Gift of Authority (1999), and in particular that when elements of faith have been forgotten, neglected, or abused, ‘fresh recourse to Scripture and Tradition recalls God’s revelation in Christ: we call this process re-reception’ (p.5).

Section A of the statement covers the place of Mary in the Scriptures. Here the issues of typology, historical-critical approaches to biblical texts, the nuance of language and variant readings are all considered and given, a traditional interpretation. The development of the virginal conception of Jesus is seen to develop independently in the gospels of Matthew and Luke; the statement reads this with reference to John 3: 3–5 as ‘far from being an isolated miracle, (it) is a powerful expression of what the Church believes about her Lord, and about our salvation’ (p.19).

Section B builds on this understanding in its survey of Tradition, presenting an excellent précis of the development of the place of Mary in theology and devotion throughout Christian history. It is on the Commission’s reading of Scripture and Tradition that its most original and inspired work is based, opening up the possibility of a re-reception of ‘Mary within the pattern of grace and hope,’ the title of section C.

Here the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are re-stated in the scriptural language of Pauline theology. The Immaculate Conception is understood as a viewing of ‘the economy of grace from its fulfilment in Christ ‘back’ into history, rather than ‘forward’ from its beginning in fallen creation towards the future in Christ.’ The Assumption is identified as ‘the destiny of the Church and of its members…to be holy and blameless and to share in the glory of Christ (Eph. 1: 3–5, 5: 27)’ (pp.49, 50).

The significance of this capacity to read the Marian dogmas in the language and terms of Scripture is of fundamental importance for those who properly remind us of the fourth of the 39 Articles on holy Scripture, ‘that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith.’

This raises questions of what the status of the papal definitions of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950) might mean for ecumenical partners moving into fuller unity.

Before that, however, we return to the issue of knowing what it is that we are doing. Here, I want to look at three examples of how Mary has been presented in ways that suggest the Church did not know what it was doing, and has subsequently sought re-reception of a truer understanding of the Mother of Jesus Christ.

The first example is drawn from late medieval Christianity. Interestingly it was not a tendency in the expression of the Marian cult that found widespread condemnation among the reformers, though it ought to have done.

It is an account of the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple as it was celebrated in the cathedral at Avignon in 1385. In this highly theatrical piece of liturgical ceremonial Mary is at one point praised by her parents Joachim and Anna, as a figure who personifies the Church, Ecclesia. This is followed by a lament from the figure who personifies Judaism, Synagoga, who is pushed down the steps of the stage and rushes from the cathedral, ‘to the laughter of the people.’ Such popular slapstick liturgy can almost certainly be identified among the causes of savage anti-semitism in the widespread massacre of Jews throughout Europe.

We may feel that our remote position from those events enables us to be enlightened about the recognition of the importance of Mary’s Jewishness, leading a post-Holocaust generation to recognise the crime of anti-semitism that stains the Church’s history.

But are we sufficiently removed from the implications of a second, brief example to say that here, too, the Church may not have known what distortion it was creating? In 1571 a fleet of Spanish-led Venetian galleys defended Christian Europe and repulsed a Turkish invasion at the Battle of Lepanto. For trade and political reasons, ‘it was one of the few moments in the Reformation when Protestants could feel real pleasure at a Catholic success,’ Diarmaid MacCulloch observes. The triumph over the Islamic Turks was attributed by the Catholics to the intercession of Mary, commemorated in the Roman Catholic calendar by the feast of the Holy Rosary.

However, with the benefits of the contemporary opportunity, where it has been used, to study Islamic faith, we have begun to learn the importance of the place attributed by the Koran to Mary. The Roman Catholic Marian expert, George H. Tavard, compares the Koranic treatment of Mariyam the mother of Issâ to that found in the Christian tradition of the apocryphal New Testament, notably the Gospel of James.

In The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary, Tavard observes that in both Christianity and Islam, ‘it is the mission of the son that determines the spiritual relation between the mother and the son’ (p.43). Might this not suggest that there is here, buried in an ancient tradition close to our own, something about ourselves, our faith, that others might be able to recount to us?

These are two examples of how we can now see that the Church has presented Mary in the past without necessarily knowing fully what it was doing, denying aspects of its own inheritance and a common tradition, even though it believed passionately at the time that it was doing the right thing.

It is in this context of denial, loss and theological distortion that I wish to set a third example: that of the iconoclastic reformation of the churches in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The destruction of images inevitably embraced more than those of the Virgin Mary, but the popularity of St Mary as the dedication of so many pre-Reformation churches is an indication of her pre-eminence.

Even prior to the destructive Puritan crusades led by zealots such as William Dowsing in Suffolk, Diarmaid MacCulloch describes the interior of English post-Reformation churches as ‘a giant scrapbook of the Bible,’ with texts replacing the figurative decoration of saints and objects of piety.

Some have described the impact of this iconoclasm in graphic terms. Patrick Collinson describes post-Reformation England as ‘a land of visual anorexia, suffering from iconophobia,’ fear of images (The Birthpangs of Protestant England, p.118). Tessa Watt calls it ‘a profound mental revolution’ (Cheap Print and Popular Piety, p.135). The symptoms of that iconophobia still existed three hundred years later, when an English clergyman could declare with vehement distaste that in Italy statues of the Virgin Mary represent her ‘with the divine and omnipotent saviour as a feeble, helpless babe in her arms.’

These observations must say something to us about the limitations to the understanding of the scope of the incarnation that the absence of images of Mary and the Christ child from early Victorian churches might have fostered. Moreover, the recent growth of interest in the arts among Anglican Evangelicals (Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jeremy Begbie, for example) may say something to us about the possibility of a wider recovery of how to appreciate the place of the imagination in the process of revelation. Here art would enable us to recognize that Mary fulfils the rôle of the veil of the temple, the material point of entry of the Word of God from eternity into time, from invisibility into the reality of a man who is seen and suffers as one like us.

With the benefit of the distance of time, we now see that the fear of images planted in us by the Reformation has done damage we did not know about at the time. Much of this damage has inhibited our capacity to appreciate the proper place of Mary in the Christian tradition, because we have not been skilled in the literacy of reading images as theological metaphor in ways that render words inadequate.

Perhaps we can also see that the restoration of images, often in subtle and unspoken ways – our stained glass windows, our richly framed paintings of Mary, our figures in the crib, our Mothers’ Union banners, our icons, our Lady Chapels – do now ask for some theological account.

In providing at least the framework for such an account, this ARCIC statement on Mary gives us an understanding of how we might relate to the wider Christian tradition. In this respect it usefully identifies the intimate connection between Mary and the Church, to which, finally, we now turn.

There are considerable achievements in this ARCIC statement that ought to be applauded and welcomed, as another step on the pilgrimage towards reconciliation and unity. However, more work remains to be done on the question of the reception of the Marian dogmas given papal definition with no ecumenical instrument or reference in 1854 and 1950.

How would this look if we viewed it from the perspective of the instruction in the ordinal, ‘Know what you are doing’? We would be able to see that the Roman Catholic Church operated in a way that was consistent with its self-understanding at the time of the papal definitions. But we might also see that it could not have known what it was doing, in making those definitions prior to an age that would expect the mind of the Church, sensus fidelium, to take note of and be informed by ‘a new ecumenical context’ (p.79). This expectation in the last two ARCIC statements makes it clear that our understanding of the process of reception on matters of faith and order should be set in that ecumenical context.

Furthermore, if we as Anglicans, in the context of ecumenical dialogue, can see that a unilateral decision, without an ecumenical council, but based on a Church’s self-understanding of its proper use of authority, has subsequently created a stumbling block on the path to unity, then we would surely wish to know what we are doing in making any similar decision in a similar way.

Catholic Anglicans in the Church of England, together with those who seek to hold a common bond of inheritance in matters of faith and morals, will surely welcome the route map with which this latest ARCIC statement and The Gift of Authority chart some part of our future pilgrimage in Anglican and Roman Catholic dialogue.

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