Mary, grace and hope

In February General Synod will discuss the ARCIC statement on Mary Thomas Seville takes a closer look at the contents of this document and finds it to be a positive and important step towards Christian unity

The search for the unity of Christians has been one of the most remarkable events of the last century. This has been especially remarkable in relations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics; having regarded each other with suspicion or fear (and often worse), they have made steps to work with each other and to agree on many crucial issues.

The effects of walking apart, however, have been more harmful than perhaps was realized in the early days of the search for unity. And things which have happened in the time of being apart have a tendency to rear up with rude sharpness.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the matters of the authority of the bishop of Rome and of the two teachings concerning the Mother of Jesus. These have been the subject of authoritative teachings by the church of Rome. These remain areas of continued discussion and exploration between Roman Catholics and their ecumenical partners of just about every shape and colour.

At the February Synod, there will be time to assess how far the two communions have got. There is Growing Together in Unity and Mission, a report from IARCCUM (the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission) on forty years of ecumenical endeavour between the two communions. This body was formed after a meeting of Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops in Mississauga, Canada, in May 2000.

Work has been interrupted as a result of the troubles in the Anglican communion. It notes agreements and areas where there are differences, and proposes a variety of areas where cooperation in mission could and should be realized. This was its aim: 'to identify a sufficient degree of agreement in faith to enable the development of a deepened common life and mission together'. Put more casually, some of these things are happening already; but if ecumenism is a real part of the Church's calling, then surely it needs flesh on the bones of shared teaching and common statements [paras. 100-25].

Also to be presented for discussion at the same Synod is Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, the document of ARCIC II, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission on Mary. It has been asked, why a document on Mary which treats so much of Roman Catholic teachings? There is a simple answer: this was the work given to the Commission and these were issues which were identified as being problem areas for Anglicans. This was put succinctly more than a quarter of a century ago [Authority in the Church II, 30]:

'The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption raise a special problem for those Anglicans who do not consider that the precise definitions given by these dogmas are sufficiently supported by Scripture. For many Anglicans the teaching authority of the bishop of Rome, independent of a council, is not recommended by the fact that through it these Marian doctrines were proclaimed as dogmas binding on all the faithful. Anglicans would also ask whether, in any future union between our two Churches, they would be required to subscribe to such dogmatic statements'

The new ARCIC document attempts to look at both of these issues, the so-called dogmas, and the question of authority. It does not represent agreement on all areas, but is intended as a first step and an important one. It is important to note that, although the churches of Canterbury and Rome parted on a matter concerned with the authority of the bishop of Rome, teaching about that authority was not as yet formulated by that bishop. This teaching, concerning his role in the Church as a whole, was not defined by Rome until 1871. As far as teachings about Mary are concerned, it was not these which divided churches at that stage. Luther and the Pope did not break over the Mother of the Lord. There is something here which should cause any Christian to pause: the very idea of dividing over the one who gave birth to Jesus Christ.

The Commission takes up areas of belief common to the two communions and noted in the previous ARCIC document. There is but one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ; no role for Mary is to be held which gets in the way of this statement. Mary is linked with teachings about Christ and the Church. Mary is called to be Mother of God Incarnate [Theotokos] and festivals in her honour are kept in the Church and she is in the communion of saints. She is prepared by grace to be the Mother of Jesus, by whom she is redeemed and taken to her destiny. She is a model for Christians, of obedience and of faith.

There are four sections: 'Mary according to the Scriptures'; 'Mary in the Christian tradition; 'Mary within the pattern of grace and hope'; and 'Mary in the life of the Church'.

Scriptures are the norm for our understanding of Mary [para. 6] and teachings which are at variance with Scripture are to be rejected [para. 79]. There is a conservative exposition of the Scriptures; the virginal conception of Jesus is defended [para. 18, with an excellent footnote]. It has to be said that the method used for interpreting Scripture does vary; in defence of this, it may be argued that the report would have been several times longer if this had been otherwise, and a paragraph is devoted to the way Scripture is read [para. 7].

In the second section, there is found to be agreement on Mary as 'God-bearer', Theotokos, a title which has been variously translated, often as 'Mother of God' (this does not mean that Mary is mother of the Trinity!). The title is intimately related to the fact that the one born of her is the one Jesus Christ, human and divine, man and God. Both communions stand in a tradition which sees Mary as the new Eve, a type of the Church; that we pray and praise with Mary; and that Mary and the saints pray for the whole Church. There is a helpful footnote on the 'brothers of Jesus' in relation to 'Mary ever virgin' (there is curiously little on the teaching that Mary is 'ever virgin').

Many will see the third section as the most important part of the statement. Following the idea that Scripture allows us to trace trajectories which illuminate the present state of the believer, it argues that the Spirit already gives us a sharing in the end of our hope in Christ, God's glory. Romans 8.30 is pivotal: 'those whom God predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified'. 'Now' is seen in terms of what will be. Putting summarily what is expressed with some subtlety, this may be fittingly applied to the person of Mary, forwards with respect to the end and backwards with respect to her beginning.

Finally, the theme of the role of Mary in the communion of saints is taken up. This is divided into four. Firstly, Mary is an example of the life of grace, the fullest. We are 'to join with her as one indeed not dead, but truly alive in Christ'. Secondly, Mary has a role in the Church's life of praise and prayer. The role of the Magnificat in the prayer of both Anglicans and Roman Catholics as well as the Eucharistic Prayer is an example, and her place as Iheotokos makes her distinctive. Thirdly, Mary, with other saints, prays for the Church, and there is a section on why some ask her to pray for us [para. 70] and why it must not be allowed to obscure the direct access we have to the Father through Christ. Fourthly, she has a motherly role for the Church and also for the world, a role which points the faithful and the rest to Christ [para. 72].

It is important to note the wide area of agreement about the Mother of Jesus. The emphasis on Christ, the incarnation, the virginal conception and the authority of Scripture will be especially welcome to orthodox Anglicans. Mary is one of the redeemed, a creature like us. The section on Mary in the communion of saints repays careful reading [paras. 64-70]; the view of Mary in both of our communions has been partial. 'Mary points people to Christ, commending them to him and helping them to share his life' [para. 65].

The report goes on to conclude that the two Marian dogmas do not present something which Anglicans need reject as unbiblical. It is possible to see the two Marian dogmas against the background of hope and grace in Christ, that destiny of which I spoke above, and as consonant with Scripture. These teachings need not be regarded as church-dividing, but as legitimate expressions of the faith. Nothing must obscure the unique mediatorship of Christ, and Scripture is the ultimate norm of teaching.

This raises the question of the authority by which Rome has claimed to define these teachings. Although there has been progress in treating these more sympathetically than Anglicans have done in the past, a consensus has not emerged, a fact noted by the IARCCUM statement. On the other hand, there has been the remarkable act of Pope John Paul II [in Ut unum sint] in asking for help in understanding the role and status of the Pope, to which the House of Bishops made a weighty (and well received) response. What does emerge from the report is that if the treatment of the two teachings about Mary can be welcomed, then the question of authority is placed in a 'new ecumenical context' [para. 78].

The report takes seriously the fact that the Roman dogmas were defined when the churches were apart [paras. 62-3]. Anglicans ask whether in a re-united church assent to these teachings would be required. Roman Catholics find it hard to think of teachings held to be revealed that would bind some, but not others.

What can be drawn from this?

First, that a group of Anglican (with good Evangelical representation) and Roman Catholic theologians can compose such a report on the person of the Mother of Jesus is in itself significant. Second, the agreement on the unique mediatorship of Christ and the normativity of the Scriptures, the virginal conception and the truth that the term Theotokos is about Christ first are superb.

There will be continuing appraisal of how successful the report is in locating the controversial issues in the context of those areas, but I think all orthodox Anglicans have cause for thanksgiving that this is the map which has been laid out.

Some of the paths, however, do look a little threatening. One of the reasons for unease is that for centuries most Anglicans have given little thought to the Mother of Jesus. Paths have been closed or have become overgrown. Happily, there have been some fine works written by Evangelicals on Mary in recent years (for example, The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus, by Scott McKnight).

There is also the sadness that putting up defences to the very mention of the Mother of Jesus has often been a characteristic of non-Roman Catholics in the West. Such reactions go deep, but that is no reason to shy away from another look.

It will have become apparent that I think Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ is a courageous report and one which orthodox Anglicans should welcome. Anglicans are not being required to start asking Mary to pray for them or to go on pilgrimage to Lourdes; some already do, of course. Some will welcome more in the report than others. It is a good step and one which is worth treating seriously. It is, after all, a scandal that there are Christians not in communion with one another and it is a particular scandal that we divide over the Mother of Jesus.

For this reason alone, one needs to be careful of one's 'deep' reactions. The wounds of the past have not healed. There is a need for conversion, a readiness to go to Christ in the one who is different (to some the Roman Catholic, to others the Anglican) and to learn. This is something which the report does not really touch on.

One of the ways to seek conversion is to read the Scriptures and to do so together. This is one of the suggestions made by the IARCCUM statement [paras. 104-7]. It will assist our way forward if this can be made real with respect to the Mother of Jesus. This may sound a strange thing, Utopian indeed, but if we can agree on the things I have indicated above, then it may not be simply something we can do with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. It will be something we must do.

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