`The Most Immaculate and Blessed Virgin'

Colin Podmore looks at devotion to Mary in the pre-Tractarian Church of England

It was once popularly thought that in the eighteenth-century Church of England was at its most protestant, dominated by a cold, rationalist theology not an era in which one would expect to find Marian devotion. However, recent scholarship has underlined the persistence of high churchmanship within the Hanoverian Established Church. One fruit of this was the addition in 1721 of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Oxford University Calendar (otherwise largely that of the Prayer Book). It has remained there ever since.

Prayer Book

The Prayer Book was one of the forces that kept devotion to Our Lady alive. Generations of lay Anglicans, especially perhaps children and young people, sat in the pews studying their Prayer Books in the less scintillating moments of lengthy sermons. There they found Marian feasts in the Calendar, references to Mary as The Blessed Virgin Mary' and Our Lady; the Christmas Collect and Preface (new compositions in 1549 which mention Our Lord's Mother unlike the Sarum texts that they replaced), and the Magnificat at the heart of Evening Prayer. One of the most damaging developments in the last fifty years has been the disappearance of the Prayer Book from the pew, supplanted by local booklets that contain only those extracts from the liturgy that have been chosen for that church or even that day. The new technology that has made that possible brings huge advantages, and we cannot uninvent it, but this development does involve an unprecedented loss of context, whereby the people in the pew are no longer inducted, almost by osmosis, into the tradition.

Robert Nelson

Central to the whole logic of the Prayer Book is the Christian Year, and that therefore provided the framework for devotional writing for lay Anglicans. Probably the most important example of this was A Companion for the Feasts and Fasts of the Church of England: with collects and prayers for each solemnity, by the layman Robert Nelson (16.5G-1715), first published in 1704. Nelson was a Nonjuror when he wrote it. Though he later returned to the worship of the Established Church, he never resiled from his Nonjuring views. None the less, the book was distributed by the SPCK and read very widely throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth (my copy, published in 1795, is the 27th edition; the 36th was published in 1826). This demonstrates the influence of the Nonjurors on the large number of high-church Anglicans who stayed within the Established Church.

In his section on the Annunciation, Nelson first answers the question `Why is the blessed Virgin styled the Mother of God?' Then he goes on to say this of her perpetual virginity: `The peculiar Eminency, and unparalleled Privilege of that Mother; the special Honour and Reverence due unto that Son, and ever paid by her; the Regard of that Holy Ghost that came upon her; the singular Goodness and Piety of Joseph, to whom she was espoused; have persuaded the Church of God in all Ages to believe that she still continued in the same Virginity, and therefore is to be acknowledged The Ever Virgin Mary:

Anglican doctrine

That is what lay Anglicans were taught about Our Lady in this most popular eighteenth-century Anglican devotional work. Those words were in fact a quotation from An Exposition of the Creed, published in 16.59 by John Pearson (1613-86), later Bishop of Chester a standard guide to the doctrines of the Creed that was republished, in full or in an abridgement, right through to the end of the nineteenth century. Pearson summarized the Anglican doctrine on this point thus: We believe the mother of our Lord to have been not only before and after his nativity, but also for ever, the most immaculate and blessed virgin'. Behind that formulation we can hear Lancelot Andrewes' translation from the Orthodox Liturgy in his Preces Privatae (first published in 164.8): `the allholy, immaculate, more than blessed mother of God and ever-virgin Mary: These are surely are the classical themes of Anglican Marian devotion: purity, motherhood, and above all blessedness and perpetual virginity, summed up in the most typical Anglican designation: `the Blessed Virgin Mary'.

Cleverly written hymn

Blessedness and virginity come together in the beautiful hymn `Virgin-born we bow before thee' (New English Hymnal, 187) by Reginald Heber, who was born in 1783 and died as Bishop of Calcutta in 1826, not yet 43 years old. It appeared in his ground-breaking Anglican collection of hymns for the Christian Year (the importance of which for Anglican piety we note again), which was published posthumously in 1827:

Virgin-born, we bow before thee:
Blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
Blessed was she in her Child.

Blessed was the breast that fed thee;
Blessed was the hand that led thee;
Blessed was the parent's eye
That watched thy slumbering infancy.

Blessed she by all creation,
Who brought forth the world's salvation,
And blessed they, for ever blest,
Who love thee most and serve thee best.

Virgin-born..., we bow before thee...

Heber was a middle-of-the-road Anglican who if anything inclined towards evangelicalism, so his hymn tells us something about mainstream Anglican attitudes to Our Lady at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The hymn is very cleverly written: it is addressed to Christ, but its subject is Mary and its first word is `Virgin'; in sixteen lines the word `blessed or `blest occurs ten times. No one reading it could doubt that before the Oxford Movement Anglicans honoured the Blessed Virgin.

This is an extract from `Blessed Virgin: Mary and the Anglican Tradition, the Assumptiontide Lecture given at St Mary and All Saints, Little Watsingham, in 2014. The full text is available as a booklet from St Mary's and online at wwwforwardinfaith.com/ Artictes. php

Return to Trushare Home Page

Return to Home Page of This Issue