Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ

by Nick Jowett

from Signs of the Times, No. 28 - Jan 2008

In 2005 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission published an 'Agreed Statement', Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. This was the final report from ARCIC II and it sought to overcome some of the deep historical differences on Mary's role and status between the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

The statement repeats 'significant agreement' about Mary from a previous ARCIC statement (Authority in the Church II, 1981), and then asserts that it has sought to understand Mary's person and role in the widest possible theological and spiritual context, 'in the light of a theology of divine grace and hope.' It takes us through the scriptural references to Mary and a brief history of the Church's beliefs and practices in relation to her, both before and after the Reformation, and concludes:

The Scriptures lead us together to praise and bless Mary as the handmaid of the Lord, who was providentially prepared by divine grace to be the mother of our Redeemer. Her unqualified assent to the fulfilment of God's saving plan can be seen as the supreme instance of a believer's 'Amen' in response to the 'Yes' of God. She stands as a model of holiness, obedience and faith for all Christians. As one who received the Word in her heart and in her body, and brought it forth into the world, Mary belongs in the prophetic tradition. We are agreed in our belief in the Blessed Virgin Mary as Theotokos (Mother of God). Our two communions are both heirs to a rich tradition which recognizes Mary as ever virgin, and sees her as the new Eve and as a type of the Church. We join in praying and praising with Mary whom all generations have called blessed, in observing her festivals and according her honour in the communion of the saints, and are agreed that Mary and the saints pray for the whole Church. In all of this, we see Mary as inseparably linked with Christ and the Church.

The statement then goes on to tackle two Catholic dogmas about Mary, both of comparatively recent date, those of her Immaculate Conception and of her Assumption.

The first of these was pronounced and defined by Pope Pius IX in 1854 when he stated that Mary 'in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.' In other words from the moment her soul was formed in the womb she received what God was going to do for all humankind in Jesus Christ; in view of her coming role as God's mother, she got redemption in advance of everybody else.

As for Mary's Assumption, this was defined as recently as 1950 by Pius XII and stated that 'the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.' This also puts Mary 'at the head of the queue', so to speak: she enters the fullness of what God promises to all, but she is somehow the first to get it.

The ARCIC statement on Mary points out that these dogmas did not emerge out of the blue, but had been developing in Christian belief for centuries, closely linked with the great honour in which Mary was held. It also seeks to explain that Mary is partly being specially honoured because of her unique role within the history of salvation, but is partly being seen, in her freeing from sin and in her being taken into heaven, 'merely' as an exemplar or type of every Christian. Nevertheless, the problems for Anglicans in accepting these two dogmas are recognised and summed up in a quotation from the sixth of the Thirty Nine Articles, that 'Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so 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, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.' There is clearly no direct justification in the Bible for the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and in spite of the subtle arguments of the statement on Mary, most Anglicans would find them impossible to accept. The statement hopes, somewhat vaguely, that 'Marian teaching and devotion within our respective communities, including differences of emphasis , would be seen to be authentic expressions of Christian belief' and that 'the explicit acceptance of the precise wording of the definitions of 1854 and 1950 might not be required of believers who were not in communion with Rome when they were defined '. I cannot believe that many 21st century Anglicans will be willing to accept what are essentially pious imaginings as any part of the official doctrine that Christians are required to believe.

Finally the ARCIC statement reflects on prayer to the Virgin Mary in the light of Article 22 which says that 'the Romish doctrine... of the invocation of saints is grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but is rather repugnant to the Word of God.' It points out that, in spite of many periods of exaggerated devotion and prayer to Mary seen as almost an alternative Redeemer, the Roman Catholic Church fundamentally affirms that all prayer is to God the Trinity, and that where saints are invoked, it is only to assist and strengthen the prayers of the Church on earth, and that Mary's special role derives from her closeness to Christ. In other words, she is at one with the prayers of the Church on earth and in heaven, and essentially no different from anyone else praying, but that her unique role in the economy of salvation has meant that her prayers have been pre-eminently besought. In the light of this, the ARCIC statement does not believe that the practice of asking Mary along with the other saints to pray for us need be a cause of division.

The main controversial proposals of the statement are clearly the acceptance, in some form or another, of the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, and of the idea of praying through Mary. But these are certainly not the only problems that will face thoughtful Anglicans in responding to the statement.

Perhaps above all it is the approach to scripture found in the statement that will be found most questionable. The statement claims that it makes use of a whole range of interpretative methods for understanding the Bible, but in practice it simply takes us though all the texts in which Mary has some role (including, dubiously, the 'woman clothed with the sun' of Revelation 12) and draws out some pious, traditional reflections, with a strong bias towards symbolic interpretations linked to the 'history of salvation'.

This approach produces the following difficulties:

  1. There is no indication that the majority of Marian texts are from parts of the gospels of very doubtful historicity (notably the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew and two appearances in John's Gospel, the wedding of Cana and the scene with the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross) and that these texts already represent long and mature Christian theological reflection.
  2. This means that the conflict between, on the one hand, the early idea that Jesus was born of the seed of David (Romans 1), that is, with Joseph as his natural father (genealogies of Matthew and Luke), and, on the other hand, the notion of the virginal conception through the Holy Spirit, which developed much later and which is reflected in Matthew's and Luke's birth narratives, is completely ignored.
  3. The notion of the virginal conception as, negatively, one without any sure historical foundation, but, very positively, as a theological statement about a fresh creative initiative of God, which many theologians and ordinary Christians happily accept, is unjustifiably ignored.
  4. The clearest historical appearance of Mary, seeking to drag Jesus home because she and the family think he has lost his senses (Mark 3), with Jesus' own very cool response, is glossed over. The statement comments, 'Jesus' natural family, including his own mother, seems at this stage to lack understanding of the true nature of his mission.' This is a very naïve reading of scripture - as though the Mary of Luke's birth narratives, so full of faith and devotion, has suddenly turned into this obtuse Galilean mother!
  5. The light of history also shines here on the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters. This makes it pretty unlikely on the face of it that Mary remained a virgin - even supposing that she still was one after the birth of Jesus! The Roman Catholic interpretation is that the 'brothers and sisters' of Jesus are just cousins. Well, that's possible; but why try to avoid the plain meaning? The Church's long obsession with virginity has had some unhealthy, unhappy consequences, and it looks, from the belief in Mary's eternal virginity, as though the Church has been promoting the ideal married relationship as one in which people don't have sex! It's noteworthy that the commission which produced this statement had only two women members...
  6. It goes without saying that no text of the Bible refers to Mary's immaculate conception and bodily assumption.

None of this disqualifies the value of theological reflection on the role of Mary, and, in its later history of the way Mary has been regarded in the Church, the ARCIC statement is much clearer that it is talking about the history of ideas about Mary. It should have made much clearer distinctions of history and interpretation in using the Bible passages.

The result of doing just that is to see that in fact Mary is largely unknown, that her role in the NT is actually minuscule, and that when Christians have thought and talked about her, they have largely tended to project their own needs and fears, longings and fantasies on to her, rather in the way that Princess Diana has come to express what 20th century English people felt about themselves, almost irrespective of her true character and biography.

From an honest historical perspective, one must say that Mary was a normal, ordinary Jewish woman living in Galilee with a husband who was a carpenter; she had a big family and probably found it very difficult to accept Jesus' nomadic existence and his new substitute family of those obedient to God; and that she might have been part of the new Christian community after the resurrection. I would certainly add that no person of Jesus' wonderful character and courage and openness and love could have been the son of a horrible mother (could they?); behind the man of genius and faith must lie parents of warmth and godliness.

Did God 'choose' them and 'prepare the way', as the gospels tell us? I am happy to believe so and to make use of the birth and infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke as mythic ways - theology in the form of created narrative - to meditate on that divine purpose. Is it right and proper to ask Mary, along with the other saints, now to pray for us? Why not? As long as we have some conception of the communion of saints, and of the church in heaven in concert with the church on earth, we can seek the saints' extra intercession. Is Mary pre-eminent in that regard, and does she have some kind of ontological priority or more efficacious approach to God? How could we know?

In a discussion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, when there was an overwhelming desire to create ecumenical convergence, one can see how difficult it would have been to raise some of these questions and tread upon hundreds of years of Catholic piety and devotion, but it seems to me that true ecumenism is never served by mealy-mouthed dishonesty (or perhaps more accurately by the choice of commission members who are already more than half sympathetic to the 'other side' and not representative of their denomination), and that the spread of Anglican opinion has not been truly expressed in this document. (Even the immediate post-Reformation Anglican attitude to Mary, claimed as still pretty enthusiastic in the ARCIC statement, has been shown by Judith Maltby to be far less strong than they want it to be; she says they are pushing small bits of evidence far beyond what they can bear.) Oddly, one might find that even some Catholics felt unrepresented in this very traditionalist statement.

At the end of the day, however, I, along with the majority of Christians, would be very happy to affirm the first two statements about Mary that a previous ARCIC (Authority in the Church) produced and which are reaffirmed in 'Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ':

  • that any interpretation of the role of Mary must not obscure the unique mediation of Christ; and
  • that any consideration of Mary must be linked with the doctrines of Christ and the Church.

'But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God.' (Galatians 4.4-7)

That's enough for me.

Revd Nick Jowett is Vicar of St Andrew's, Psalter Lane, Sheffield and Diocesan Ecumenical Officer.