Scripture and Cyril

by William Frend

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

Which is it to be? Will the Anglican Communion remain anchored on scripture, or will it accept as its foundation the Christian Neo-Platonism of Cyril of Alexandria, and his key doctrine of Mary as Theotokos, which was to inspire the Monophysite Churches down the Nile Valley, in Syria and in Armenia, but not in the West?

The Gospels give us a different picture of Mary. Joseph's family were in all likelihood immigrants from Judaea to Galilee, and they held senior positions in Nazareth. The invitation to Mary and Jesus to the marriage feast at Cana, north of Nazareth, is witness to the fact. There is nothing to suggest that Mary enjoyed anything but a normal childhood and girlhood, and was surprised at the angel's visitation and salutation.

The birth narratives show that she had great hopes in her son, but Mark's Gospel (3.31-35) indicates that she was blessed with a large family, whose male members are recorded, and the eldest, James, became head of the Church at Jerusalem.

Nor was the family harmonious. There is the misunderstanding between Jesus and his parents at the time of his 'bar mitzvah' in the Temple. Jesus refuses to see his family during his ministry in Galilee, and his mother sides with the family against him (Mark 3:32-33). There is what appears to be a final family breach when his brothers doubt his credibility and will not accompany him to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:8-10).

There follows, however, reconciliation between mother and son, and Mary stands at the foot of the cross.

It's a human story, and one played out by Augustine in his relations with Monica, his mother. There, too, there are initial high hopes, rejection and indifference, succeeded by reconciliation and finally love (Confessions, Book 9).

Surely, the Gospel picture of the relations between Jesus and Mary is infinitely more inspiring for us as Christians than mythology, Gnostic in origin, such as Mary's sinlessness, described in the Protoevangelium of James, and her miraculous assumption into heaven, forming part and parcel of Monophysite teaching. Did the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) really have to spend 20 years vindicating Cyril of Alexandria?

ARCIC, however, deserves some praise. Its members have worked tirelessly to assess on what the Anglicans and Romans can agree. And they have worked as equals. Some years back, considerable progress was made on the problem of the Minstry, and lines of convergence worked out. Could the Pope be regarded as Honorary Head of the Church, on the lines of the decision of the Second Ecumenical Council, at Constantinople in 381? It was an advance over previous efforts at unity, by Mgr Duchesne and Anglican theologians in 1894 and between Lord Halifax and Cardinal Mercier in 1921, but in both these, and particularly in 1894, the Romans intended to 'be in the driving seat'. This time, there seems to have been, at least in intention, more give and take, but the result, if accepted, would have been to deprive the Anglican Communion of much of its hold on Scripture in favour of a mythology which was not even universally accepted among the orthodox in the Greek-speaking churches of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

Prof William Frend, FBA, was Professor of Ecclesiastical History, University of Glasgow, Bye Fellow of Gonville & Caius, Cambridge, and Editor of the MCU journal from 1963 to 1983.