Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ

by Mary Roe

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

I am no expert on the doctrines which relate to the place of Mary in the Christian tradition (despite having wrestled with the implications of Theotokos during my studies) nor in the various devotions associated with her name, particularly in the Roman Catholic church. What follows is not a 'gut reaction' to the ARCIC statement such as may be expected from either end of the Catholic/Protestant scale, but the 'off the top of my head' response of a concerned Anglican.

Some paragraphs of the Statement should not prove very contentious: 'Asking Mary to pray for us is akin to asking our brothers and sisters on earth to pray for us. The prayers are offered through Christ and do not compete with his unique mediation.'(68f)

And, 'Cults of Mary that develop around apparitions are classified as private devotion, not required but permitted and respected.'(73)

The two doctrines which will not find such ready agreement among Anglicans and others outside the Church of Rome are those of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (proclaimed unilaterally by the Pope in 1854 independently of any council) and belief in her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her life, which was declared as recently as 1950 by the Pope of the time, in a similar manner. Both were described as being matters of 'revelation' but their late appearance in the canon of faith was attributed not to any new revelation to the individual Pope in question, but as the revealed sensus fidelium transmitted from earlier times. The first stumbling block to be encountered in connection with both these propositions is that ARCIC has agreed that both are 'consonant with scripture' and are therefore 'authentic expressions of Christian belief', despite there being no historical reference to either event in the pages of the New Testament when it is read as an account of our Lord's life, ministry, death and resurrection. We are being required to read these beliefs into the text and understand the two doctrines on an eschatalogical level. (Thank goodness I am not a Sunday School teacher!) Thus, the Statement says, we can affirm together that Christ's redeeming work reached back in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to the teaching of Scripture' (59). At first sight, the idea of reading scripture 'eschatalogically' - whatever that might mean - or in a more open-ended, intuitive and imaginative and less factual, literal and prescriptive way should appeal to members of the MCU but it loses its attraction when we learn that belief in the Immaculate Conception and the bodily Assumption into heaven is to become de fide for members of both churches because 'Roman Catholics find it hard to envisage a restoration of communion in which acceptance of certain doctrines would be requisite for some and not for others.' Nothing new there, then. The Roman Catholic position is maintained and the Anglican aim to embrace different insights within the one church is ruled out.

My own personal problem with the idea of the Immaculate Conception has always been with the apparent diminishing of the full humanity of Christ, especially in the understanding of more simple-hearted believers; if Mary also was supernaturally conceived in an over-riding of the course of nature whereby personality traits, including a tendency to certain imperfect patterns of behaviour are passed on, then just how 'fully human' as well as 'fully divine' was Jesus the Christ? How much further back are we prepared to go? Of course we are not thinking in terms of numbers/percentages here, as when I describe myself as 'half Scandinavian, quarter English and quarter Irish', but if a supernatural form of generation is traced as far back as the ARCIC explanation implies it could be, can we still accord the title of 'The Second Adam' to Christ at all?

The foregoing questions can arise equally among those who believe explicitly in the virginal conception of Jesus and to those who understand that account to be picture-language to explain the unique nature of God incarnate - Immanuel, God with us.

Other, 'unacceptable' possibilities, such as that put forward in a recent TV programme - that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier - do at least allow for the full humanity of Christ and for his full divinity to be conferred by a God whose ways are not our ways and must always remain a mystery. Similarly, Dr. Thornton Dewsbury's suggestion that a normal but illegitimate conception of the Christ could be the invisible, almost the sacramental equivalent of the physical/social birth in a stable outhouse, can be a useful starting point for meditating on the Incarnation.

With regard to the doctrine of the Assumption, I am not clear why this should be declared a matter of faith rather than remain one about which the individual believer is free to meditate on any aspect of Mary's unrecorded life and passing which he or she finds helpful. The 'consonance with scripture' (read eschatalogically) seems somewhat tortuous and based on a lack of evidence and on piety. I recently visited 'The Virgin Mary's House' at the top of an inaccessible mountain near Ephesus, where St. John is supposed to have taken her in her frail, declining years. (It takes a modern bus over 20 minutes in bottom gear to make it to 'the Virgin Mary's House'). Some visitors may well find their vision of Mary, the mother of our Lord, uplifted by such legendary associations, but I suspect that more, to-day, will be bogged down with questions of how on earth he got her up there, how they got their daily food and water, and how the gospel message was spread to other members of the human race from that otherwise uninhabited mountain top.

If we are asked by the authors of 'Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ' to allow scope for some implications and possible allusions in the Gospel story, then I feel that we should be equally entitled to infer that St. Paul (quoted several times in connection with the idea of Mary's having been predestined for her role) and St. Mark, two of the earliest writers on whose testimony our faith is based, either had not heard about either Mary's immaculate conception or her bodily assumption, or regarded such events as irrelevant to the message they sought to convey.

There will be reservations about other paragraphs in this ARCIC Statement, especially that confirming the proposition of Mary's perpetual virginity, 'ante partum, in partu, post partum' (7) despite plausible interpretations of various verses from all four gospel stories which would lead to the opposite conclusion.

There is no fresh evaluation of what has traditionally been presented as Mary's model of submissive obedience, but even if we take the story of the Annunciation at superficial story level, once we know anything about the Jewish society of Mary's day, we begin to see her more as an independent, even rebellious young woman, obedient to God's call, yes, but rejecting the obligatory obedience to family which would have compelled her to delay her 'Be it unto me...' until she had sought and gained the permission of her father and brothers!

It seems to me that a devotion which seeks to re-cast its object into a mould deemed, by transient human standards, to be more worthy, is not true devotion at all.

Have the Anglican representatives on ARCIC allowed their fervent and laudable desire for restoration of communion to blur the distinctive outline of Anglican faith?

Mary Roe is a retired RE teacher, lay reader, widow of a bishop, and member of the MCU Council.