The Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali commends the recent ARCIC report and urges us all to read the Scriptures more carefully as we seek to discover the unique role of Mary in the incarnation of the Son
There is a difference in culture in the two Churches in how we approach the Blessed Virgin Mary. And this difference in culture may also be a difference in theological culture. From the earliest days of the Christian Church there had been two ‘tempers’, one associated with Alexandria which is speculative and dogmatic, and one associated with Antioch which is historical and biblical, and inductive rather than deductive. If you wanted a crude guess about where I think the Roman Catholic Church’s approach is, I would say that it is much more Alexandrian, particularly in its relation to Mary, and the dogmas and beliefs about Mary which have been developed over the years. Whereas the Anglican approach, even that of the Caroline divines and the Non-Jurors, has been more inductive; biblical, historical and patristic. We are discovering more and more that each approach can enrich the other. But it is worth recognizing the difference.
Since the second Vatican Council the Roman Catholic Church has shown a welcome tendency in all of its pronouncements to examine first the biblical background to any particular doctrine. And so we found it easy in ARCIC to consider, first of all, ‘Mary and the Bible’. Pretty straightforward? Actually it raises all sorts of questions about how we read the Bible. Many of the reformers were critical of ways of reading it that had developed in the middle ages: the allegory and even the typography had got so florid you could make any part of the Bible mean anything at all. The Reformers were calling the Church back to a historical and literary seriousness, and the Anglican side were well aware of this. So we were delighted that the Roman Catholics also wanted to begin with the Bible and with some discussion about how typology, for example, could validly be used.
Of course, with the Older Testament, we must use typology with regard to Mary, as with Jesus. Anglicans sometimes sing Bishop Thomas Ken’s hymn Her virgin eyes saw God incarnate born, which compares Mary to Eve. What was said about Eve in Genesis 3.15, about her offspring crushing the serpent’s head, must apply in any kind of typological approach to the Blessed Virgin Mary. So not all allegory and typology is wrong and having got rid of the excesses we can now see where, from the Older Testament, we can validly talk of Mary.
When we came to the New Testament we were faced immediately with the question of how to treat the birth narratives. In both communions there is a spectrum of opinion in this matter. We felt that behind the two very different birth narratives there stands a common tradition that there was something highly unusual about the birth of Jesus. Beyond the narratives themselves, in Mark for instance, Jesus is described as the ‘son of Mary’; in John when there is a discussion between Jesus and some of the Jewish
people, they tell him, ‘we were not born of fornication and then, St Paul in Galatians speaks of the Saviour being ‘born of a woman.
Staying with the birth narratives for the time being, I think the integrity of the tradition is shown by their differences. Although we conflate them at Christmas (and confuse everybody) they are different stories with different settings and different personae. So Joseph plays a major role in the Matthean narrative but not in the Lucan one. You have the magi in Matthew and the shepherds in Luke and so on. Positively in Matthew, we have this constant repetition of the ‘Mother and the Child’, never the one without the other, and this has been picked up in Christian iconography.
In Luke, we have first of all the Annunciation: Ave Maria gratia plena. The reformers did not like this, it seemed to be claiming too much of Mary and so the early English translations, including the King James version, tended to translate this as ‘Hail Mary thou who art highly favoured’ or some such phrase, Actually the word used, kecharitomene, means the one who has been fully endowed with grace. So Ave Maria gratia plena is correct, or more correct than somebody highly favoured, whatever that might mean, as long as it is understood that God endowed her with grace.
All sorts of questions arise about this. If Mary is so fully endowed with grace, how far back does that endowment go? Was it at the time when the angel came to see her? A little bit earlier? How much earlier? Right back to the beginning? And what was the beginning anyway? There has been fierce debate in the Church for centuries about this. There are, of course, other persons in the Bible about whom it is said that ‘God had been preparing them for his calling from the very beginning of their lives.’ Jeremiah. Samson, if you mean in the way that Samson was born. John the Baptist. St Paul himself says this about his own preparation for his calling.
So Ave Maria gratia plena is correct, or more correct than somebody highly favoured, whatever that might mean, as long as it is understood that God endowed her with grace. There is no reason for us to want to deny such preparation of Mary from the beginning, especially because of what is said at the time of the Annunciation. And, indeed, that is the line that we have taken in Mary, Grace and Hope in the Church, that we cannot set limits to when God began to prepare Mary. It must have been from the beginning and even before the beginning in divine providence and wisdom.
We decided to say that the Virgin Birth, conception and birth, are important because they are about the new thing that God was about to do in the Incarnation of Our Lord. Here was something quite new which God was about to do and, in fact, if you read the narratives both Lucan and Matthean, you find that there is both continuity and newness.
The evangelists keep a balance, so the genealogies in both point to the continuity of Davids line, of being part of the story of Israel, but the newness is concentrated in God being the chief agent in the work of the Incarnation.
But Luke has so much else about him. Of course, there is the Visitation to Elizabeth and Elizabeths cry when she sees Mary and recognizes her blessing. Mary, herself, speaks of this in the Magnificat, and at Evensong every day we recognize that ever blessedness of Mary first seen by Elizabeth. Luke is also conscious that Mary was reflecting on what was happening and it may be that a lot of what we know about the birth narratives somehow comes from Mary’s reflection. In this sense Mary is also the first theologian, if you like, not just the first Christian but the first theologian who was thinking about the things that God was doing with her and for her and in her.
Then there is John’s gospel and in the report we consider the two events in which Mary is present, Cana and Calvary. At Cana she seems to be there in her own right, Jesus arriving afterwards with the disciples. She says to Jesus ‘there is no wine’ and then there is that dialogue you know where he says ‘my time has not yet come’ but then Mary says to the stewards ‘do as he tells you’ and they do and you know what happens. But then there is something very telling at the end of it all where it says that Mary, now goes down with Jesus and the disciples back to Capernaum. She is seen for the first time as part of the company of disciples.
And, then, there is Mary at the Cross and the tremendous amount of reflection there has been on the Mother being handed over to the care of the beloved disciple and the beloved disciple to the mother. What are the theological implications of this relationship? Language about Mary being Mother of the Church can be based also on the perception that the Church is the Body of Christ, but the story about the disciple and Mary is a nice way of thinking of Mary’s motherhood for those who are disciples of Christ.
Just as in John she is with Jesus and the disciples, so also in Acts at the time of the Pentecost, Mary is there with the disciples. We also considered the figure of the woman in the apocalypse in Revelation ch. 12 and its relevance for Mary. Generally speaking this imagery has been thought to be of God’s people primarily rather than of Mary, but there have been some Fathers, like Epiphanius, who have thought that it could refer to Mary as well as the Church, so this might be another way of thinking of Mary as a type for the Church. It is difficult if one reads ch. 12, not to think of this if one were fair minded, for clearly the child is the Messiah.
Having examined the Bible we then looked at the early Church and we discovered two main concerns that involve Mary. The first typified by Ignatius of Antioch is that Mary is necessary for the Incarnation. To believe that Jesus was truly man you must take seriously the figure of Mary. Jesus was not just someone who appeared to be a man and so Ignatius in his letter to the Ephesians (interestingly enough they must have known quite a lot about it if Mary had lived among them) tells us that Jesus is both God and man both eternally begotten of the Father and born of Mary. Mary’s virginity, along with the birth of Jesus
and the Cross, are seen by him as the three great mysteries of the Christian Faith.
The other concern in the Early Church was of the unity of the two natures of Christ, that he was both human and divine. This is shown in the ascription of the title Iheotokos or God-bearer, or Deipara to use the old Latin word, of Mary. Mary is God-bearer because the human and the divine are united in the one Christ and this is why what we say of the human is also true of the divine, and vice versa. This description of Mary as Iheotokos became really quite central, not so much about Mary, but about Jesus and who he is.
As you know, through the Middle Ages there were all sorts of developments about belief regarding Mary. Some of them were faithful to the Bible and to the Fathers and some were not. Devotion to Mary got detached from thinking about Christ. Mary could become someone who dispensed grace in her own right, to whom people could pray in her own right, and so forth. At the Reformation the protests that took place were about these excesses – to give an example, Bonaventura, where he substituted Our Lady for every reference to God in the Psalms. Tyndale was particularly vicious about this kind of thing, whatever the intention might have been. But it was not just the Reformers. Erasmus and St Thomas More who both remained in communion with Rome were also critical of the cults that had arisen about the Blessed Virgin Mary. If you read More about Walsingham and Ipswich, it is difficult to tell whether it is Thomas More or William Tyndale! His point is that people have made the cults and the places and the shrines and the statues and the ‘stocks’ as he calls them, a substitute for Christ and for his Mother. Erasmus, after he visited Walsingham, was equally critical. So the Reformers were not alone. I mean that there was awareness that the cults had become excessive on both sides.
However, what we are perhaps not so familiar with is the extent to which there was continuity among even the most radical reformers. So, for example, Hugh Latimer, one of the most outspoken of the Reformers, said when asked about Mary, T go not about to make Mary a sinner but Christ her saviour.’ And funnily enough many centuries later that is exactly what the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception does; it pleads the merits of Christ saving work for the preservation of Mary from sin.
Thomas Cranmer, and many other Reformers, take their stand on the sinlessness of Mary on the basis of what Augustine had said. But there is more than that and this is shown in the liturgy, in the Christmas Collect and the Christmas Preface, Mary is referred to as ‘a pure Virgin.’ What does that mean? It is not the technical language of the Immaculate Conception but there is this sense that she is somehow free from sin.
There was widespread recognition of her sinlessness among the Anglican Reformers and in the early catechisms, for example in Nowell’s Catechism and Thomas Becon and so on. They are almost unanimous about perpetual virginity. The reason that they give very often is the verse in Ezekiel ch. 44, which says ‘the gates from which the Lord has come no man should enter.’ This is their reasoning for the perpetual virginity of Mary but also, of course, the nearly unanimous testimony of the Church. Even Jewel who
there is a difference in culture in the two Churches in how we approach the Blessed Virgin Mary and this difference in culture may also be a difference in theological culture
knows that there was some dissent about this in the patristic period is happy to affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary. This is the case in the sixteenth century when so much was being overthrown and rejected. Nor should we neglect the liturgical and other aspects that were retained. For example, although in 1552 only two feasts having to do with Mary were retained, the Purification and the Annunciation, in 1561 three further feasts were recognized, the Conception, the Nativity and the Visitation.
When we come to our own day, the most significant thing for us as a Commission was that the Second Vatican Council decided not to issue a separate document on Mary but to subsume what they had to teach about Mary in their document on the Church, Lumen Gentium. This showed that they wanted to go back to the earliest insight of Mary being with the disciples rather than Mary being enthroned, as it were above the Church. They wished to see Mary in the midst of the Church. And this has signalled a new interest in the Roman Catholic Church in the historical, in the
patristic situation, which, as Anglicans of course, we welcome very much and so there was a sort of meeting of minds in these areas.
What then can we say together so far? We can say that Mary is the recipient of divine grace not the originator of it; that whatever role Mary has it should not
what we can say about Mary is that she was a pure virgin, that she was prepared by God from the very beginning in what she had to do: if for some that means Immaculate Conception then that is their language
distract from the centrality of Christ’s person and work in the Church and in the world; that Mary was prepared by the divine grace from the beginning for the work to which she had been called; in the light of Revelations 12, for example, that Mary can be spoken of as in glory with her son.
These things we can say together, but what about the dogmas? Where are we on that? The story of the dogmas is enormously complex and there are not only many Fathers but also many medieval scholars and saints who did not believe, for example, in the Immaculate Conception. Irenaeus, Augustine himself, Chrysostom and Aquinas. But I think that the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to foreclose discussion on what it might mean; in that sense it was an unfortunate step because the language used is that of nineteenth century Rome, and hardly understandable today and sometimes embarrassing even to Roman Catholics. However, what we can say about Mary is that she was a pure virgin; that she was prepared by God from the very beginning in what she had to do. If, for some, that means ‘Immaculate Conception then that is their language. Similarly with the Assumption, notwithstanding the particular language of the dogma, we can say surely that Mary reigns with Christ in glory. With Bishop Ken we can say, ‘Heaven with transcendent joys her entrance graced, Next to his throne her Son his Mother placed.’