Incommunicable To Any Other
- H. Smyth on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
No doctrine should be rejected as not containing truth merely because it has been Papally defined in Counter-Reformation times. One such doctrine, that of the Immaculate Conception, appears, indeed, strongly entrenched in a sound Anglican tradition.
There is no doubt that since the Reformation Anglicanism has suffered a serious cultural invasion from the direction of a Protestant ethos. The lofty position assigned to the Mother of Our Lord, both theologically and in popular devotional practice in the ancient tradition of the Catholic Church, has been one of the principal objects of this Protestant attack. This is probably one reason why some contemporary Anglicans who are fully Catholic in outlook nevertheless are slightly discomfited by the name of the Dogma, “The Immaculate Conception”, and sense a kind of atmospheric uneasiness when it is used. But the Anglican Church has never wavered officially (whatever may be said of the emotions of large numbers of her members) in upholding that Catholic tradition of our Lady’s sinlessness.
First of all, we are committed as Anglicans to calling her Theotokos, or Mother of God; for this is her title exactly defined by the Third and Fourth General Councils, those of Ephesus and Chalcedon, to which the Anglican Church has staunchly adhered. As Jeremy Taylor puts it, “the Church of England receives the four first General Councils as of highest regard, not that they are infallible, but that they have determined wisely and holily.” And precisely because the Virgin Mary is truly recognized as the Mother of God by the whole Church Catholic, East and West including the Anglicans, it has always appeared to the Church, as the American Episcopalian theologian Francis J. Hall points out, that “it was fitting that the Blessed Virgin should be sanctified for her unique function of bearing the Eternal Word; and the salutation of Gabriel implied that such sanctification had already taken place – before the Holy Spirit caused her to conceive.” Dr Hall goes on to say that although it was not explicitly re-affirmed by post-Reformational Anglican authorities, nevertheless “the opinion is not heretical (i.e. relative to Anglican teaching,) for its maintainers acknowledge that the Blessed Virgin’s sanctification was in any case an effect – anticipatively realized – of Christ’s redemptive work.”
Fr Edward Symonds CR, in The Council of Trent and Anglican Formularies, points out that the Prayer Book retained the Feast of the Conception of the BVM in the English Kalendar in the face of the widely-understood fact that this was “a feast which only came to be observed when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was being stressed”, and that “the Feast was associated with the dogma, and it was kept specially in England.”
A seventeenth-century Bishop of Chester, John Pearson, in his Exposition of the Creed, a work universally welcomed by all sections of his contemporary Church and still in use in many Anglican seminaries, speaks of Mary as a “most pure immaculate Virgin”. He continues: “if Elizabeth cried out with so loud a voice, Blessed art thou among women, when Christ was but newly conceived in her womb, what expressions of honour and admiration can we think sufficient now that Christ is in heaven, and that mother with Him? Far be it from any Christian to derogate from that special privilege granted her, which is incommunicable to any other.” Many Anglicans of this age forget that their own post-Reformational Divines were wont to launch panegyrics of this temper to the Blessed Virgin Mother of God. Yet Bishop Pearson writes as if the Immaculate Conception might almost be taken for granted, since he calls Our Lady “immaculate”, and says this privilege of hers is “incommunicable to any other”. In other words, Our Lady’s condition of grace is unique among all other created human beings. Bishop Pearson seems to go even further, and to hint at some doctrine of the Assumption when he says that Christ’s mother is now in heaven with Him.
Perhaps one may say that after all, such “exaggerated” ways of talking are not in the official vein of Anglican formularies. We should therefore also note that in the authoritative and officially promulgated Homily on Repentance it is said that “Jesus Christ, Who being true and natural [sic] God, equal and of one substance with the Father, did at the time appointed take upon Him our frail nature, in the Blessed Virgin’s womb, and that of her undefiled substance.” Perhaps, too, most of us are not customarily immersed in the cultural ethos of the Anglican Homilies; but we certainly read the Prayer Book itself year by year. The Collect for Christmas Day speaks of our Lord as “born of a pure Virgin”, and in the Preface for this Feast it is said of our Lord that He “by the operation of the Holy Ghost was made very man of the substance of His mother: and that without spot of sin to make us clean from all sin.” If all this language does not teach the spotlessness, that is the immaculate state of the Theotokos, it is hard to see how words have any meaning at all.
The foregoing facts cannot be brushed aside; for they show decisively that Protestant or “liberal-minded” Christians within our Communion, who fail to accord to our Lady the unique position and high honour due her in the scheme of our redemption in the Incarnation and as the Immaculate Mother of God, are not only not within the full Catholic tradition (which may not cause them much loss of sleep), but not even within that “Central Anglicanism” of which they do for the most part profess themselves to be the true and proper supporters. But those Anglicans who take the formulations of their historic Church seriously, in order to build correctly for the Church into the future, need in no way to apologize, or even to feel apologetic, when they come forward to affirm plainly that Our Lady is Theotokos, Mother of God, as proclaimed by the Oecumenical Councils. And they would be disagreeing with the Prayer Book if they did not also proclaim that she is “pure”, of “undefiled substance”, and “without spot of sin”, which is to say immaculate.
It has been asked, “Why the Immaculate Conception?” Our Lady’s immaculate status, her baptised status, at the time of the Annunciation (in the light of the preceding argument) seems a necessary deduction. This also appears, as we have now seen, part of the specifically Anglican, as well as of the general Catholic tradition. But why should this status have been bestowed at the moment of her conception, or, as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, at the moment of her animation? We other human beings in later history are baptised after we are born. We pass a certain portion of our lives as fallen and unregenerate creatures before we are taken up into our Lord’s Body and are thus given the high privilege of acting as His agents in the preparation of Offerings and Gifts for use in continuing Sacrifice. Why then, if it is the status of baptism alone which Our Lady required for her First Offertory in the Incarnation, could not this status have been bestowed, as upon other men, at a later time in her own life, at the moment, for instance, of the Annunciation?
To suggest that Our Lady was specially perfected at some moment subsequent to her Conception is to fall into an error akin to the Christological error of Adoptionism. If our Lord had been merely a “good” human being “adopted” by God the Father for the purposes of redeeming the world, then the Incarnation would have required the destruction of a partly matured natural human person called Jesus and the replacement of this human person by the Divine Person of the Son of God. In a somewhat analogous way, the bestowal upon Our Lady during later life of a transmissable human nature essentially perfect (which must not involve redemption, but a discontinuous cutting off from a history of involvement in Original Sin), would have required the obliteration of a prior section of her individual history, and would therefore have done violence to her as a human person.
We must conclude that Our Lady’s release from the bonds of Original Sin was made coincident with her Conception. The Blessed Virgin’s Offertory was both quantitatively and qualitatively unique – the offering of both the first matter and of the human essence of our Lord. We ourselves continue to offer material content to His Body as it grows. But the qualitative Offertory of His perfect human essence was “once and for all” and not only need not, but in fact cannot, be repeated. The power to make such an Offertory for the initiation of the Incarnation in its perfected essence surpasses qualitatively the privileges given in Baptism. It was indeed what Bishop Pearson calls a “special privilege granted to her, which is incommunicable to any other”.
The Revd Dr Frederic Hastings Smyth (1888-1960) was Superior of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth, in the Episcopal Church of the USA. This is an edited version of an essay published in 1954, the centenary of the promulgation of the Dogma.