Worthiness and willingness

Clare Rabjohns explains why it is important to consider Mary in discussions about the role of women in the Church and the meaning of vocation and ministry

Mary has often been ‘not the image of female nature but a construction of what female nature ought to be’ (Mary T. Malone, Women and Christianity). There is a need to look at her reality. This reality lies in Mary’s motherhood. Adrian Thatcher repeats three times in a short passage in his book, Theology and Families, that a woman gave birth to God. It does not appear to be the complications of God being born that Thatcher struggles with here but rather the gritty reality of the birth itself: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman,’ says Paul (Gal 4:4) unable to contain his surprise that God should become revealed through the whole risky, bloody, ceremonially unclean, business of giving birth.’ Mary is at the heart of humanity and is a normal woman used for incredible purposes by God: ‘Mary is both an ordinary and extraordinary mother.’

Symbol of suffering humanity

Mary at the foot of the cross is a symbol of motherhood but also of total, real, suffering humanity. Here, it is impossible to portray Mary as anything but human. Whereas previously Mary can have been seen to be a perfect, unattainable model, in her role as mother she is brought to a level of humanity which is recognizable worldwide in the experience of pain and suffering and loss.

It is clear that Mary’s womanhood is a vital part of understanding her potential. A struggle then exists because of the role and status of women in the Church today. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, when discussing womanhood in Discipleship of Equals, puts forward the case that women are divided ‘into two classes: nuns and lay-women’. This is certainly one perspective which is considered to be true by a lot of men and women in the church today. A critic looks at the churches which are opposed to the ordination of women and sees exclusion. In conjunction with this idea, proposing that Mary could have an impact on these issues is a radical move.

Unique responsibility

I argue that the role and status of Mary should have significant consequences for the way women in particular are viewed in the Anglican Church and that she has a considerable part to play in discussions about vocation and ministry.

Mary’s role in salvation history is undeniable, she is ‘a peasant girl snatched by the initiative of God from her ordinary life to take her great and historic part in the drama of salvation’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary through the Centuries). She also had the unique responsibility and privilege of accompanying Jesus from the crib to the cross. Mary was a worthy part of the upper room community in Acts, she was a fundamental female voice in the beginnings of the Christian church, a constant presence epitomizing the vocation of all Christians. I argue that Mary is a vital figure for change and development and that she calls us to a re-assessment and a re-claiming of the way the Anglican Church views ministry. Ministry should not and cannot be confined within the bounds of ordination. Too often priesthood is confused with ministry. Lay people are seen to share in parts of the priestly ministry. However, ministry is something that can be lived in all its fullness by anyone – lay or ordained.

The Christian journey

We come then, to a definition of Mary as a model of worthiness and willingness. As Bishop Lindsay Urwin wrote recently, ‘sometimes the Church has had too much power. It has claimed too much of it, been given too much of it, and it has enjoyed too much of it’ (Letter to Priests Associate of the Holy House of Our Lady of Walsingham). The Anglican Church then needs to recognize and adopt these traits in Mary of worthiness and willingness, to remember that it is a ‘divine society founded by the Lord’ and in that sense the Church is only worth something when it remains true to its founder.

The life of Mary has huge potential for extended influence in illustrating the Christian journey and the Christian vocation which is to respond to the call of God. The worth of the Church is held in its complete and utter service to Jesus Christ, like the life of Mary. And, like Mary, it must have that willingness to respond to God’s call and actively live out a life of willing service. Mary, rather than being a figure-head for the campaign for women to be accepted for ordination to the episcopacy, instead gives the Church a larger and fundamentally more important challenge. Currently, the selection process seems to automatically encourage the seeker to follow the path of priestly ordination, without consideration of other ministries that are available, often desperately needed in the Church, and often these roles would be more suited to the personality or lifestyle of the seeker.

Part of the Church body

This process appears to have basic flaws which are not only hindering the ministry of the Church, but also fundamentally ignoring the humanity of the men and women seeking to discern their place and vocation in the Church. St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 writes clearly about a model for how the Church should work. He also later talks about each being part of the body of the Church. This idea does not seem to be adopted fully by the Church, as ordination seems to be the path which is most encouraged by the Church and priests are only one part of the body.

Mary recognized in the angel’s message a challenge which was unique to her. When Mary answered ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’, she accepted this call on her life and she recognized something fundamental to her humanity which made her exclusively set apart for this role. At the wedding in Cana, when the wine ran out, Mary said to Jesus, ‘They have run out of wine’. Again, Mary perceives, in the humanity of Jesus, his own distinctive mission and objective.

Mary is able to recognize the will of God. She is the worthy human vessel which can be receptive to it and aid in initiating the process of God’s will being done on earth in all people and in all ways. This is the explicit reason why Mary is a model for all levels of ministry. Mary’s character, role and attributes could be associated with particular ordained ministries but her receptivity to the call of God encapsulates the Christian vocation to listen and respond to God’s call. Also the vocation of the Church and its leaders, which is to be receptive to the humanity, gifts and uniqueness of each of its members, and guide and use them appropriately within the Church.

Receptive to the call

Mary’s worthiness and willingness demonstrates to us that receptivity in all its fullness. ‘Mary’s character seems to be non-manipulative, persuasive, a style that gives space to others’ (David Butler in Mary Is for Everyone, ed. W. and J. Pinnock). This argument, presenting Mary as willing and receptive, may at first appear to be conforming to the ideas of femaleness which have continued to be presented to the world, thus perhaps supporting claims that women’s characteristics are the opposite of male qualities; passive, gentle, submissive. However, although Mary has often been represented thus, the truth of her character is far removed from these traditional attributes of femaleness. Even from our brief look at the life of Mary, it is clear that the journey she took left these negative characteristics far behind, A‘ woman who will quiz an archangel, give her assent, or agreement to the divine spirit working within her, risk scandal and single parenthood is, one might think, something of a risk taker, and by no means a model of submission, subordination and passivity’ (Ann Loades in Mary Is for Everyone). Mary offers a positive model for a worthy, willing and receptive – but by no means submissive – discerning nature which sees the gifts and skills required to live out the purpose offered by God.

The Anglican Church hierarchy is important for the way that the Church functions. However, the meaning of ministry needs to be reassessed and looked at in a broader sense. This new approach will offer a liberation not only for the place of women in the Church, but for all men and women who are seeking to serve God in equal but different ways, ‘What we need is a new understanding of the Church as a community of women and men, based on partnership, mutuality and reciprocity. In it, it is not the body or gender that is important, but the human person. Functions in the Church have to be allocated according to competence, talent and calling’ (Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation). For essentially, what the Anglican Church should be working to do is to create a community where men and women can work most successfully to live out the will and purpose of God.

Points for consideration and action

The re-visioning of the church to move away from priest-dominant ideas of ministry:
Representation of those who are under-represented
Recognizing the need to create specific roles for lay people in the Church but also the need to properly enable and utilize, educate and empower them
Equip those in Church leadership with inventive resources
Support those in less supported roles such as the
reader ministry and the distinctive diaconate
A fuller exploration of vocation in a process which discerns a person’s calling, not just discerns whether that calling is to the priesthood
Support and fund schemes such as Pastoral Assistant positions
Continue to maintain the importance of mission and growth in the Church over and above divisive issues ND