Fr Thomas Seville cr reports on the long awaited Synod debate on the ARCIC statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ

The February sessions of Synod saw the debate – long awaited, long delayed – on the fifth

report to emerge from the second phase of Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II), Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ (2005). The statement is the response to the position on Mary noted in Authority in the Church II (1981), para. 30, where the teachings on Mary common to both Roman Catholics and Anglicans in relation to the incarnation are noted and also the preparation of that mystery and its consequences for Mary and for us, but where reservations are noted on the precise definition of the latter teachings and the issue of the authority by which they came to be defined in the RC church.

This could have resulted in a report which ran ‘Immaculate Conception and Assumption + Authority’, very focused and very narrow, but probably not that much shorter than Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. ARCIC chose rather to treat of the controverted dogmas in the context of Mary and salvation in Christ.

This allowed a more balanced picture to emerge and the affirmation of a firm subordination of the latter dogmas to the basic Christological statement, that Mary is the God-bearer, theotokos, Mother of God. However, because the two RC dogmas are the focus of the difference between the churches, a casual reading of the report takes a view of Mary which looks as if it is variations on a Roman Catholic bass.

Varied reactions

The report – the longest report to emerge from the ARCIC stable – has provoked reactions which have been varied in their temperature: warm welcomes from those to whom the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary is familiar and cooler from those to whom the Mother of Jesus has less significance now than once she had and for whom ‘more’ in matters Marian is always ‘less’. More disturbing have been the reactions from intelligent people which have shown a lack of openness and understanding that has shown to this writer that the forces which make religious bigotry are alive in the churches still. Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was not a factor that occasioned division in the sixteenth century, she has come to function as a dividing factor.

So the debate was awaited with some trepidation, some even thinking that it might go down. The report was discussed through the lens offered by the Faith and Order Advisory Group briefing paper GS 1818, which offers a welcome but with two cheers rather than three.

The motion

The following motion was for debate:

‘That this Synod, affirming the aim of Anglican–Roman Catholic theological dialogue ‘to discover each other’s faith as it is today and to appeal to history only for enlightenment, not as a way of perpetuating past controversy’ (Preface to The Final Report, 1982), and in the light of recent steps towards setting up ARCIC III:

note the theological assessment of the ARCIC report Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ in the FOAG briefing paper GS 1818 as a contribution to further dialogue;
welcome exploration of how far Anglicans and Roman Catholics share a common faith and spirituality, based on the Scriptures and the early Ecumenical Councils, with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary;
request that, in the context of the quest for closer unity between our two communions, further joint study of the issues identified in GS 1818 be undertaken – in particular, the question of the authority and status of the Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Anglicans; and
encourage Anglicans to study the report with ecumenical colleagues and in particular, wherever possible, with their Roman Catholic neighbours.’
Overwhelmingly carried

This motion, which was carried overwhelmingly, has raised the two cheers to two and a half. An attempt to raise this in the direction of three was made, not by one of your ‘Mary mad’ Anglo-Catholics, but by Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, who sought an amendment to turn the motion into a welcome of the report. Unexpectedly, this almost passed.

After a brief introduction in the morning, discussion followed in the afternoon. The time allowed was not much; the chair, the Bishop of Gloucester, apologized that he would not be able to call all those who had something important to contribute and the shortness of the debate was a scandal. It is a tribute to him that most of the contributions were worth hearing, not always the case at Synod.

Not all – there was an amendment which wanted us to stop calling the Blessed Virgin Mary the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ and adopt ‘Mother of Jesus’, because ‘some people were offended’; this was seen off when it was pointed out that ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ was the Anglican way, was in the Prayer Book, and the reason for this? Maybe ‘that, er, well, that this was in scripture – Blessed Virgin’. Well, done, Bishop of Guildford.

Contributions were, with few exceptions, of high quality, most

welcoming the opportunity to go forward with Mary: Grace and Hope, including the Rt Revd George Stack, auxiliary bishop from the RC Westminster archdiocese , who presented a perspective which is well worth chasing up; Fr North, once administrator at Walsingham; the evangelical Bishop of Coventry, Christopher Cocksworth, who spoke movingly about why Mary was important to him as an evangelical (a very significant speech); the ecumenical representatives, who also spoke impressively; Ephrem Lash on Mary in the communion of saints and why Orthodoxy has a different take on original sin; and the URC minister, Graham Maskery, on how

he had wondered with his colleagues whether he should speak, and then explained that he was a member of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Society of Mary! ‘In making sure we make so much of Jesus, have we Protestants not made too little of Mary?’ he asked his URC fellows, and so also the General Synod!

The task ahead

So where we go from here? The newly inaugurated ARCIC III will at some time take up some of the issues raised and they need to be taken forward. This is a good thing; in some quarters it has been said that the Church of England’s reception of this statement has marked a cooling of ecumenical commitment. There was no evidence of that in this debate, rather the opposite.

It is now up to the churches to take it forward, to discuss with our partners, to deepen our understanding of the Mother of God. Indeed the affirmation of Mary as Mother of God (not a whiff of doubt there) is one of the indications that the Blessed Virgin Mary is now far from being an AngloCatholic version of the Scrabble board, got down when the guests arrive to show who is host and to put them in their place. Mary is for all the churches, and the divisions about her are not really now on denominational lines. ND