Gavin Ashenden draws on the Protoevangelium of St James and the writings of modern-day mystics in an exploration of Mary’s role in the Church

Any exploration of gender and theology must take account of the role of St Mary, the mother of our Lord. Her absence in both the Church of England and our discussions explains the distorted theological categories and lack of spiritual awareness that the liberal, secularized agenda represents.

In this article I want to look at some of the theological issues that form the currency of our explorations, and look at the implications of Mary’s role though early and recent responses to Mary’s role in the economy of the Church. The early document is the Protoevangelium of St James; the latter documents emerge from contemporary spirituality and are from women mystics, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, Maria Valtorta, and Vassula Ryden; two Roman Catholics and one Greek Orthodox.


The history of gender relations in our culture over the last century or so has been defined by a struggle for power. Power and self-fulfillment have been the cultural currency by which aspirations have been measured.

The Anglican Church has the character of being both rooted in historic orthodoxy for its orders and self-understanding, but at the same time defined by and constrained by the politics of secularism. For many people this is normal and even a test of its capacity to be ‘relevant’. But relevance has to struggle with another mandate the Church has, which is its capacity to transform.

One might argue that in its quest to be relevant it has abandoned the framework it might have otherwise have been grounded in, which would have given it resources to challenge and transform the society it is placed in.

Secular values

As the Anglican Church has struggled to express its mind theologically, it has adopted the language and values of secular society. And so when the gender wars began to develop under the added impetus that feminism provided, many Anglicans took up the quest for restorative justice on behalf of women, and used the language of power to both achieve it and express it.

The difficulty with the language of power, and even of egalitarianism which is often supposed to be the goal power is meant to achieve, is that both are dislocated and even alien to the tenor and content of Christianity. There is not space to argue this here, but this struggle for power and equality is constructed on a platform which is theologically tilted and malformed, because the Church’s back has been turned on he theology and experience of St Mary, ‘Theotokos’.

The absence of Mary

The Reformation brought with it both refreshment of faith but also wounds. One of the wounds it inflicted on the people of this country was the abandonment and suppression of Mary. (In Elizabethan England it even became a criminal offence to carry let alone pray the rosary. Yet not long before these Islands had been known as ‘Mary’s Isle’.) With the loss of Mary there also occurred the loss of much of the feminine in Anglican and other Protestant culture. But more than the loss of the feminine, there was lost too all
that Mary brought as a corrective to the constant corruption of the Church by its lust and appetite for power. There was the loss also of a certain spiritual authority that Mary brought as the Queen of the angels in the struggle with dark and demonic forces.

The expulsion of Mary left the Church wounded, weakened and of course motherless. But it also left it prey to the development of a language and culture of power, rather than grace, vulnerability and obedience that Mary embodied for the Church.

Drive for equality

As the secular drive for equality and even gender reparation developed in society and the Church, there was no other language available to counter the question (which was designed to have only one answer) ‘if men can, why can’t women?’ In a context where priesthood had become synonymous with power and status, the language of power fixed its sights on the goal of priesthood and demanded the capitulation of the concept of priesthood to the categories of the age.

The great danger in any quest is not asking the right question. The better question in Christian theology would be ‘what pattern or paradigm of relationship best expresses the relationship between masculinity and femininity in the orders and charisms of the Church?’

That question takes us in a different direction and can only be asked in the context of the theology of the Church in the East and the West, uncoloured by the pragmatic rationalism of the Enlightenment and the shadow of the Reformation, denuded of the feminine.

The experience of the Church

Let us turn our attention to some documents of the Church which speak with a different voice, and a different theological tone. They offer us a refreshed vision of the nurturing paradigm of man and woman in the drama of the incarnation where Jesus and his mother act in mutual dependence, and create a new dynamic of gender relationship that takes us in a different direction from the will to power and the enforcement of categories of equality which neither exist, nor can actually be achieved.

The first is the early document of the Church, the Protoevangelium of St James. The Protoevangelium of St James is one of the documents and the most important of the non-canonical infancy narratives of the early Church. Celsus, the pagan critic, knew of it in 175. Origen refers to it. A common date attributed to it is about 145. When one thinks that Polycarp, born in 80 AD, learnt his Christianity from St John in Ephesus, where Mary lived with him, manuscripts that circulated widely in the Church before 160 can be treated with more enthusiasm than the scholastic community tends to want to confer (hence Lightfoot’s enthusiasm for establishing the early dates for the letters of Poly carp and Ignatius of Antioch). The voices and corrective authority of the eyewitnesses to the apostolic experience and narrative were still there. Whatever authority we might decide to confer on the Protoevangelium, one of the interesting factors is the way in which so many of the assertions there are both replicated and amplified in later visionary material that claims divine inspiration.

Treated with reverence

In the Protoevangelium, Mary’s conception (and role) is treated with enormous reverence. An Angel comes to Anna, and in a passage replicating the drama of the promise of Samuel, Anna promises to offer Mary an offering of thanksgiving to the temple. When she was aged six months, and began to try to walk, Anna said, ‘as the Lord my God lives you shall not walk this earth until I bring you unto the temple of the Lord’. And she made a sanctuary of her bed chamber and allowed nothing unclean to pass through her.’ At the age of three she was offered to the temple, waiting on the service of God with other dedicated young girls.

Although some commentators dismiss this as ‘fanciful’, the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich replicate these details. One might wonder if Emmerich had copied from the Protoevangelium, but the scale of her visions of the New Testament is so vast, the question becomes an unreasonable one. And in fact placing the documents side by side, it seems obvious that she did not.

Anne Catherine Emmerich

Emmerich, a German nun who received the most vivid visions of biblical events (1774–1824), goes into greater visionary detail about Mary’s conception. She describes Joachim and Anna meeting each other in Jerusalem after a period of separation where they both sought the Lord for the promise of a child to ease Anna’s barrenness.

They ‘embraced each other with holy joy, and told each other the good tidings. They were in a state of ecstasy and enveloped in a cloud of light. I saw this light issuing from a great host of angels, who were carrying the appearance of a high shining tower and hovering above the heads of Anna and Joachim… this tower seemed to disappear between Anna and Joachim who were enveloped in a glory of brightness. I understood that as a result of the grace here given, the conception of Mary was as pure as all conceptions would have been except for the Fall. I had at the same time an indescribable vision. The heavens opened above them and I saw the joy of the Holy Trinity and of the angels, and their participation in the mysterious blessing here bestowed upon Mary’s parents… It was explained to me here that the Blessed Virgin was begotten by her parents in holy obedience and complete purity of heart, and that therefore they lived together in continence and the greatest devoutness and fear of God.’

Emmerich’s visions continue to develop the role of the Mother of Lord.

Maria Valtorta

Strikingly similar material is found in the notebooks of Maria Valtorta (1897–1961). She too reported visions of Jesus and Mary and locutions and wrote down the material given to her. It resulted in the ‘Poem of the Man God’, and again contains a high theology of Mary. Originally placed on the Index, it gained the support of Pope Pius XII. It has since received the imprimatur of two Catholic bishops and perhaps more importantly is commended by Our Lady in the visions at Medjugorje.

Vassula Ryden

Another woman to whom a similar developed theology of Mary has been communicated by locution is Vassula Ryden, a Greek Orthodox woman, whose locutions have been published as ‘True Life in God.’ Examined by Cardinal Ratzinger when he was in charge of the CDF without serious criticism and only a few questions for clarification (astonishing for a live mystic), her words were given the Nihil Obstat by Bishop Felix Toppo and Imprimatur by Archbishop Ramon Arguelles.

Jesus says to Vassula, ‘My beloved come and learn: who has exulted me most. I will tell you … the New Eve has: yes! the woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon with the twelve stars on her head for a crown (Revelation 10.6). In her Immaculate womb She gloried Me by receiving Me, the unblemished Lamb, making a sanctuary for the Sanctuary, come and sing a new song in her honour, let all who live in earth revere Her immaculate Heart, the altar in which I was conceived and became God-man… No one has glorified me as much as the woman adorned with the sun.

‘Her thoughts from the day of our Her conception were always in union with My thoughts, Her heart in total submission to the Father’s will, an incessant hymn of love, an adoration to Me your Triune God, but One in unity of essence. Today, in these end of times where battle is raging… run to your Blessed Mother, who like a hen hides her chicks under her wings, and will hide you too under Her mantle.

‘Today, open your heart, then all the mysteries that appeared to you fathomless will be revealed to you … and you will understand who the Woman adorned with the sun is; then your whole being will be lifted and your heart will be exulted and in rapture when your eyes will be unveiled to see the Blessed Heart of the blessed hearts, the Most holy of saints, the Incomparable Heart, burning with unlimited love…’

‘Then you will understand what virtue is, and how in this virtuous Virginal heart I God became God-man, you will see the mother of your Saviour, Mother of the prophets, Mother of your disciples, Mother of charisms, Mother of unlimited graces …have you not noticed how my heart melts and favours always Her Heart? How can this Heart which bore your King be denied anything She asks from me?’

Paying the price

The role of motherhood has been so denuded of dignity in our own culture that when asked what they ‘do’, some women reply ‘I am only a mother.’ The narrative of power and the capitulation to the masculine models of status have profoundly weakened both the feminine and the maternal in our contemporary culture. When rights are sought in our quest for egalitarianism, someone always has to pay the price. In our case it is not so much men who pay, as the popular take is, but children.

One of the marks of our capitalist and secularist culture are homes where the children have lost their mothers to a quest for status, money, power or an alternative identity. Capitalism has evolved to make the most of this, and it takes what was briefly, for a decade or two, a choice, away from a couple and turns it into a bondage. It now takes two salaries to fund a mortgage. Women often have to work. What began as quest for economic parity and a share of the masculine cake has ended in children deprived of their own, and sometimes of any mother. Sometimes there are surrogate mothers bought in – sometimes not.

The movement for the ordination of women to both priesthood and episcopate has mimicked secular values in the absence of a theology of womanhood and motherhood that Mary offers. Power and status, inimical to real Christianity, are replaced by the role of co-creator and interdependence.


Mary dignifies womanhood with a role that stretches beyond power and status. Her apparitions, which began with that given to Gregory the miracle worker in about 240 AD, have been astonishingly regular over the last 150 years. Lourdes 1858, Fatima 1917, Garabandal1963, Zeitoun, Egypt 1968, Akita, Japan 1973, and Medjugorje 1981 embody the voice and potency of grace in the face of disobedience, charism in the face of institutional atrophy, the gentleness of the call to penitence in the face of a very masculine kind of obdurate independence. The masculinization of womanhood, which the roles of priesthood and episcopacy embody, leave a vacuum at the heart of the Church.

Mary’s voice continues to be that of the Mother calling her children back to life. In the latest vision in Medjugorje on 2 June 2012, she calls to the Church: ‘I desire that by your example you help sinners regain their sight, enrich the poor souls and bring them back into my embrace. Therefore pray, pray, fast and confess regularly. If receiving my Son in the Eucharist is the centre of your life then do not be afraid. You can do everything. I am with you. Every day I pray for the shepherds and I expect the same from you. Because, my children, without their guidance and strengthening through their blessing, you cannot do it.’

The cross and the rosary

Jesus says, ‘It has been said that at the end of times, Our two hearts would raise apostles…to go forward in every nation to proclaim the Word of God. They would pursue the sinners, the lofty speakers, the great and the proud, the hypocrites, the traitors to my Church. They would pursue them with the cross in one hand and the rosary in the other; and we would stand by their side.’

The pattern of renewal promised is that provided by Jesus and Mary, by the masculine and feminine, exemplified by the cross and the rosary. For as long as the Anglican Church pursues the masculinization of womanhood in the pursuit of ordaining women to masculine office, it denudes itself of the charisms and patterns of mutuality that God has given his Church, confines it as it were to limping on one leg, when it might have run on two. Instead of the transformation of the heart through prayer, fasting, repentance and the Eucharist, that heaven calls us to, the Church of England and its Synod mimics the world and its pursuit of power, instead of transforming its heart. ND