THE CHURCH AND MARY
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
Boydell Press £45 (0-9546809-0-1)
A GOTHIC SERMON: Making a contract with the Mother of God, Saint
Mary of Amiens by Stephen Murray
University of California Press £26.95 (0-520-23847-8)
THE publication of The Church and Mary, papers given at meetings of
the Ecclesiastical History Society in 2001 and 2002, is both welcome and
It is welcome because of the serious attention it pays to the often
neglected place of Mary throughout the Christian tradition, and timely because
it offers some important material for reflection ahead of the publication,
later this year, of the ARCIC report on Mary.
This collection represents an inter-disciplinary interest — textual,
theological, historical, gender-critical — that is broadly Euro- and
Anglo-centric. These are hardly narrow limits: they allow contributions to
range from the late fourth century in the Ancient East to the second half of
the 20th century in Oxford, and contemporary Ethiopia.
There are no formal sub-divisions, but certain of the contributors offer
essays of substance which inevitably form a staging-post between the more
specialist interests. The first of these is from Averil Cameron on the cult of
the Virgin in the fourth century, which introduces essays on the Nestorian
controversy, gender and patronage issues attached to the term Theotokos
, eighth- and 12th-century Marian typology, and a discussion of cultic
Although some discussion in these essays is highly specialised, the range of
interests — artistic, cultic, liturgical, and political — that they cover
attains a standard that approaches the high-watermark of Marina Warner’s
Alone of all her Sex.
Henry Mayr-Harting’s essay on the idea of the Assumption in the West from
800 to 1200 provides one of the most useful contributions in this collection.
Mapping out the transition in the West from the accepted understanding of
Mary’s spiritual assumption to a bodily and material one, Mayr-Harting points
to the wildfire spread of Elisabeth of Schönau’s vision of Mary’s bodily
assumption, to the influence of the Cathars, and to the corporeality of
devotion and devotional art in the late 12th century.
The essays that explore the later Middle Ages also tell us something
about the influences of culture and imagination in the formation of Christian
tradition, and the extent to which those forces can renew or suffocate the
articulation and witness of faith in any given generation.
Here history provides us with an object lesson in how to assess the
inheritance of the past, and recognise the cultural and imaginative boundaries
within which our present is equally circumscribed.
The second half of this collection, in which the quality of material is less
uniform, could well be read as a commentary on the immaculate conception as a
process of reception.
Essays that focus beyond Roman Catholicism outline the issues attached
to the exercise of authority, and the ecumenical difficulty with the recent —
in terms of tradition — definitions of the immaculate conception and the bodily
assumption of Mary. This is history as allegory: for infallibility read
autonomy, and we quickly realise what damage can be done by unilateral action.
Returning to an earlier era, Stephen Murray introduces us to an annotated
and illustrated edition of a 13th-century sermon in which the energy of
communication bubbles over with enthusiasm for fresh expressions of the
veneration of motherhood — of Mary, of the Church, and of the Mother Church of
the diocese of Amiens.
The text indicates that clergy haven’t changed, though the good news is that
sermons are now generally a great deal shorter. This one seems to have been
from a visiting preacher who knew how to woo his congregation, addressing them
throughout as “beloved”, sending up the clergy, and indulging in a banter
reminiscent of Frankie Howerd — “And you, madam, yes, you!”
This is a book for the specialist. But it reminds us that the tradition we
might regard as dead once lived, and perhaps more colourfully than we think we
The Revd Martin Warner is Canon Pastor at St Paul’s Cathedral.