Why there’s nothing to fear about Mary

02 November 2006

THE PUBLICATION of Mary: Grace and hope in Christ completes the work of ARCIC II, the second phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission.

We can now expect a second volume of collected ARCIC statements (a sequel to The Final Report), covering the Church as communion, justification, morals, authority, and Mary.

Whether the agreements claimed in these documents are fully affirmed by the authorities of our two Communions or not, taken together, they show a remarkable convergence among Roman Catholic and Anglican theologians on issues that have long been painfully divisive.

The study of Mary has taken us into an area that was a storm-centre of controversy at the time of the Reformation, and has subsequently been one of the most obvious areas of division between our two Communions.

The use of prayers such as the Ave Maria and the saying of the Rosary has been seen as typically Catholic. The definition of the doctrines of the immaculate conception (1854) and the assumption (1950), outside the context of an ecumenical council, put new stumbling blocks on the path to reconciliation.

From an Anglican point of view, the key questions are two: first, how can such devotional practice and the definition of these two Marian dogmas be reconciled with the reading of scripture and the tradition of Christian teaching that has been received from the early centuries in East and West?

Second, would it be necessary for Anglicans to subscribe to these two Marian dogmas before Anglicans and Catholics could once more share the eucharist together?

THIS IS WHY ARCIC was asked for “a study of Mary in the life and doctrine of the church”. The work we have done has been a voyage of discovery for us all. From our study of scripture, we have seen the crucial part Mary plays in the gospel story.

She has a prominent place at so many key points: the annunciation; the birth of Jesus; Jesus’s first miracle; the developing understanding of what it means to be the “family of Jesus”; the death of Jesus; the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have seen how illuminating it is to read Mary’s story in the light of Paul’s teaching about election and hope: she was indeed “predestined . . . called . . . justified . . . glorified” (Romans 8.28). In this way, she can be seen as a “type” of the whole Church and of the individual believer. Given Mary’s unique place among the disciples of Jesus, we approached the Church’s teaching about her by reflecting on this pattern of grace and hope in Christ.

We also studied the place of Mary in the Christian tradition, particularly the development of lives of Mary and the beginnings of direct address to Mary in prayer. A major point in common, and a major marker of orthodox Christian doctrine about Mary, is the recognition of her as Theotókos, Mother of God.

We were reminded of the importance the Reformers attached to Mary being semper virgo (ever virgin), and that on the issue of Mary’s not being sinless, some Reformers followed Augustine, choosing to stay silent out of respect for the Lord’s Mother.

Anglican members drew attention to the many Anglican churches and cathedrals with a dedication to St Mary and a Lady Chapel, and, with the reform of the liturgy and the calendar, the widespread Anglican celebration of a Feast of Mary on 15 August.

Roman Catholic members informed us about past and present Marian devotion within the Catholic Church, and drew our attention to recently published theological guidelines intended to limit exaggerated claims to private revelations and apparitions of Mary.

The final stages of our work came at a difficult time for relations between the two Communions. The ordination of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson as a bishop, and the conflict this caused within the Anglican Communion came just as we were nearing completion of our statement. Anticipating that this would make ecumenical relations difficult, we tried hard to finish at our Florida meeting in July 2003, but it was clear that our work was still undercooked.

The document was finished in Seattle, just in time to give thanks in Seattle Cathedral at solemn vespers for the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple.

Now that the work of ARCIC II is finished, it is encouraging to hear that our authorities have already begun to look for ways to carry it forward, as the shape of the Anglican Communion becomes clear after the Windsor report, and as we begin to see the ecumenical priorities of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

WHAT HAVE we achieved? We have shown that our two traditions are nothing like so far apart on Mary as we might have thought. We have shown that scripture bears witness to a pattern of grace and hope in God’s working, which the doctrines of the immaculate conception and the assumption can be seen to reflect: this is the pattern of grace and hope in Christ to which we refer in our title.

We found it helpful to see these doctrines in an eschatological light — to consider first the teaching that “God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory”; and then to see how “Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being and to her earliest beginnings.” This was our way of approaching the two Marian doctrines in the light of our reading of scripture.

If we are right — that it is legitimate to approach the dogmas in this way — then Anglicans should not reject Roman Catholic Marian doctrine out of hand as “unscriptural”.

Through our study, we also show that Roman Catholics should not reject the Anglican tradition out of hand as lacking in Marian devotion. We quote precedents which suggest that, in any future reunion of our two Communions, acceptance of the precise wording of the definitions of 1854 and 1950 might not be required of Anglican believers, since Anglicans and Roman Catholics were not in communion when they were defined.

In addition, we have clarified our agreement on what we mean when we ask Mary and the saints, who are “truly alive in Christ and freed from sin”, to pray for us. We suggest to our authorities that, though diversity of Marian doctrine and understanding will remain within and between our Communions, the breadth of that diversity is not such as to justify continued separation at the eucharist.

The Revd Professor Nicholas Sagovsky is Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and a member of ARCIC II.

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