Mixed reception for ARCIC agreement on the Blessed Virgin

02 November 2006


From the Revd Professor W. H. C. Frend
Sir, — Which is it to be? Will the Anglican Communion remain anchored on scripture, or will it accept as its foundation the Christian Neo-Platonism of Cyril of Alexandria, and his key doctrine of Mary as Théotokos, which was to inspire the Monophysite Churches down the Nile Valley, in Syria and in Armenia, but not in the West?

The Gospels give us a different picture of Mary. Joseph’s family were in all likelihood immigrants from Judaea to Galilee, and they held senior positions in Nazareth. The invitation to Mary and Jesus to the marriage feast at Cana, north of Nazareth, is witness to the fact. There is nothing to suggest that Mary enjoyed anything but a normal childhood and girlhood, and was surprised at the angel’s visitation and salutation.

The birth narratives show that she had great hopes in her son, but Mark’s Gospel (3.31-35) indicates that she was blessed with a large family, whose male members are recorded, and the eldest, James, became head of the Church at Jerusalem.

Nor was the family harmonious. There is the misunderstanding between Jesus and his parents at the time of his “bar mitzvah” in the Temple. Jesus refuses to see his family during his ministry in Galilee, and his mother sides with the family against him (Mark 3.32-33). There is what appears to be a final family breach when his borthers doubt his credibility and will not accompany him to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7.8-10).

There follows, however, reconciliation between mother and son, and Mary stands at the foot of the cross.

It’s a human story, and one played out by Augustine in his relations with Monica, his mother. There, too, there are initial high hopes, rejection, indifference succeeded by reconciliation, and finally love (Confessions , Book 9).


Surely, the Gospel picture of the relations between Jesus and Mary is infinitely more inspiring for us as Christians than mythology, Gnostic in origin, such as Mary’s sinlessness described in the Protoevangelium of James, and her miraculous assumption into heaven, forming part and parcel of Monophysite teaching.  Did the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) really have to spend 20 years vindicating Cyril of Alexandria?
The Clerks Cottage, Little Wilbraham, Cambridge CB1 5LB

From the Rt Revd Derek Rawcliffe
Sir, — When I was Bishop of Glasgow & Galloway, I was invited to a meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews to hear a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly speak. He said he would begin with doctrines that Jews and Christians hold together. The first was creation, the second was original sin.

When the time for questions came, all the Jews started jumping up and saying, “Creation, yes, of course, but original sin, no. We Jews do not believe that. Of course, we are all sinners, but each of us chooses to commit sin. We do not inherit the sin or the guilt of Adam.”

I started to investigate, and was helped mostly by Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing, where he shows that St Augustine used a faulty Latin translation of Romans 5.12 (before the Vulgate was done), which made him think that it was not death but sin that passed to all people. From this came the idea of inheriting Adam’s sin and starting life as a miserable sinner from one’s conception onwards.

He says that the Early Church did not believe in original sin as an inheritance from Adam; neither does the Orthodox Church. This would agree with the beautiful statement in St Basil’s Longer Rule, where he says: “When man was created, a certain Word was disseminated among men, having within itself the tendency towards an adaptation to love. . . Having received a commandment to love God, we possess the power to love implanted in us at the moment we were constituted.”

So the inheritance we receive at our conception is not sin and guilt, but love. So I am able to believe in Mary’s immaculate conception because I believe that I and everyone else were immaculately conceived. Where we may differ from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters is in what happened afterwards.

I, like those Jews in Glasgow, have committed sin and have needed the redemption and forgiveness declared by Christ and made available in his death on the cross, the “greatest love anyone could show to his friends”. RC doctrine says that Mary was preserved all her life from actual sin by that redemption wrought by her Son. That is where the difference between Anglicans and Roman Catholics may be. What did ARCIC have to say about this?
7 Dorset Avenue, Leeds LS8 3RA


From Canon Phillip Nixon
Sir, — The assumption of Mary cannot be literally true, but it is a beautiful and attractive metaphor, and the inspiration for much fine art and Christian devotion.

Anglicans can indeed draw hope and inspiration from the picture of Mary’s assumption into heaven. But are we obliged to concur with an aesthetic judgement that claims to be “truth”? The beautiful painting of God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo is wonderful, but I don’t want to be told that any particular aesthetic reaction to that painting is compulsory.

The immaculate conception of Mary is harder to accept, because it seems to imply a restriction of God’s power. Can God grow a pure and beautiful flower on a dunghill, or can he do this only from ground that has been carefully sanitised — as the doctrine of the immaculate conception seems to imply? This is not an insult to Mary: it is simply saying that she was human.

The extracts you published from Mary: Grace and hope in Christ seem to consider the issues only from a traditional Roman perspective.
St James’s Vicarage, Vicarage Road, Northampton NN5 7AX

From Mr Robert Leach
Sir, — It may be disguised by theological smoke-screening, and by talk about things that are clearly not in scripture as being nevertheless consonant with it, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that years of ARCIC wrangling have led to complete capitulation to the Roman Catholic position on Mary.

This should come as no surprise. I see no evidence that the Roman Church is interested in negotiation: only submission. What I do not understand is why we bother. Why do not those who are so anxious to be in communion with the Bishop of Rome simply join the Roman Catholic Church, and leave the rest of us, who value our Anglican traditions, to get on with it?
40 London Road, Brandon, Suffolk IP27 0HY

From Cllr David Lindsay
Sir, — Both the rose-tinted and the hysterical reactions to ARCIC’s latest effusion miss the point, because ARCIC is itself a spectacular missing of the point, which is that provinces of the Anglican ex-Communion have plenary power over their respective ecumenical relations, as over their respective doctrine and their respective orders.

The Roman Catholic Church ought therefore to be dealing directly with those strongly Anglo-Catholic or strongly Evangelical provinces in the developing world which adhere (as those in the developed world do not) to classical Christian doctrine and morality, and to the Augustinian patrimony of the West.


ARCIC’s Anglican co-chairman is Dr Peter Carnley. Surely no one seriously suggests that he believes in our Lady’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption, considering the things in which he is known not to believe? Carts and horses spring to mind.

Six years ago, ARCIC produced another report (on the papacy) that inspired a similar flurry of coverage and comment before sinking without trace. The same will happen to this latest report, too. Away with this travel agency, and let us get on with real ecumenism.
13 Foxhills Crescent, Lanchester, Durham DH7 0PW

From Mrs Penny Keens
Sir, — I was astounded to hear the news that those involved in ARCIC commend belief in the immaculate conception and the assumption of the BVM to Anglicans. Surely the doctrine of the immaculate conception diminishes the doctrine of the incarnation? If Mary was sinless, then she wasn’t properly human, and nor was her son.
9 St Pauls Court, Stony Stratford, Milton Keynes MK11 1LJ

From the Revd Adrian Copping
Sir, — It has occurred to me that in many icons and images of the Virgin Mary, our Lady appears to be wearing some sort of hooded top.

In the United Kingdom, teenagers appear to be getting bad and unfair press coverage for much the same offence. In much of mainland Europe, however, both teenagers and, indeed, the Blessed Virgin receive a more favourable press. Perhaps ARCIC, which has produced such a thought-provoking and potentially reconciling document, could also be called upon to assist in inter-generational relationships.
The Rectory, 8 Ludlow Road, Bangor Isycoed, Wrexham LL13 0JG

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