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Giving Mary her rightful place

02 November 2006

THE FINAL DOCUMENT to emerge from the second phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II), published this week, addresses one of the most oddly divisive questions in the history of relations between the two Churches: the Virgin Mary.

From the perspective of history, Christ’s mother appears as an innocent bystander, hit by the shrapnel from countless doctrinal clashes that are more properly attached to the nature and mission of her son. There will have been some Anglicans and Roman Catholics who awaited the publication of the report with trepidation, fearing the abandonment of cherished doctrines, or, perhaps, their adoption.

Others, though, will pay little heed to the pronouncement of a party of theologians, whatever their seniority and however deep their agreement. This has been part of the problem all along: how to reconcile academic theology with popular devotions.

It is entirely possible that Protestant Anglicans might continue to see the two as entirely separate, questioning how the dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption can be seen as, respectively “not contrary to the teaching of scripture” and “consonant with scripture”.

To this central question, the Commission proposes a fresh way of viewing Mary eschatologically, and within the overall “biblical pattern of the economy of grace and hope”. It seeks to explore what lies behind the disputed doctrines, saying that they “must be understood in the light of her identity as Theotokos, which itself depends on the incarnation”.

Such a reading of scripture can be seen as a dynamic way of presenting the gospel for this age, though some might regard it as a little too imaginative. It could open a door to new ways of considering doctrine together, particularly in the context of the papacy of Benedict XVI.

Perhaps wisely, ARCIC concentrates on the theology rather than the theological processes that absorbed Marian doctrines into the Roman Catholic faith. It merely notes that: “For Anglicans, it would be the consent of an ecumenical council which, teaching according to the scriptures, most securely demonstrates that the necessary conditions for a teaching to be de fide had been met.” It acknowledges that there will always be a range of views and devotional practices concerning Mary, both within and between the Churches, but trusts that its new, broader understanding might mean that such differences “need no longer be seen as communion-dividing”.

Whatever the outcome of debate about this report, we welcome its encouragement to deal theologically with the person and function of the Virgin Mary. In this way, we might move away from the extremes of the past — wild excesses or grim denial — and restore her to an honoured place in our telling of the gospel.

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