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Two Marian explorations

09 August 2013

Martin Warner looks at ecumenical and biblical studies


Our Lady: detail of Virgin with Child, Italian School (14th century), from The Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the books reviewed here

Our Lady: detail of Virgin with Child, Italian School (14th century), from The Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the books reviewed here

The Blessed Virgin Mary
Tim Perry and Daniel Kendall
Eerdmans £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80 (Use code CT485)

The Mother of the Lord, Volume 1: The Lady in the Temple
Margaret Barker
Bloomsbury £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70 (Use code CT485)

TIM PERRY's and Daniel Kendall's The Blessed Virgin Mary is an exploration of the place of Mary in Christian tradition which has something of an ARCIC feel to it.

As teachers of theology, Perry and Kendall approach their subject from perspectives that have been less in dialogue and more in conflict since the Reformation. Perry comes from a Protestant Evangelical background; Kendall is a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit.

The intention of these two scholars is to explore the texts on which representatives of their respective traditions, historically and in the present time, base their viewpoints. The book is an invitation to be better informed about those texts.

ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) has also undertaken a similar enterprise of better understanding in the area of Marian studies. Mary: Grace and hope in Christ (2005) was the fifth and final document of the second series of ARCIC conversations. There is a degree of ground-clearing in the ARCIC methodology that Perry and Kendall have also used creatively in their approach.

Nevertheless, the challenge of how the contested history that determines today's outlook might lead to mutual understanding requires more than a mapping exercise. We also need to interrogate the processes of codification, decision-making, and devotional practice which have shaped attitudes towards Mary and her part in our self-understanding and spiritual lives as Christians.

Getting beyond the texts to what actually goes on in devotional practice and what people understand it to mean is a far larger task. Margaret Barker makes an imaginative start on this with The Mother of the Lord, a detailed inquiry into the place of Mary in Christian tradition. The publication of this first volume, The Lady in the Temple, revisits some familiar territory in Margaret Barker's impressive explorations into the cult of Temple worship and its significance in Judaism.

Her approach to the Old Testament is not for the faint-hearted. There is something of the energy and spirit of Indiana Jones in the adventuresome and restless intelligence with which Barker tackles the subject.

At the heart of her earlier work is a conviction that Temple worship represents a strand of authenticity of revelation and practice in Judaism which was known and influential in early Christianity. In both the old and the new Israel, however, other influences have obscured or deliberately suppressed the ma- terial that would enable us to understand how the Temple and its priesthood functioned and what it meant.

As we learn very early on in The Mother of the Lord, the difficulty that we have to account for is what happened in the process of reform. What were Hezekiah and Josiah up to? To what extent should the ambiguity of Hebrew words and damaged texts be scrutinised in the light of documents that we describe as "apocryphal" or relegate to footnote reference? Central to this inquiry is the question what was meant by saying that Israel had "abandoned Wisdom". In Barker's mind, this is not an ideological issue: it was a cultic one that belonged to the very fabric of the relationships between God, creation, and human society.

Some scholars will dismiss Barker's approach as fanciful. She will be caricatured as being like a historical novelist in contrast to the scholarship of the serious expert. But the persistence of inquiry into those dimensions of the Old Testament which touch on the part of the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition enables Barker to reveal a skein of themes that are pressingly contemporary, mysterious, disputed, and unresolved.

Gendered language is an obvious example. So is the relationship between Mary and matter (the flesh assumed by the Word), and the uncomfortable reference to sex for describing a covenanted relationship between eternity and time, virginity and motherhood, Christ and the Church. Sacred vesture, music, art, and the sheer geometry of sacred space also feature as themes that still preoccupy us, as does the effect of a reforming religion in which law and regulation are the apogee of holiness.

Barker is not a campaigning feminist. She does, however, shine a light on tangled issues that connect the figure of Mary with patterns of distortion and reform which seem to be common to the Israel of God in both old and new dispensations.

The Mother of the Lord builds its case in chapters following a chronology that is itself a work in progress, and differs markedly from the sequence of books as the Old Testament canon presents them. That, in itself, will be a surprise to those who are unfamiliar with Old Testament study, something that the general reader should note.

This book is not a work of systematic theology or definition. But to the extent that it creatively disturbs the status quo in biblical study, it deserves to win space in your timetable for reading and reflection. Such disturbance is generally characteristic of the part taken by Mary, as generations of Christian women and men, including a good Methodist such as Barker, will attest.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.

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