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Mary Magdalen — the patron saint of change

24 July 2015

The saint offers a pattern that the Church needs, right now, for facing its transformation, says Tess Kuin Lawton

ON THE feast of St Mary Magdalen on Wednesday, two new women bishops were consecrated; they had as their patronal saint an important woman whose story in church history may give those on either side of the episcopal wound some useful food for theological reflection. Mary Magdalen (without an “e” in Oxford) is a saint with an unexpectedly powerful influence in education and an inspiration in times of change.

My school owes its patronage to her. Bishop William Waynflete, who founded us in 1480, wore a signet ring incscribed with her image, and made it clear that she was the inspiration behind his educational zeal. The school is particularly proud of a line in the college charter, relating to the education of its pupils, in which the Bishop has crossed out the word “instructio” and replaced it with “illuminatio”. Bishop Waynflete seems to have wanted to re-cast Mary as the saint to watch over generations of pupils for whom education would be about “enlightenment” and not simply “instruction”.

Waynflete was not a radical. He was a man who seems to have come from humble beginnings, and yet became close to King Henry VI. He valued the traditions of the Church of which he was a part, but for him it offered the opportunity to transcend social constraints. Thus, while his ideas can be seen as a reversal of the approach to education at the time, they can also offer us an exciting way of looking at the narrative we are offering our young people today.

Yes, the Church of his time understood Mary Magdalen as a prostitute, but to Waynflete she represented a way to lift yourself out of the mire and be transformed by God. This was what he wanted to offer to his pupils. In reflecting on her feast day, I wonder whether the way she has been treated by history can offer some hope to women today. The way she was reimagined by a priest might offer those for whom this is a painful time a way of believing that God’s story has a way of finding healing.


TO MY amazement, pupils will still tell me that Mary Magdalen was Jesus’s lover — presumably under the influence of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The identification of women with lust, sex, and temptation is as old as the earliest commentaries on the book of Genesis. When St Augustine of Hippo blamed Eve for the fall of humankind, he sealed her fate and contributed to a patriarchalism in the Church which allowed Martin Luther to say “Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon.”

There are New Testament scholars who point to a wide range of ministries within the Early Church. Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza’s theology, from the mid-1960s onwards, was one of the earliest to consider the radical nature of Jesus’s response to women in the Gospels.

Earlier, since the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels in the late 19th century, there has been increasing evidence that Mary Magdalen’s discipleship led to some fascinating interpretations of God in the Early Church.

Elaine Pagels’s scholarship during the late 1970s and beyond has demonstrated that these texts offer another early tradition that shows the Gnostic sects (using the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, and Philip, among others) using both male and female language about God, suggesting that God contains both masculine and feminine aspects and, in some cases, having female priests. She does not argue that these texts offer a more authentic version than the canonical Gospels, but finds it interesting that they were ultimately not considered as part of the canon.

By the medieval period of Bishop Waynflete, Mary Magdalen had been identified by Pope Gregory the Great as the anonymous sinner with the perfume in St Luke’s Gospel, and the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Mary of Bethany). She was condemned for lust, pride, and covetousness.

This composite Mary, as the repentant prostitute, sinner, and adulteress, was never accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church, but so effective was it that the reputation lingers on to this day, as, for example, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.


WHATEVER our view of the apostolic succession and women’s place in it, there is no doubt that women’s roles in the narrative of faith have too often been misunderstood. It does not require a radical feminist theologian to challenge this. Waynflete, an educator who might not have expected to be made Master of the local leper hospital when he was headmaster of Winchester College, seems to be a medieval priest who was not afraid to be surprised by God.

It was in education that he expected to find transformation and opportunity, enlightenment and revelation, but it was the patron saint of the leper hospital who spoke to him and whom he made his own.

Otherwise, there is little explanation for his adoption of Mary as the saint for his precious educational projects. In doing so, he contributed to a new way of reading her history. Just as Mary’s life had been transformed by her meeting with Christ, so he believed that our education could be one of revelation and epiphany.

Priests and lay people alike are on a journey with God, whatever age we are. Just as we watch our children make the transition from primary to secondary school and on to the wider world, so, too, our faith is full of liminal moments where we stand on the threshold of change.

Those of us who are priests have particular reason to know that it is these times — birth, family break-up, serious illness, death — that can regenerate a new kind of faith, if approached with care. What is happening in our Church at the moment is such a time, whether we support the changes or are grieving. The feast of St Mary Magdalen is a fitting context for the change that we are all currently trying to fit into our faith.


The Revd Tess Kuin Lawton is Chaplain of Magdalen College School, Oxford.

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