IN THIS stimulating collection of writings about Mary, Ann Loades, Emeritus Professor of Divinity at Durham University, brings together a variety of academic papers, literary criticism, sermons, and an accompanying piece for the Royal Mail’s Christmas stamps in 2019: a mixture of genres that coalesce around strong central themes.
As a feminist theologian, Loades has longstanding reservations about the legacy of the Marian tradition. Indeed, she writes that it “can be dire, idealizing Mary to the detriment of other women, commending her holiness in such a way as to inculcate their subservience, and thereby their sociological subordination in both church and society”.
For some, the answer to this would be to follow the majority of the Reformed traditions and downplay Mary’s part in Christian theology and devotion altogether. Loades advocates a very different approach. Her own strong Anglican identity makes her sensitive to the way in which the Church of England has preserved, for example, the celebration of Marian feast days in the Prayer Book, and the Magnificat in the order for Evening Prayer.
Likewise, at various points she discusses the reflection on Mary which is to be found in some of the Church of England’s foremost writers, from John Donne to Dorothy L. Sayers, sharing a perception that “we cannot understand Christ without catching hold of something of his relationship with his mother.”
Loades twice quotes with disapproval Graham Leonard’s view that “in the whole of human instinct and understanding it is the masculine which is associated with giving and the feminine with receiving.” This, as Loades persuasively argues, is a misunderstanding of motherhood, of the relationship of the sexes, of the way in which the modern economy works in practice, and of the way in which the scriptures themselves attest to the part played by Mary in salvation.
alamyWalking Madonna by Elisabeth Frink at Salisbury Cathedral
As Loades points out, what the biblical tradition actually teaches us is that Mary is a woman of unique courage who actively takes hold of her vocation, and responds in freedom and delight to God’s initiative, co-operating in the work of salvation, that she is sweet, but also fierce, “the only person in Scripture twice Spirit-graced”, who occupies a central position both at Easter and Pentecost. Moreover, because of the important link between Mary and the Holy Spirit, theological reflection on Mary has an interesting ability to respond to changing needs and circumstances.
While these and similar insights have sometimes been imperfectly understood by theologians, they have often been clearly depicted by poets and artists. A stirring example is Elisabeth Frink’s statue of Mary outside Salisbury Cathedral: carrying the suppressed anguish of the cross in her face and body, Mary walks away from the cathedral towards the town to proclaim her son’s resurrection.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.
Grace is Not Faceless: Reflections on Mary
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