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Book review: Mary, Bearer of Life by Christopher Cocksworth

by
13 October 2023

Welcome insights in this book about Mary, says Edward Dowler

THIS book deserves to become an Anglican classic, immersed as it is in deep scholarship, prayerful reflection, pastoral awareness, and study in different geographical and ecclesial locations. Bishop Christopher Cocksworth explores under five headings: Chosen, Called, Redeemed, Fulfilled, and Loved, the ways in which Christians can understand Mary, and come to a deeper relationship with Christ through her.

Each chapter — and the five-week structure would lend itself to a Lent course, though the book is not specifically billed as such — is a treasury of reflection on Mary’s part in the ongoing story of salvation.

The primary reference point is a very rich concentration on the Christian scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. Out of many that might be chosen, a section that particularly stood out for me was the reflection on the way in which Mary embodies each in turn of the Beatitudes, and the suggestions that these indeed may have naturally grown out of Jesus’s experience of Mary’s motherhood.

Accompanying this biblical reflection, Cocksworth draws on a wide range of other sources. Among these, Ephrem the Syrian (c.306-73) is particularly prominent. “Fascinated by the reversals of the incarnation”, he writes of the Giver of Life who is given life by Mary: the poor girl with whom the Spirit falls in love “so that he may become one with the poor and enrich them when he has been revealed”. Another guiding light is the Armenian mystic Gregory of Narek (c.950-1003), who strikingly portrays the lost Eve “limping through life, Lost compared with the Virgin”.

While noting the different approaches to grace, there are also some powerful points of reference to the Qur’an, where Mary, whose name appears more frequently even than that of Muhammad, is depicted as “a sign for humanity and a Mercy from Us [God]”.

Cocksworth reflects honestly on the perception that it is surprising for a theologian from an Evangelical background to choose a subject weighted with so much historical disagreement between Catholics and Protestants. To the question what Mary can do for us that Christ cannot do, the following answer seems particularly helpful: “Mary gives birth to [Jesus] as his mother — Jesus could not bring himself to human birth without her. Mary shows us how to be a disciple of her son — Jesus can teach us how to be disciples but he cannot be a disciple of himself. Mary can and has.”

He shows at various points that the tradition is more complex than we might assume: Luther and Bonhoeffer, for example, both had a deep appreciation of Mary’s part in salvation. And while, as an Anglican, he feels able to subject the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary to scrutiny, his ultimate conclusion is that — since Mary herself is and remains the object of grace — this doctrine can serve to clarify rather than undermine or obscure the grace of the gospel.

This, perhaps prophetically, points the way forward to a renewed confidence that, leaving some stale disagreements to the past, a deeper encounter with Mary through scripture and the theological tradition can bring all Christians “closer to her son and thereby to each other”.

The first four of the five chapters lead into an ethical reflection on a variety of subjects. Mercifully, these do not include what we now refer to as “LLF”, but cover abortion, education, nuclear weapons, and the environment, each considered in the light of the chapter’s foregoing discussion of Mary.

Important though these subjects undoubtedly are — and, I hope, not simply because I disagree with the author on certain points — I wondered how naturally they cohered with the material that preceded them, and felt that they might come to feel dated in a way that the vast majority of the text would not. Others will welcome the added contemporary relevance that these sections bring, and any reservations about them should not mar appreciation of this excellent work.
 

The Ven Dr. Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings and Priest-in-Charge of St John the Evangelist, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.

 

Mary, Bearer of Life
Christopher Cocksworth
SCM Press £19.99
(978-0-334-06200-4)
Church Times Bookshop £15.99


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