Reviewed By The Rev. Fr. Samuel L. Edwards
MOST ANGLICANS of "high-church" persuasion are familiar with the witticism that describes the Evangelical/ Protestant attitude toward the Blessed Virgin Mary as, "she’s a dead Roman Catholic."
This may be a caricature, but like all effective caricatures, there is a considerable amount of truth behind it. Most professing Protestants–and, since the 1960s, not a few Roman Catholics–appear to hold this view, at least in a functional sense. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s (ARCIC) statement Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, recently released in Seattle and London, goes a good way toward demonstrating that such a position has no genuine foundation in Scripture or in the histories of either faith tradition.
This agreed statement is a remarkably sound piece of theological writing–which might be regarded as little short of astonishing if one looked only at the names of the two Anglican co-chairmen of the Commission during the Marian dialogue: Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold held the post until, following his role in the V. Gene Robinson affair, his presence threatened to halt Roman Catholic participation. The appointment of Australian Primate Peter Carnley as Griswold’s successor gave traditionalists little hope that a genuinely orthodox voice now would be leading the Anglican delegation, since Carnley is no less a revisionist than Griswold. However, that would be unduly to magnify the importance of co-chairmen in such groups and to diminish that of the other members, who in this case included some of very high intellectual stature, such as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester and Dr. John Muddiman of Oxford for the Anglicans, and Walter Cardinal Kasper and the late Fr. Jean Tillard for the Roman Catholics.
The statement is utterly free of the kind of polemic with which the two traditions have afflicted each other over the centuries, especially on this topic. There is a frank acknowledgment that much popular Roman Marian piety has been excessive and theologically unsound. One of my few minor disappointments is that the statement does not seem to give a similarly-weighted acknowledgement of the active negativity towards our Lady that has periodically emanated both from hard-core low church quarters and (more recently) from radical feminists–an odd pair whose principal (and perhaps only) common bond is anti-catholic bigotry.
Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ shows in a high degree the best of both classical Anglican and Roman theological method. It begins with the witness of Scripture and conducts a detailed Genesis-to-Revelation review of the relevant texts within the entire context of the biblical witness. By the time this section is finished, it has become clear that the role of Mary in the saga of salvation is far from marginal. Her prominence in Christian consciousness is not, as some would have us believe, a by-product of a decline in faith and devotion after the Constantinian revolution; nor is it an example of how the cult of the Great Mother was incorporated by an influx of still semi-pagan converts after being a Christian became safe and advisable; nor is it part of a conspiracy by "the patriarchy" to conceal or compensate for their oppression of women. Instead, from the witness of Scripture alone, it is clear why Mary is taken to be the archetype, not just of the faithful woman, but of the faithful Christian and the faithful Church.
The treatment of the Virginal Conception of the Lord is typical of the scholarly reflection on Scripture informed by faith shown throughout the document. The Commission notes that, "The virginal conception may appear in the first place as an absence, i.e., the absence of a human father. It is in reality, however, a sign of the presence and work of the Spirit. [T]he virginal conception, far from being an isolated miracle, is a powerful expression of what the Church believes about her Lord, and about our salvation." [Paragraph 18]
FOLLOWING THE ANALYSIS of the scriptural witness, the statement gives a thorough historical summary of the development of Marian doctrine in the Church’s tradition and emphasizes its crucial connection with the doctrine of Christ, pointing especially to Christological factors to account for the development of Marian elements in liturgical worship. The section on the growth of Marian doctrine and devotion during the Middle Ages is especially helpful in its treatment of the breakdown in the relationship between theology and spirituality in the latter part of that period (ca. the 14th and 15th centuries) and the distortions that took place in popular Marian piety–and in some theological teaching–as a result. This lays the groundwork for a discussion of the effects of the Reformation (and Counter-reformation), both positive and negative, in this area of concern.
While reporting accurately on the reduction of Marian devotion in Reformed liturgy and devotion, the statement also points out that this did not inevitably imply a denial or suppression of the received tradition: "In this context, the English Reformers continued to receive the doctrine of the ancient Church concerning Mary." They accepted her as Theotokos on scriptural as well as traditional grounds and, following early Church tradition and the teaching of other Reformers such as Martin Luther (and John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, who are not named in the report), "the English Reformers such as Latimer (Works, 2:105), Cranmer (Works, 2:60; 2:88) and Jewel (Works, 3:440-441) accepted that Mary was ‘Ever Virgin.’" [Paragraph 45] As if this were not enough to give doctrinaire anti-catholics a case of the vapors, the report goes on to point out that these same reformers (like the good Augustinians they were) were reluctant to deny that she was free of at least actual, if not original sin.
The paragraph  on the continued growth of Marian doctrine and devotion in the post-Reformation era is accurate and measured, admitting that it suffered from "the distorting influence of Protestant-Catholic polemics." At the same time it explains how the essentially Christocentric nature of Marian doctrine has been undergoing a process of "re-reception" under the impetus of the renewal in scriptural, liturgical, and patristic studies that characterized the 20th century.
The claim is made in Paragraph
49 that "Mary has a new prominence in Anglican worship through the liturgical
renewals of the 20th century." While there is much truth in this, the report
fails to acknowledge the role of the theological and liturgical renewals of the
19th century’s catholic revival in the Anglican Church. This is a minor
disappointment, especially given that the renewals cited could not have taken
place at all without the sacrifices made in the service of those who are not
The Marian Dogmas
In the next section of the report, the insights of the Commission’s reviews both of Scripture and Tradition are integrated into a theological reflection headed "Mary within the pattern of grace and hope." This is an elegantly constructed dissertation which may prove to be most useful in parochial teaching on the subject. Paragraphs 54 through 57 lay out the common doctrine concerning Mary. Paragraphs 58 through 63 are a discussion of the issues and obstacles created by the Papal Definitions of 1854 (the Immaculate Conception) and of 1950 (the Assumption).
Their consonance with the biblical witness to the contrary notwithstanding, the lack of scriptural support sufficiently explicit to accord these two doctrines’ dogmatic status remains a problem from the Anglican side. From the Roman side, it is difficult to imagine how full communion can be restored without an acceptance of the definitions. Additionally, there is another problem alluded to in Paragraph 62: "The definitions of 1854 and 1950 were not made in response to controversy, but gave voice to the consensus of faith among believers in communion with the Bishop of Rome." [Italics added.] This is a methodological problem for Anglicans (and others, such as the Eastern Orthodox), for the consistent pattern of the Church throughout history has been that dogmas are not defined unless they are under attack and unless failure to define them would imperil the substance of the Gospel. These conditions do not appear to have been met in the case of either of the Marian definitions in question, since at least within the Roman Church no one was denying them.
While this discussion is helpful in delineating the issues at hand, no definite conclusions are reached here on how the Roman and Anglican methods of doctrinal discernment might adequately be reconciled. The most that the Commission can offer is the opinion that, "Any such re-reception would have to take place within the context of a mutual re-reception of an effective teaching authority in the Church." [Paragraph 63]
THE FOURTH SECTION of the report discusses "Mary in the life of the Church" and is concerned with demonstrating that, in the end, the different tendencies of emphasis in the Anglican and the Roman approaches are far from irreconcilable.
"Anglicans have tended to begin from reflection on the scriptural example of Mary as an inspiration and model for discipleship. Roman Catholics have given prominence to the ongoing ministry of Mary in the economy of grace and the communion of saints. Mary points people to Christ, commending them to him and helping them to share his life." [Paragraph 65]
THERE FOLLOWS [Paragraphs 67 through 70] a concise but thorough discussion of "Intercession and Mediation in the Communion of Saints." In it, the history of the practice of requesting the prayers of the saints in general and of Mary in particular is reviewed, along with the Reformers’ objections to it–spurred by what are admitted to be exaggerations in popular devotion–and the Counter-reformers’ clarifications in support of it. The Commission resoundingly affirms the scriptural doctrine that Jesus is the one mediator between God and man, but also points out that "all the ministries of the Church, especially those of Word and sacrament, mediate the grace of God through human beings. Hence asking our brothers and sisters, on earth and in heaven, to pray for us, does not contest the unique mediatory work of Christ, but is rather a means by which, in and through the Spirit, its power may be displayed." [Paragraph 68]
It is the clear implication of this segment that the most serious theological problems with the idea of invoking the prayers of the departed saints (properly understood) lie with those who object to the practice, for if their usual arguments against it are accepted, there seems to be no logical reason why one should ask for the prayers of any Christian, living as well as departed, unless one is willing to posit a clearly unbiblical notion that there is a Church on earth essentially separate from the Church in heaven. Practically speaking, this means that those who do object to the practice are not obliged to do it, but neither are they allowed to convict of heresy those who do, so long as the "unique mediatorial role of Christ" is not compromised.
Clearly, the Commission’s teaching on this point is in accord with that of the great Anglican theologian Austin Farrer, who pointed out that, as helpful and lawful as it may be to invoke the prayers of the saints, "no Christian is obliged to invoke the prayers of any saint in his own devotions." [Lord, I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer, Cambridge, Mass.; Cowley Press, 1989, page 88.]
IN THE CONCLUDING SUMMARY of its findings, the Commission reports that the agreement it has reached "significantly advance[s] our consensus regarding Mary." None of the elements of the agreement is likely to raise objections among high-church or catholic-minded Anglicans. (Indeed, as I read them, I was reminded of what John Keble is supposed to have said whenever someone pronounced an opinion of which he approved: "Yes, that is what my father taught me.") It has been a staple of catholic Anglican catechesis for time out of mind that the doctrines of our Lady’s immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, and bodily assumption are, at worst, not contrary to Scripture, and at best consonant with it, and that therefore they are allowable opinions which may be held by Anglicans in good faith and in good conscience. Likewise, the invocation of the prayers of the saints has been regarded as a practice that, in itself, is neither harmful nor heretical.
So, for many of us, there is nothing substantially new in Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ. There may be a sense of satisfaction that the discussion between the parties has advanced to the point where such an irenic and illuminating statement can be produced.
Yet, having said that, this Anglican, who is not (and, under current conditions, does not wish to be) in communion with Canterbury must raise at least a couple of questions. First, while there is little doubt that the ARCIC document is something with which the Roman magisterium would find little fault, how can it be determined with certainty whether, on the Anglican side, it is any more than the opinion of the Commission’s Anglican members? Certainly, there are large numbers of Communion Anglicans on all continents who will approach its findings with trepidation and suspicion, if not with outright hostility. This is true even among those who are typically and carelessly lumped together as "orthodox," but the measure of whose agreement seems less an acceptance of the faith and order of the historic Church than a mutual abhorrence of post-modern pan-sexualism. In matters pertaining to the Virgin, many of these are still caught in attitudes not dissimilar to those held by Cromwell’s Roundheads or the 19th century Church Association or the Rev. Ian Paisley. They are not likely to be persuaded by the product of a Commission, half of whose members they automatically distrust (because they are Roman Catholic) and the rest of whom they regard with a suspicion born of distrust of any appointment made by the faltering "instruments of unity" who cannot seem to gain the ascendancy over an aggressive theological revisionism–and whose commitment to doing so is itself questioned by some.
Secondly, as good as the statement is, in the context of the present convulsion of the official Anglican Communion, one must ask whether it will be of much ultimate use or instead will be consigned to the library of might-have-beens as an agreement of historic interest but little practical significance, since one party to the dialogue died before anything could be done with it.
For myself, while I can see that happening, I do not think it need be so. There are, after all, Anglicans other than those in the Canterbury Communion–we who are of what heretofore has been called "the Continuum," or perhaps more aptly (now) "the Survivium." A good number of us, having got beyond the perception that our primary Anglican vocation is to maintain the Elizabethan Settlement rather than to build and, under God, effectively offer a witness genuinely catholic and reformed in doctrine and practice, are likely to be more receptive to the fruits of this particular dialogue.
In any event, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ is a significant contribution to reconciliation in theology and practice, and I would recommend it as a good text for parish study groups. Published by Morehouse, it can be obtained from Amazon.com for about $10 or read on the Internet at http://www.ecumenism.net/archive/arcic/mary_en.htm.
FR. SAMUEL EDWARDS is the former executive director of Forward in Faith, North America, and now a priest of Anglican Province of Christ the King. He is rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter, Montevallo, Alabama.
Permission to circulate the foregoing electronically is granted, provided that there are no changes in the headings or text, and this notice is included. To learn more about THE CHRISTIAN CHALLENGE magazine, please visit http://www.challengeonline.org
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