Marian accord raises unity hopes

 — May 21, 200521 mai 2005

 Sarah Jane Boss is lecturer in Christian theology and director of the Centre for Marian Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter.

A joint statement by Catholics and Anglican scholars finds a surprising degree of agreement about the role and status of the Virgin Mary. But have they chosen to ignore some thorny issues?

When Catholics hold interfaith dialogue with Muslims, one of the first topics to be discussed is the veneration given to the Virgin Mary in the two traditions. Teaching about Mary is seen as something that unites, rather than divides Catholicism and Islam; yet among Christians, the practices of Marian doctrine and devotion have generally been read as clear indicators of the differences between Catholics and Protestants. They have also, on occasion, signified the differences even between Catholics and Orthodox.

It is only fairly recently, therefore, that ecumenical dialogue groups have arrived at this touchy subject. The most recent statement from the ARCIC (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission), “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” – which was ready many months ago, but had been awaiting approval from Rome before it could be published – has therefore been anticipated with bated breath.

The document follows on from statements made in two earlier ARCIC documents, “Authority in the Church II” (1981) and “The Gift of Authority” (1998), and constitutes another chapter in a continuing dialogue between the Anglican and Catholic Churches. The statement is a model of clarity and coherence, giving priority to the central doctrines that are held in common by the two communions, as a starting point for further discussion. It notes the fact that divisions have arisen since the time of the Reformation over the subject of the Virgin Mary, and that devotion to Mary became a mark of Catholic identity, while rejection of such devotion was at one time dominant, although never universal, among Anglicans. In recent decades, this has changed. Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have been more open to dialogue with other Christians and, at the same time, Anglicans have been making a larger space for Mary in their liturgy and devotions.

The document’s principal focus is on Mary’s part in the incarnation of God in Christ. It points out that there were some in the early Church who believed that Christ was not truly human, but only appeared to be so. In reality, they said, he was a purely divine and spiritual being. Against this, several of the early Christian writers emphasised Christ’s true and physical birth from a human woman, Mary. This showed that he was truly of our human substance, as well as being of the same divine substance as God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Because Mary gave birth to the Word of God incarnate, she was called the Theotokos, or Godbearer. This title was used of Mary from at least the early fourth century (although probably much earlier), and was officially confirmed as a proper designation for the Virgin Mary when it was proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431. The ARCIC statement points out that this title is concerned with the unity of Christ’s person. That is to say, Christ is God incarnate in such a way that, in him, divinity and humanity are perfectly united; thus, the woman who is the mother of the man Jesus must simultaneously be the mother of God incarnate.

“Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” affirms that this teaching is held by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It shows that Mary’s importance is inextricably tied to her relationship with her divine son.

A second theme that is emphasised in the statement is that of God’s grace to particular men and women, and of human response to that grace. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we see examples of great figures, such as King David, or the prophet Isaiah, who are prepared in advance for a particular task to which God calls them, which they then accept and are enabled to fulfil. Likewise, Mary is “favoured”, kecharitomene (Luke 1:37). The traditional Catholic translation of the Greek word is “full of grace”, and the ARCIC statement supports this reading, explaining its meaning as “one who has been and remains endowed with grace”. Enabled by grace, Mary responds fully to this call, and does as God asks of her.

This pattern of a grace-filled call from God, followed by willing response on the part of the human person who is called, is presented as unproblematical. This does indeed seem clear and uncontroversial. But it only seems so because it is told in such a way as to obscure one of the classic points of disagreement between Catholics (together with certain Protestants, such as Arminian Methodists) on the one side, and Calvinist Protestants on the other. The question that goes unasked in the ARCIC statement is this: can we say that the human person who accepts God’s call is cooperating with God? Or, since that person acts only by the grace of God, is he or she merely an instrument of God’s will? The Catholic response to this question is to say resoundingly that human beings can indeed cooperate with God’s will, and that Our Lady’s response to Gabriel at the Annunciation – “Be it done to me according to thy word” – is the perfect example of such cooperation on the part of a purely created being. Against this, some Protestant theologians, such as Karl Barth, have objected to Catholic Mariology precisely because it attributes such strong agency to a mere human being. This is a thorny issue, and it seems that the authors of “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” did not want to get entangled in it.

Another, related, omission is noticeable in the area of ecclesiology. In general, the ARCIC statement sees the works of the early Christian writers as providing a tradition that is common to both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. It not only affirms the Churches’ common belief in Mary’s status as Theotokos, but also her perpetual virginity as a teaching received from the Church Fathers. However, it says almost nothing about the strong association between Mary and the Church, which is such a striking theme of several of the earliest Christian writers. And in recent Catholic teaching, Mary is frequently understood primarily in relation to the Church, and although the ARCIC document acknowledges this, it does not pursue the theme in any detail. Here again, of course, there is a minefield for Catholics and Protestants to negotiate together. For

Catholics, Mary’s cooperation with God’s will and her bearing of God for the world are figures for the cooperation of the Church in Christ’s work of redemption and her embodiment of his life in the sacraments. Both of these notions of the Church’s character and ministry are contested by many Protestants, some of whom belong to the Anglican Communion.

The statement does not entirely shy away from disagreement, however. It gives the impression that the Anglican party had a surprisingly large amount of difficulty with the Catholic dogma of the Assumption, which states that Mary was “assumed, body and soul, into heavenly glory”. Since this doctrine pre-figures the reward that awaits all the elect on the Last Day, and since it makes a strong statement of the goodness of the material creation, one might have thought that this would cause little controversy.

In the case of both the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception (the teaching that Mary was conceived without original sin), the document states that these are quite consonant with Scripture, but that the Anglicans cannot be required to accept them de fide, as are Catholics, because the doctrines cannot strictly be proved from scriptural texts. The fact that both dogmas were proclaimed by a pope without an ecumenical church council was also a point of concern for some Anglicans.

In the end, however, “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” does include Mary in the eschatological vision of the Christian Church: a formula was found that was satisfactory to both parties. Scriptural examples of holy men, such as Elijah and Enoch, being taken to Heaven at the end of their lives make it reasonable to conclude that “Mary can also be seen as the faithful disciple fully present with God in Christ. In this way, she is a sign of hope for all humanity.” This hope will finally be fulfilled in the new creation.

This statement is certainly to be welcomed. It invites Anglicans to see the central importance of Mary to the Christian message, and it returns Catholics to seeing what is fundamental in their own tradition. I cannot help wondering, however, whether the religious culture of Anglicans and Catholics is not so far apart that our respective Churches will, in a certain sense, each be reading a different document.

Posted: May 21, 2005 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: ARCIC, dialogue, ecumenism, Mary
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