Bishop George Stack
Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, George Stack, has given an address at The Church of England General Synod today, Wednesday 9 February 2011. Bishop Stack spoke about the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) report, ‘Mary, Grace and Hope in Jesus Christ’ saying that “questions raised by a study of the report are equally legitimate for Catholics as they are for Anglicans.”
The full text of his address is below:
“Many of you will remember the extraordinary scenes in Rome at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. Among his many strong, identifiable, rock like characteristics was his devotion to Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God, God Bearer. He caused consternation when he became Pope and broke the rules of heraldry by insisting on having the letter “M” on his Papal coat of arms instead of an heraldic device. He regularly referred to his Episcopal motto as a sign of his devotion to Mary “Totus Tuus” – Totally Yours.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was this Pope who was noted for his devotion to Mary who wrote in his document on Church Unity “Ut Unum Sint” in 1995: …. “the Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church …. is one of the areas in need of fuller study before a true consensus of faith can be achieved”.
Was this not one purpose of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission’s work which began in 1970? Its latest phase concluded in 2005 with the Seattle Agreement “Mary Grace and Hope in Christ”. The subject of Mary had been addressed once before, in the ARCIC statement on Authority in the Church in 1981. The fact that Mary found a place in the theological and historical minefields of the document on Authority, and not just in devotional literature, is an indication of her important role in understanding how the salvation achieved by Jesus Christ is communicated to each individual believer and also to the community of the Church as a whole. This was the deliberate intention of the Second Vatican Council when it placed its reflections on the role of Mary in the unfolding plan of salvation in the document on The Church “Lumen Gentium”. It is in that context that I would like to reflect with you on the Seattle Agreement document “Mary, Grace and Hope in Christ” published jointly by the Anglican Communion and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome.
The authors give the purpose and status of this document quite clearly in their introduction: “The authorities have allowed this statement to be published so that it may be widely discussed. It is not an authoritative declaration by the Roman Catholic Church, or by the Anglican Communion, who will study and evaluate the document in due course”.
“Study and evaluate the document in due course”: is this very far removed from those words of Pope John Paul I quoted earlier: “The study of Mary is one of the areas in need of fuller study before a true consensus of faith can be achieved”? The Seattle statement itself seeks to do this when it says “In framing this statement, we have drawn on the scriptures and common tradition which predates the Reformation and Counter Reformation …. At the same time, we have had to face squarely dogmatic definitions which are integral to the faith of Roman Catholics but largely foreign to the faith of Anglicans”.
The sentence which brought joy to my heart said “We have sought to embrace one another’s way of doing theology” because it invites each of our communities to move away from static historical positions. Using the tools of biblical language, theological methods and even devotional life to seek to understand how the living faith of the Church is moulded by our understanding of the place of Mary in the Mystery of Faith, the saving action of Jesus her Son.
That is why, as a Catholic bishop, I welcome the properly “critical” nature of the series of essays by the Faith and Order Group of the Church of England. The neuralgic points of the Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are examined in those essays through the eyes of scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the place of Tradition and now the authority of the Magisterium is exercised by the Pope and Bishops. I realise that these are all loaded words. John Paul’s “fuller study before a true consensus of faith is found” needs to engage critically with the evangelical conviction that the sinlessness of Mary somehow removes her from the need of the whole human race for salvation, makes her somehow “less” of a human being is focused on the text from Romans 3:23 (all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God). Realised eschatology is the creative tool which explores this seeming conflict when applied to the two Marian doctrines. The status of Tradition in interpreting the scriptures, and whether it diminishes or distorts the primacy of the Word of God is a legitimate evangelical concern. Contrast the conviction of John Henry Newman that “it is not the assertion of an individual Father of the Church that carries weight, but their common testimony by which they witness to an apostolic tradition” with the weight placed in some essays that individual Fathers had dissenting views on the sinlessness, virginity and obedience of Mary. The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary may sometimes seem to distort or misunderstand the role of Jesus as the unique mediator between God and the human race. An example of such a distortion would be the development of a theology which places her as an intercessor by the side of her Son.
And the degree to which these dogmas and their teaching on virginity, sinlessness and obedience in the life of Mary have affected an understanding and role of women in the life of the church mentioned in the Faith and Order Group Response need to be explored in the historical context in which the dogmas were proclaimed. A changing understanding of sin and the need for redemption when these truths were under attack from an atheistic and reductionist politique was certainly an influence on Pius IX in his proclamation of the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of the Assumption in 1950 might be viewed in the context of a totalitarian crushing of the dignity of the human person by Fascist and Communist regimes.
These questions raised by a study of Mary Grace and Hope in Christ are equally legitimate for Catholics as they are for Anglicans in an exploration and explanation of the two doctrines on Our Lady and the light they shine on her life and the whole drama of salvation as lived out in and through the Church. Today’s debate is even more significant in the light of last week’s announcement that the third phase of the ARCIC dialogue will begin in May on the subject of “The Church as Communion – Local and Universal”.
This item from an English Roman Catholic newspaper, gives us some idea of the situation on the ground in the U.K. of the ‘health’ of the broader ecumenical relationship between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
As an Anglo-Catholic myself, I have a great deal of sympathy with the move towards a better understanding of the place of the BVM in God’s plan of salvation through her Son, Jesus Christ. Mary is our common human contact with the Godhead.
The former ARCIC discussions have not been completely torpedoed by the recent departure of some Anglo-Catholics (who do not approve of women clergy or bishops) for the Ordinariate, and this move has obviously not de-railed the process of ongoing discussions of Faith and Order matters between our 2 Communions. This is a matter of some relief to me personally.
The present spat over the ordination of women bishops within the Church of England, ironically, serves to point up the ancient controversies over the place of Mary – a woman – as God’s choice of intermediary between God’s-self and the whole human race. The Incarnate Christ took the human flesh of his mother, Mary, whose obedience to the call of God upon her life may not be too different from the call of God upon the lives of ‘suitable’ women in the Church today to become leaders in the Church.
While I have problems with the papal idea of the ‘Immaculate’ Conception of Mary herself, and the attendant theory of her ‘sinlessness’, there can be little doubt the that the Conception of her Son, Jesus was, indeed, of the Holy Spirit, and therefore ‘Immaculate’.
As an Anglican Catholic, I have no problem with the idea of Mary’s ‘Assumption’ into heaven. After all, if it was good enough for the Old Testament prophet Elijah, surely the Mother of God (for Jesus was God) could have been accorded no less a dignity of translation.
It saddens me, with my own understanding of the place of Mary in the theology of the Church, that her Anglican Shrine at Walsingham in England, should still deny women a place at the altars there. This does not seem consistent with the understanding of women as co-equal bearers of the Image and Likeness of God, and therefore capable of ‘bringing forth’ the presence of Christ at the altar – as Mary brought forth the human body of Christ in her womb.
I find it very intriguing, in view of the recent problems in the Anglican Communion – and the finagling of the Ordinariates – that Rome is still willing to discuss with Anglicans the next topic for discussiuon: ‘The Church as Communion – Local and Universal’!
I guess, though, that manyRoman Catholics understand that the Head of The Church Universal is none other than Jesus Christ, himself – to Whom be attributed all glory, majesty, dominion and power; as is most justly due, now and for ever, AMEN.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch