With Mary on Ecumenism’s Trail

August 15 • Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Review by Peter Doll

These volumes on the Blessed Virgin Mary are a testament to the sea change in the understanding of Mary in the Church in the last generation. I use the capital C deliberately, for Our Lady is no longer a figure who automatically divides Roman Catholics, Oriental and Orthodox Christians, and a minority of Anglicans from Christians of the other churches of the Reformation.

Maiden, Mother and Queen
Mary in the Anglican Tradition
By Roger Greenacre. Edited by Colin Podmore. Canterbury Press Norwich. Pp. 224. $40The Blessed Virgin Mary
By Tim Perry and Daniel Kendall, SJ. Eerdmans. Pp. 124. $18

The collection of sermons and essays by the late Roger Greenacre, distinguished ecumenist, liturgist, and canon of Chichester Cathedral, is a testament to one of those who helped that transition happen, and it is redolent of that profoundly committed but consciously embattled generation of Anglo-Catholics who were determined to ensure that Mary should have an honoured place in the public liturgies and teaching of the Church of England. Of Perry and Kendall’s book, it is enough for the moment to register that the co-authors being an evangelical Anglican priest and a Jesuit priest and its being published by the distinguished evangelical house of Eerdmans are not a cause of surprise.

Greenacre was fortunate enough to be caught up in the ferment of the early days of Vatican II; he was one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s priest-students at the University of Louvain, where he was taught by theologians working in the preparatory commissions for the Council. As Chaplain of St. George’s, Paris, he deepened his acquaintance with the French church, of which he became the leading English interpreter. His greatest work was in encouraging Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenical relations.

To help continental Roman Catholics understand Anglicans, he was often called on to speak about the place of Mary in the Anglican tradition. His contributions on this subject are outstanding for his respect for the breadth of theological traditions in the Church of England, for his careful and insightful biblical exegesis, and for his honesty. He never tried to paint a rosier picture than reality justified for the sake of winning friends. His exploration of the work of Mark Frank, the little-known Caroline divine, reflects the balance, seriousness, and integrity that underlay Greenacre’s own theological sensibilities: his sorrow that Mary had been allowed to become the focus of controversy and division; his sensitivity to the differing convictions of fellow Christians; his belief that all churches are called to conversion for the sake of confessing with one voice the faith of the Scriptures and the creeds. Greenacre was understandably disappointed that in recent years the progress made toward unity between Roman Catholics and Anglicans had stalled, and occasionally a note of bitterness would creep into his sermons and addresses. Nevertheless, he remained profoundly loyal to his Anglican identity, and it was his great joy and reward not only that the new Church of England liturgies in Common Worship should provide full and rich resources for celebrating the place of Our Blessed Lady in the economy of salvation but also that the ARCIC report Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ provides a strong basis for ensuring that Mary might no longer divide but unite the churches.

Perry and Kendall’s book could not have been written without all the critical groundwork that Greenacre and his colleagues did in the last 50 years, and yet this book seems to live in a different world, to breathe a different air. In Greenacre’s work we are conscious of the Reformation battles, of the centuries of painful suspicion and mistrust, of hard-won mutual understanding, as well as of the joy of discoveries and friendships made. For Perry and Kendall, the doors have already opened and the discussion started.

The great central fact of The Blessed Virgin Mary is the evangelical rediscovery of the Fathers, the joyful excitement of returning ad fontes, building on the foundation of that great evangelical Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Writing first of all for an evangelical audience, they defend their chief focus on the patristic testimony on Mary: ‘The Fathers are the heritage of the undivided Church. They teach all Christians, in both method and content, how to wrestle with the primary data of the Church’s teaching, Holy Scripture.” Kendall and Perry cogently reveal how the biblical writings about Mary form a coherent basis for the doctrinal emphases about her that emerge subsequently and rightly insist that the Fathers brought Western Mariology to its mature form. Whatever medieval and modern developments take place, the fundamental shape of Marian theology remains unaltered.

The authors provide a solid, informed, and sympathetic introduction to Mariology, surveying theologians and dogmatic teaching from the early Church right up to the present day, including the dogmatic definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The section on the early reformers is surprisingly thin given, as Greenacre pointed out, some “impressive and astonishing” passages are to be found in the works of Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, and Calvin. Karl Barth and Robert Jenson broke the Protestant silence on Mary, insisting that, as Perry puts it, “our own theological traditions have failed to speak where Scripture does.” They write: “To recover a theologically and spiritually rich doctrine of the person of Christ is, inevitably, to recover Mary. Just as in the Gospel of Matthew, the Mother and her Child come together. Or they do not come.”

Perry and Kendall acknowledge that they will not heal the Reformation divide in one easy step. Even if some evangelicals have rediscovered Mary and the Fathers, by no means all have. Nevertheless there is an impressive confidence to this book, as there is to the Ancient Christian Commentary series, for evangelicals are discovering a new way to be inspired by Scripture, to recover a crucial dimension of the biblical imagination. Theirs is a confidence that is sorely needed in our ecumenical winter, and their spirit is eerily reminiscent of some earlier Anglican evangelicals — Wilberforce, Newman, Manning, and others — who also responded enthusiastically to their rediscovery of the Catholic tradition and made an indelible impact on Anglican churches.

At a time when we have a new Bishop of Rome, when the Roman Catholic Church is reeling from continuing disclosures about child abuse, and all churches are struggling to come to terms with challenges posed by same-sex marriage legislation, churches are rediscovering their mutual dependence and the importance of working together for common goals. The hard-won achievements of Greenacre and others in ecumenical dialogue have not been wasted, even if organic unity still seems far off. They laid a foundation, ready to be built upon. Now that evangelicals are recovering the riches of the catholic tradition as their forebears in the Oxford Movement did, that can only help to bring the great day of the Lord closer to hand.


Last night (15 August) I was in the capacity congregation of our new Transitional Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, for the Service of Dedication,. which took place in the context of a Mass for the Anglican Feast of The Blessed Virgin Mary – known in the New Zealand Lectionary as “Saint Mary, The Mother of Jesus”. I’m not sure whether the choice of a date for the dedication of our temporary replacement for the earthquake-damaged Christchurch Cathedral was particularly lectionary-driven. However, the fact that this brand new church building, rising out of the site of another quake-damaged church – St. John The Evangelist, Latimer Square (with its appropriate theological connections) – was dedicated on the day given over by the Anglican Communion to the celebration of the life of the B.V.M., afforded some of us who have a special devotion the the Mother of Christ, hope for a more wide-spread understanding of Mary’s place in God’s plan of redemption – through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of her Saviour-Son, Jesus.

The fact that one of the co-authors of this reviewed book, about the place of Mary in the Church, is a known Evangelical clergy-person in the Church of England; and that he collaborated with a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest in its scholarly overview, is something to be thankful for. It will not have been the first time that a ‘protestant’ clergy-person has written about the virtues of Mary. I remember hearing once of a Baptist Pastor writing an appreciation of the prayers of The Rosary – an extension of the catholic understanding of Mary’s role in the ministry of intercession that was once considered to be a ‘Romish practice’. To ask for the prayers of the Saints – who are in the near company of God – need not, surely, be considered too irrational.

Whatever Christians may think about the role of Mary in the ongoing life of Christians, it cannot be doubted that she had a special role in the plan of God for salvation. Her ready “Yes” to God, followed by her affirmation given by God in the Magnificat, that “All generation will call me blessed”; cannot but strike a chord in the hearts of those who recognise her closeness to Our Lord – both as His birth mother, and later a prime   supporter in His ministry. She was also, with Mary Magdalene and Saint John, present at his crucifixion and dereliction on the Cross. The famous statue of The Pieta in the Church of Saint Peter in Rome gives mute evidence of her reputed devotion to her Son at the end of his earthly life.

Regarding the Catholic Feast of the Assumption, and the Orthodox Feast of The Dormition, (the Falling Asleep) of the BVM; although there is no scriptural reference to such an event, it is not out of character with those who were close to Our Lord in His lifetime to have been given the promise of a home in Paradise with Him – like, for instance, the Dying Thief. Also, we have the Old Testament story of Elisha being taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind. If that was the reward of the servants of God in their lifetime; what better candidate could there be than the Mother of Christ, who shared his very life-blood?  It is a pious belief, but not necessary for salvation.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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