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. $40

The 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 com mitted but consciously embattled generation of Anglo-Catholics who were determined to ensure that Mary should have an honored 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 coauthors 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.

The Rev. Canon Peter Doll is canon librarian of Norwich Cathedral.

Countdown to GC80 Opening Gavel


Online Archives