Image via WikipediaIn my experience, Roman Catholics who find themselves in the Episcopal Church often ask about the differences between the two. I try to emphasize in my answer that there is more that unites us than that divides us. However, people usually are interested in the differences rather than the similarities. There are certain subjects that usually come up: the role of the Pope, the role of women, the fact that in the Anglican tradition priests can be married, and the way that Mary functions in the life of the church.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we read Luke’s account of the annunciation, where the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will conceive and bare a son (Luke 1:26-38). In addition, we also have the option of singing the Magnificat, the famous song of Mary that serves as her response to the annunciation. Given these two readings, it seems appropriate that on this Sunday before we celebrate the birth of Jesus we reflect on the woman who plays such a necessary and significant role in the story.
In May 2005, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, known as ARCIC, published the latest in a series of papers dating back to its inception in 1968. This last, entitled, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, is the result of five years of study and discussion by Anglican and Roman Catholic scholars. The ultimate goal of ARCIC is to pave a way towards full communion of the two churches. Therefore, regarding Mary, the challenge is to find common ground and then to see if the two churches can find a way through their differences, thereby making unity possible.
I will spare you the theological details of the ARCIC paper and offer some conclusions that come in part from a commentary written by the Anglican theologian, Timothy Bradshaw.
It is clear from Scripture that Mary plays an essential role in the divine plan. The plan requires human freedom and Mary offers her full consent to God’s call to be the mother of the Messiah. The virgin birth as attested by the writers of both Matthew and Luke disclose the radical newness that accompanies the birth. It primarily is a sign of God’s presence. God is doing a new thing in human history, bringing about a new phase in salvation history, and is doing so in mysterious and surprising ways. Luke’s annunciation portrays Mary as the unique recipient of election and grace, and the Magnificat provides the scriptural basis for devotion to Mary. The annunciation also hints at the suffering that will be part of the acceptance of God’s call to serve. Indeed, this suffering becomes very clear at the end of Jesus’ life.
The role of Mary has evolved in interesting ways throughout Christian tradition. In the early church, theologians worked to define the nature of Christ, trying to articulate how Christ could be both fully divine and fully human. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. was the churches answer to this question. In it, Mary is called the Theotókos, the God-bearer, or as sometimes stated, the “mother of God.” Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike affirm this doctrine. In some ways, this elevation of Mary opened the floodgates to the expansion of the role of Mary in ways that went far beyond that articulated in the New Testament. In the Middle Ages, Mary gradually took on a mediatorial role in which she dispensed the graces of Christ to the church. The doctrine of sinlessness led to the possibility of Mary being “immaculate.”
The Protestant Reformation attempted to reaffirm the central role of Christ and scaled back the role of Mary. However, the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation fought back regarding Marian theology. This tension ensured that Mary would remain a point of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants. In the nineteenth century, Roman popular devotion to Mary continued to flourish, leading the Pope to define the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and of the Assumption of Mary in 1950. Both of these official Roman Catholic dogmas remain sticking points between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.
This brief historical sketch makes clear that Mary has always played a significant role in the life and doctrine of the church - Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant. Recent years have witnessed an increased interest in Mary from all side of the theological spectrum. In the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer, Mary is the only saint mentioned by name. Our liturgical calendar includes The Feast of the Annunciation, the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin, and the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. We do well to consider Mary as part of our sacred story.
There are two ways for us to view Mary, each compatible with the other. The first is to see Mary as first among the saints, as maternal towards the entire human race, as assisting others through her active prayer. The other is to see Mary in her historical context and to learn from her what it means to respond affirmatively and positively to God’s call. Mary as an example of faithful discipleship is a role to which all can agree. Whatever your view of Mary, this is a good week to reflect on her role in our sacred story.