07 December 2014

Is there an appropriate
Anglican way of speaking
of Mary at Christmas?

A Christmas scene in a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin … but who wants to be Mary in the parish or school Nativity play? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I remember a time in Wexford, forty years or more ago, when all the shops closed on 8 December because it was a Roman Catholic holiday, and many people took the train or drove to Dublin to begin their Christmas shopping.

It was just over two weeks to Christmas, but at the time few people dared to find any irony in the fact that all shops, no matter who owned them, closed and provided people less with an opportunity to go to Mass and more with an opportunity to take business out of the town.

It is an experience that must have been shared in many towns throughout Ireland at the time. Roman Catholic schools also closed that day, but not Church of Ireland schools. So 8 December served as a pre-Christmas demarcation that few understood.

Yet, at the time, few Roman Catholics realised what was being commemorated on 8 December. Most knew that it was about the “Immaculate Conception,” but they often thought, probably because Christmas was just around the corner, that this day was about the Virgin conception of Christ, rather than about the manner and means of how the Virgin Mary was conceived by her parents, Saint Joachim and Saint Anne.

For our part, many members of the Church of Ireland at the time probably looked askance at this blip in the calendar, thinking it was one of the great divisions that separated us from our neighbours ever since the Reformation. We had probably forgotten that 8 December was a celebration of her conception in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, where it was a black-letter day, and we probably paid little attention to the fact that nine months later 8 September figures in the calendar of many Anglican churches as the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Of course, we were even less likely to realise that the Immaculate Conception was not a divisive theological point at the Reformation – it was only promulgated as recently as 1854 by Pope Pius IX, and so played little role in the divisions of the 16th century.

Today, 8 December is no longer a public or shopping holiday in many parts of Ireland, and the Christmas shopping began long ago, even before summer came to an end.

Playing the part in the play

The birth of the Virgin Mary in an icon by Mihai Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In schools and parishes throughout the Church of Ireland, I imagine, many small girls are hoping to be picked to play the part of Mary in this season’s Nativity plays. We shall sing Advent and Christmas carols extolling Mary’s virginity, send Christmas carols decorated with her image, and even place small statues of her in cribs in our homes and churches.

Yet, for many Roman Catholics, with barely a superficial knowledge of Church of Ireland teaching, practice and liturgy, one of the key dividing issues seems to be what we think and believe about the Virgin Mary. How often have we heard comments such as: “But Protestants don’t believe in the Virgin Mary, do you?”

I usually ask someone in this situation what they imagine I believe. I explain politely that I do not believe that Christ had any other mother, that I read the same stories in the Gospels and that I make the same statements about her in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.

The Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

“Oh, but you don’t say the Rosary.”

No, but I seldom draw attention to the Anglican shrine at Walsingham and the Anglican pilgrimages there. I have never been to Lourdes, Fatima or Medjugorje, but I stopped once in Knock on the journey to or from Achill Island and once visited what is known as “the House of Mary” in Ephesus.

The Lady Chapel in Christ Church was dedicated to Sancta Maria Alba (the Blessed Virgin Mary) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I sometimes point out that it is traditional to sing the canticle Magnificat (‘the Song of Mary’) at Choral Evensong daily in cathedrals with a choral tradition throughout the Anglican Communion, and that its traditional place in Evening Prayer has survived since the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549.

But is there a way of talking about the Virgin Mary that remains true to Anglican tradition but also provides a culturally relevant way of talking about the woman who is the key female figure in the Bible?

Finding tradition in dedications

A statue of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child at the arch entering the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Three cathedrals in the Church of Ireland are dedicated to the Virgin Mary or Saint Mary: Sligo, Tuam and Limerick, and the original dedication of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, in 1191 was to “God, our Blessed Lady Mary and Saint Patrick.” Many cathedrals have Lady Chapels, including Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which is dedicated as “The Chapel of Sancta Maria Alba,” Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where the Lady Chapel has been lovingly restored in recent years, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.

In Kilkenny, the Lady Chapel in Saint Canice’s Cathedral was completed around 1285, and today serves as the Chapter Room. The restoration of the Lady Chapel in Saint Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, was completed last summer.

A statue of the Virgin Mary at the West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Mary’s Church in Mary Street, Dublin, was one of the many inner city churches that closed in Dublin in the last century. There may have been a Saint Mary’s Church at one time in every major town in Ireland. Today, in these dioceses there are at least half a dozen churches dedicated to Saint Mary or the Virgin Mary in Blessington, Clonsilla, Crumlin, Donnybrook, Howth and Leixlip.

Saint Mary’s Church, Kilkenny, was one of the many parish churches in the Church of Ireland that closed in the last century, and has been restored recently. At one time, there may have been a Saint Mary’s Church in every major town in Ireland. Today in these dioceses, there are at least 20 churches dedicated to her in Ballintemple (Dundrum), Baltinglass, Bunclody, Carlow, Castlecomer, Clonmel, Dungarvan, Dunleckney (Bagenalstown), Enniscorthy, Fertagh (Johnstown), Inistioge, Kells, Kilmeadan, Littleton (Borris), New Ross, Old Ross, Rathvilly, Templemore, Thurles and Tipperary.

The Nativity scene on the carved reredos in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The two university churches in Cambridge and Oxford are known as Saint Mary’s. John Keble’s Assize Sermon in Saint Mary’s University Church, Oxford, was a response to government plans to restructure the dioceses of the Church of Ireland and marked the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Inside Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The University Church of Saint Mary in Oxford, where John Keble preached his Assize Sermon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are Lady Chapels in most cathedrals in the Church of England. The architect Augustus Pugin was once found in Ely Cathedral weeping in the Lady Chapel, disturbed by the destruction of its beauty. The Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral has a wooden reredos designed by Charles Eamer Kempe and carved in Oberammergau with events in the life of the Virgin Mary, including the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity.

The Virgin Mary in dialogue

Saint Mary’s Church, Dublin, where John Wesley preached and Wolfe Tone was baptised, is now a restaurant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 2004, the report of the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, noted: “In honouring Mary as Mother of the Lord, all generations of Anglicans and Roman Catholics have echoed the greeting of Elizabeth: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1: 42).”

In a response the following year, the Church of Ireland pointed out that in recognising the role of Mary in the incarnation, we are following the Council of Ephesus (431), which used the term Theotókos (“God-bearer”) to affirm the oneness of Christ’s person by identifying Mary as the Mother of God the Word incarnate. The Church of Ireland also identified with the statement that “in receiving the Council of Ephesus and the definition of Chalcedon, Anglicans and Roman Catholics together confess Mary as Theotókos.”

The response welcomed the acknowledgement that some of the non-scriptural devotions associated with Mary have been to “excess.” On the other hand, the full significance of the role of Mary as the Theotókos or God-bearer “has sometimes been lacking in the consciousness of some Anglicans.”

Saint Mary’s Church, Kilkenny, has been restored after many years of neglect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some widely used, unofficial Anglican office books, such as Celebrating Common Prayer, include the Angelus and Regina Coeli. But the response pointed out that language such as “co-redeemer” are “theologically impossible for members of the Church of Ireland.”

So, is there a way that Anglicans can talk about the Virgin Mary today that is theologically appropriate, without compromising key Anglican traditions and beliefs for the sake of being “ecumenically correct” or on the other hand descending into accepting a series of devotional practices that most Roman Catholics have long since come to regard as outdated, irrelevant and theologically questionable?

In responding to Roman Catholic thinking about the Virgin Mary, we often fall back on culturally defensive ways of thinking. I admit that many of the plaster cast statues and framed images of the Virgin Mary lack cultural finesse and taste. But they, like many other practices, including May processions and Rosary-based prayer cycles are recent innovations.

I am reminded that devotion to the Virgin Mary was part-and-parcel of the piety that sustained many Christians through decades of suffering and oppression in Eastern Europe. The use of icons of the Virgin Mary in the Orthodox tradition and talk about her as the Theotokos is consonant with Anglican thinking theologically if not always culturally.

Saint Mary’s Church, Callan, Co Kilkenny … there are numerous Comerford family monuments among the ruins (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is easy to forget that the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are recent innovations, having been proclaimed by Popes in 1854 and 1950, and many Roman Catholics are still confused about their meaning. The site at Lourdes dates from 1858, the Knock Shrine from 1879, Fatima developed as place of pilgrimage after 1917, and the pilgrimages to Medjugorje are from after the 1980s. None shares the antiquity or history of Anglican Marian sites such as Walsingham.

Hymns and collects at Christmas

Some of the traditional canticles in the Book of Common Prayer, especially Magnificat, are Biblical and also extol the virtues and role of the Virgin Mary in ways that Anglicans seldom question. The 2000 Church Hymnal includes many hymns honouring Mary, and she is named in 180, 181 (where Mary is “singing a sweet lullaby”), 183 (“The holly and the ivy”), 184, 185, 460, 462, 470 and 472.

Hymn 472 refers to “Mary’s sorrows” and “the joys of Mary” and concludes with a reference to her “chiefest joy”:

Sing the chiefest joy of Mary
when on earth her work was done,
and the Lord of all creation
brought her to his heavenly home:
where, raised high with saints and angels,
in Jerusalem above,
she beholds her Son and Saviour
reigning as the Lord of love.

Saint Mary’s Church, Bunclody, Co Wexford … built in 1775 by Bishop Henry Maxwell of Meath, who inherited Newtownbarry and gave an acre of land for a churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the next few weeks, the Church of Ireland is using prayers that set out our approach to Mary within the context of preparing for Christmas. The Collect of the fourth Sunday of Advent reads:

God our redeemer,
who prepared the blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son:
Grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour,
so we may be ready to greet him
when he comes again as our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Greek icons of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, on sale in a shop in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Then, on Christmas Day, we pray in the words of the Christmas Collect:

Almighty God,
you have given us your only begotten Son
to take our nature upon him
and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin:
Grant that we, who have been born again
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Incarnation on a ‘table icon’ on olive wood in Rethymnon by Eleftheria Syrianoglou (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the December 2014 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)


Anonymous said...

Never knew that about the Lady Chapel having been furnished by St John Ambulance in memory of Letitia Overend from Airfield, Dundrum who drove a 1927 vintage Rolls now in the motor museum there

Rabbi Tbone said...

Very fine!

Anonymous said...

Anglicans can learn a proper appreciation and affection for the Theotokos from the Orthodox Church by adapting their theology of icons back to a pre-Reformation English style of Icon called "The St Albans School" ( after the endemic British art of the St Alban's Psalter).

Artist David Clayton is reviving this style-- see his "The Way of Beauty blog" . To contemplate Mary the mother of Jesus in a St Alban's style icon is to find an accessible, authentically Anglican-style icon with sound historical and cultural credentials.