13 October 2018

The Virgin Mary and the Saints
in Anglican Tradition

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

Patrick Comerford

Clontarf Ecumenical Conference 2018,

‘Ecumenism: Reimagining the Future of the Irish Church’

13 October 2018, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,

Church of Saint John the Baptist, Seafield Road, Clontarf, Dublin

1.15 p.m.: ‘The Virgin Mary and the Saints in Anglican Tradition’

I never learned to drive, it has always been one of my great mental blocks. But there are advantages, and one of them is the amazing conversations I have on buses and trains.

The conversations usually take an interesting turn when a stranger realises after some time that they had never noticed the clerical collar under my beard.

Recently, I had a long conversation at the bus stop near my church in Rathkeale and that continued on the bus all the way to Newcastle West.

Do you call yourself a priest?


But are you a minister or a priest?


Do you believe in the Pope?

I have no reason not to believe the Pope is there. I’ve seen him.

Yes, but what do you believe he is?

I believe he’s the Bishop of Rome, and a very fine one too. If I was in Rome, I’d be very happy with him as a bishop.

Well, what do you not believe in?

Oh, I believe in everything in the Nicene Creed and in the Apostles’ Creed.

Do we believe in them too?

I hope you do.

But you don’t believe in Our Lady, do you?

What do you mean by that?

Well, you don’t believe she was the Mother of Jesus.

Oh, yes I do.

Do you?

Of course, you don’t think I imagine he was made in factory and not born in the stable, do you?

Well you know what I mean?

Well, actually, no, I don’t know what you mean.

But that was mean of me. I was trying to dig deeper and uncover his real beliefs, and his suspicions about the Church of Ireland.

1, The Virgin Mary:

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child … a statue at the west door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

It is common to hear people in ordinary, everyday conversations ask whether we believe in Our Lady and the saints.

But they really don’t know what they mean by that. They don’t know what we believe, and they express this by saying they think they know what we don’t believe.

I think many casual conversations like this come to a full stop when I point out that the Church Calendar in Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland includes three feasts or festivals associated with the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation (25 March), the Visitation (31 May), and the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September).

The Feast of the Annunciation is marked by the Mothers’ Union throughout the Anglican Communion, and this is a very special celebration in one of my own parish churches, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

Indeed, Lady Day, as it was known for centuries, was an important day in church and society for long after the Reformation.

Another of those days, 8 September, is marked as a special day in the cathedral where I am a canon, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, which is celebrating its 850th anniversary this year.

I still get a jolt when I have to point out that one day that is not in that calendar is the day of her death (15 August), when the normal date for commemorating saints is the day they died.

I suspect the reason is not in any fear that commemorating 15 August might lead to deep doctrinal angst among members of the Church of Ireland, but because of cultural memories of how 15 August was marked with marches and parades by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in Northern Ireland, becoming effectively the ‘Catholic Twelfth.’

The Church of England is more sensible, and in line with general tradition in the church, with its calendar in Common Worship. This celebrates both the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary’ on 15 August and the ‘Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ on 8 December.

Visitors to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, are surprised to find a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel, and to see the Lady Chapel has a full collection of icons illustrating the principal events in the life of the Virgin Mary.

Should they stay on for Choral Evensong, they are surprised too when it is pointed out that the canticle Magnificat is sung every evening, that for ever it has been part of the Anglican tradition of Evening Prayer, the daily office.

Indeed, there are at least two versions of Magnificat in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland, ‘Mary sang a song, a song of love’ (No 704) by Michael Perry (1942-1996), and ‘Tell out my soul’ (No 712) by Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith, both very much in the evangelical tradition. In my academic life, I learned that these two hymns are as popular with Northern Evangelical students in the Church of Ireland as they are with students who share my theological outlook.

So, where are the doctrinal convergences and diversions? Where do we agree and do we disagree?

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child … a statue in Saint Mary Woolnoth, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The 39 Articles are significant in the doctrinal history of Anglicanism, though not doctrinally definitive. Article 2 says Christ took ‘man’s [human] nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, of her substance,’ which rejects Monophysitism.

In a definition that rejects Nestorian concepts about her motherhood, this article goes on to say, ‘the Godhead and Manhood were joined together, never to be divided.’ In other words, for Anglicans Mary is the Mother of God, and not just, as Nestorius argued, the Mother of Christ.

Anglicanism accepts the Councils of the Church, and so doctrinally we come down on the side of Chalcedonian doctrinal definitions and understandings.

You might then ask what divides us when it comes to our ways of thinking and talking about the Virgin Mary.

I am surprised how many Roman Catholics find it difficult to grasp the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Many actually believe it is about Mary’s virginal conception of Christ. It is not. It teaches that she was conceived was without sin.

Of course, I have problems with this. To accept this, I would have to accept both that marital intercourse is basically sinful, when I would say it should be a joy, a pleasure and a blessing. And I would have to accept narrow Augustinian concepts of Original Sin, which are rejected by many Christians, and not just people who might be dismissed as ‘liberals’ but by all the Orthodox churches.

The concept of the Immaculate Conception was an opinion within the church since, perhaps, the fifth century, but it does begin to be defined until the 12th century, if not later.

The Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) refused to concede the Immaculate Conception, on the ground that, unless the Blessed Virgin had at one time or other been one of the sinful, she could not justly be said to have been redeemed by Christ.

His contemporary, the Franciscan Saint Bonaventure (1221-1274), hesitated to accept it for a similar reason. He believed the Virgin Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception.

The Immaculate Conception was a valid theological opinion but was open to debate and was not a defined doctrine of the Church at the time of the Reformation, and so it was not one of the dividing and divisive ideas for Anglicans at the Reformation.

It was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX promulgated the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus, which defined ex cathedra the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

I have more problems with the means of promulgating a doctrine such as this than with it being a theological opinion that cannot divide the Church.

The Doctrine of the Assumption is a teaching about the body of the Virgin Mary being taken into heaven through divine intervention at the end of her earthly life.

The New Testament contains no narrative about the death of the Virgin Mary, her Dormition, as the Orthodox refer to it, or the Assumption.

If you have ever been on holidays in Kusadasi in western Turkey, you will have heard stories that the Virgin Mary ended her days in Ephesus, and perhaps even gone on one of those tourist visits to the so-called ‘House of the Virgin Mary’ at Mereyama, 8 km east of Selçuk.

The Dominican archaeologist Jerome Murphy O’Connor would point out that two places in Jerusalem are traditionally associated with the end of the Virgin Mary’s earthly life: a monastery on Mount Zion that is the traditional site of her death or falling asleep; and the basilica in the Garden of Gethsemane, said to be the site of her tomb. recorded in 395 if not earlier.

The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her burial, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven, so that her tomb was found empty on the third day.

On the other hand, Roman Catholic teaching says Mary was ‘assumed’ into heaven in bodily form. Some Roman Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after her death, while others hold that she did not experience death. In his dogmatic definition of the Assumption in Munificentissimus Deus (1950), Pope Pius XII was not so dogmatic, for he appears to leave open the question of whether or not she actually died and even alludes to the fact of her death at least five times.

All these opinions were open to debate at the time of the Reformation. They were valid theological opinions, but they did not divide Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Once again, the problem is not with holding or with disagreeing with theological opinions, but in the manner in which they have been defined as doctrine, and the fact that there is no scriptural foundation for this opinion.

In 2004, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) released the ‘Seattle Statement,’ which concludes that ‘the teaching about Mary in the two definitions of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of hope and grace, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions.’

A third idea is the Virgin Mary’s perpetual virginity, or Mary ever-Virgin. Some early Reformers, including Luther, Zwingli and probably Calvin, supported the doctrine, and early Anglican Reformers, such as Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, followed the tradition of accepting Mary as ‘ever virgin.’ Reformed teaching, however, largely abandoned this, yet John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In a few months’ time, we all be singing Cecil Alexander’s hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’ (No 237) as part of our Christmas celebrations. There is a reference in verse three to ‘the lowly maiden,’ which some hymnal editors wanted to amend, believing it asserted the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. But it remains in the version in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland.

You are unlikely to hear the Angelus, and less likely to hear the Rosary in an Anglican church in Ireland, and probably never in an Anglican household. But, of course, the Angelus is completely Biblical and hear it often at mid-day after Mass in Anglo-Catholic churches in the Church of England, including Little Saint Mary’s in Cambridge.

The Rosary, which began as a Dominican form of prayer, is used at the Anglican Shrine in Walsingham. A new set of mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries or the Mysteries of Light, were introduced there in 2002. These five mysteries are:

● The Baptism of the Lord;
● The Wedding at Cana;
● The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God;
● The Transfiguration;
● The Institution of the Eucharist.

But, even in my circles, I know no-one who uses them.

If you want to understand how Anglicans in Ireland today respect and even revere the Virgin Mary, visit one of the many cathedrals with her name, such as Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Tuam, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, the Cathedral Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist in Sligo, or one of the many parish churches called Saint Mary’s, including Askeaton, stay and pray in a Lady Chapel in Limerick, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, or Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and join us in singing or praying the canticle Magnificat in the daily office, at Evensong or Evening Prayer.

Saint Patrick, Saint Cuthbert, Saint Finbar and Saint Laurence O’Toole … four windows in the Baptistry in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

2, The Saints:

That man at the bus stop in Rathkeale was surprised to learn that the according to the Creeds, we Anglicans express our belief in the communion of saints, who are both alive and dead (see Romans 12: 4-13 and 1 Corinthians 12), the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12: 1), who will be gathered around the Lamb on the Throne (Revelation 4).

In the Book of Revelation, we are reminded that the Communion of Saints is drawn from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They are gathered together, across time and space, breaking down all the barriers of history and discrimination, to give blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might to the Lamb of God (Revelation 7: 9, 12).

Traditionally, the way to declare someone as a saint, ever since Patristic times, was to insert their name in the Calendar of the Church, and to provide for their commemoration in the celebration of the Eucharist.

The festivals in the Church Calendar in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland includes all the Apostles, as well as Saint John the Baptist (24 June), Saint Joseph (19 March), Saint Mary Magdalene (22 July), Saint Barnabas (11 June), Saint Stephen (26 December), Saint Michael and all Angels (29 September), the Holy Innocents (28 December) and three patrons of Ireland, Patrick (17 March), Brigid (1 February) and Columba (9 June).

The commemorations included many of the Irish saints seen as the patrons of our dioceses or great missionaries, as well as Richard FitzRalph of Dundalk (27 June), a 14th century Archbishop of Armagh.

The two post-Reformation saints in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland include the Caroline divine Jeremy Taylor (13 August), and the Donegal-born missionary bishop Charles Inglis (16 August).

The Church of Ireland makes full liturgical provision for naming these saints in the Eucharist, with the provision of collects, post-communion prayers and blessings, and assigning appropriate liturgical colours.

One whole section of the Church Hymnal has almost 20 hymns for use on saints’ days, including the great rallying hymn, ‘For all the saints’ (No 459), by Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897), who died while on holiday Leenane, Co Mayo, and ‘In our day of thanksgiving’ (No 469) by William Henry Draper (1855-1933).

Once again, the Church of England calendar in Common Worship is much more comprehensive than the one in the Church of Ireland. It includes great patristic saints, saints and martyrs of the Reformation, including Thomas Cranmer (21 March), Thomas More (6 July), and Martin Luther (31 October), and shares post-Reformation saints, such as Teresa of Avila (15 October), Francis Xavier (3 December) and Frances de Sales (24 January).

Here too are Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln (8 March), ‘Woodbine Willie’ (8 March), Oscar Romero (24 March), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (9 April), and Jean-Baptiste Vianney, the Curé d’Ars (4 August). Among them, too, are Julian of Norwich, George Herbert, William Law, Christina Rossetti, the Wesley Brothers and Evelyn Underhill.

An interesting commemoration is Mother Harriet Monsell (26 March), founder the Community of Saint John the Baptist. Harriet Monsell (1811-1883) was born Harret O’Brien in Dromoland Castle, Co Clare, and she was a sister of the Irish patriot William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864). She married Canon Charles Henry Monsell (1815-1851), Curate of Aghadoe, near Killarney, Co Kerry, and Prebendary of Donaghamore in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and one of her three sisters also married an Anglican priest, and another sister married an Anglican bishop.

Charles Monsell died in 1851, and Mother Harriet later founded one of the first Anglican religious communities of women, the Community of Saint John the Baptist at Clewer, near Windsor in Berkshire. The order soon spread to India, South Africa and North America, and the mother house is now at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, near Oxford.

You are unlikely to find saints’ relics in Anglican churches, although the heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole was recently returned to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. The two side chapels beside the Lady Chapel in Christ Church are dedicated to Saint Edmund (south side) and Saint Laud (south side).

Two lancet windows in the sanctuary in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin showing Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and (bottom right) Saint Gregory the Great (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some years ago, sitting in the chancel or sanctuary in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, I looked up to notice Two lancet windows in the sanctuary in Christ Church Cathedral, showing Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Saint Gregory the Great.

This is not the only Anglican cathedral where I have found a pope honoured or revered among the saints. Seven Fathers of the Church are carved above the door on the south porch of: Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil.

Most churches in the Church of Ireland are dedicated to saints, often the apostles and biblical saints, but also Irish saints whose names are still spelt in an old-fashioned and often unpronounceable fashion.

If you doubt that the saints are honoured in the Church of Ireland, drop in some time to see the reredos in All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, Dublin, the reredos in Saint Columba’s Church, Ennis, or the Baptistry in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which is filled with windows depicting saints of the Irish and English churches.

I can easily sing the words in the hymn ‘Rejoice in God’s saints’ by F Pratt Green, which is No 471 in the Church Hymnal:

Rejoice in God's saints, today and all days!
A world without saints forgets how to praise.
Their faith in acquiring the habit of prayer,
their depth of adoring, Lord, help us to share.

Seven Fathers of the Church carved on the south side of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1 comment:

Brendan Ryan said...

Hi Patrick. Very interesting reflection and enlightening to this (sort of) practisig RC. Opened up a much more comprehensive understanding for me. Delighted to know that at least in some places Anglicans recognisecthe sanctity of eg Bonnhoeffer and Oascar Romero. I do however have one quibble with your discussion of the Immaculate Conception In all my RC religious education it was always made clear that the Immaculate Conception was exclusively rrlated to absence of Original Sin (whatever that is) but nothing to do with the physical act of conception.