Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/Bw7eAzqi-PM.
Sermon for the Feast of St Mary the Virgin , Sunday 16 August 2015
St Mary’s Anglican Church, Tuggeranong, ACT, Australia
Revd Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Canon Theologian
Isaiah 61: 10 – 62: 3; Magnificat; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 1-7
+In the Name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Friends, as we gather to celebrate word and sacrament on this name day of your parish, I want to thank my friend Roberta, your Rector, for this invitation to be here—my first visit to St Mary-in-the-Valley. Fifteen years ago, when I was Principal of St Barnabas’ Theological College in Adelaide, we were good friends of the Society of the Sacred Mission, and we attended their parish, St John’s Halifax Street, where Fr Christopher Myers was Rector. And of course Christopher and others from the SSM founded this parish back in the day. So I was looking forward to coming here, to see if any of that SSM feel and style was still in evidence. I’ll let you know afterwards!
Although most of you don’t know me, nevertheless as I thought about Mary and what I might say to you on her feast day today, I decided that I’d take a risk and speak with you very personally, and very frankly. When you have a theologian invited to preach you expect to hear something that comes out of their head, but I also want to speak to you today from my heart.
I want to share with you today a sense of disappointment and loss that I feel as an Anglican—as a Christian who lives separated from the Church of Rome, and from the great Orthodox Churches of the Christian East. The Protestant Churches are typically uncomfortable about Mary. To focus on her, let alone pray to her, is to diminish her son, who deserves our full attention. This discomfort is shared by evangelical Anglicans but by many ordinary, middle of the road Anglicans as well, who are uncomfortable with Mary because they’re uncomfortable with the idea of being Catholic. This state of affairs saddens me, as an theologian in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. But it also points to an absence that I feel in myself.
Unlike me, I know that many Catholic and Orthodox Christians experience Mary as a living personal reality, as the mother of their saviour who remains close to them throughout life— whose love for Jesus and for all those who follow him is something that they feel. One of my favourite theological writers, Fr James Alison, grew up in an evangelical Anglican household but converted to Roman Catholicism as a young adult. One of the things that surprised him was that he developed a personal relationship with Mary, who became a living icon of God’s loving face turned towards him in welcome. None of the urgent Protestant emphasis on personal assurance of salvation had ever gotten through to James as he was growing up, but in Mary he came to find this assurance in an intimate way. Many other Catholic priests and monks vowed to chastity find in Mary a reassuringly feminine side to God. She helps them to be psychologically and sexually whole people, so that as disciplined celibates they can nevertheless bring gifts of warmth and vulnerability and intimacy to the task of pastoral care and friendship, and to find support in what can be a long and lonely calling.
As an Anglican, with my eye always on the Bible, I know that Mary has several appearances and many resonances in scripture. We catch a foretaste of her in Isaiah today, for instance. It’s hard to read that text about faithful Israel and the calling of its prophets and not to think of Mary. Paul in Galatians today emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ birth from a woman, under the same constraints that bind all of us—and indeed Church history teaches that the main reason Mary came to be called Mother of God is because this title helped to reinforce the humanity of Jesus, that he shared with us. And then there’s today’s gospel, when the might and power of Rome’s empire and its leaders is gently sidelined, in favour of God’s new action among the humble and powerless, who Mary represents. In her Magnificat, God’s judgment is revealed as the mighty are cast down from their seats, exalting the humble and meek. So the pious plaster statue version of Mary gives way, replaced in the Bible by a revolutionary virgin who announces God’s coming reign.
As an Anglican, too, I know the violent history of English resistance to Roman Catholic claims under the Tudors and the Stuarts. Marian devotion was radically repressed in England, leaving only two sober mentions of her, with two bland collects, in The Book of Common Prayer—for Mary’s birth, which we observe today, and for her Annunciation. So when Anglo-Catholics brought back statues of Mary into our Church, and when they began to pray the Rosary, as I sometimes do, it was inevitably an act of protest against the Church of England’s anti-Roman obsessions. A lot of Anglo Catholicism loves to be a bit naughty, after all. Introducing Marian devotion into Anglican life is a bit like bringing a racy new girlfriend home to our rather straitlaced family for Sunday lunch.
As an Anglo Catholic I can even make theological sense out of the Roman Church’s Marian dogmas—the immaculate conception, which declares Mary to have been conceived without taint of original sin, and her assumption into heaven. These dogmas, made official in the 1870s and the 1950s respectively, testify to Mary never having been separated from her divine son—not in her life on earth, not at its beginning, not at its end, and not in heaven. Mary preserved inviolate and inseparable from her son in this world and the next is a lovely Gospel idea, even if we know that these controversial claims also served a political purpose for the Roman Catholic Church, reasserting its flagging authority in the teeth of modern secularism and skepticism. Lovely ideas nonetheless—not strictly biblical, but not wildly unbiblical either, I like to think.
So I’m an enthusiast for Mary, but I find it hard to access that enthusiasm outside my head—outside the realm of theological ideas. I haven’t been trained at the knee of a Catholic mother to know Mary through prayer and to trust her deep in my heart—not an alternative to her son, certainly, but just as certainly a central player in the drama of faith to which her son has invited us.
Perhaps this personal disappointment that I feel—honouring Mary in my head and in my devotion though not really knowing her in my lived experience—is one of the salutary pains to be borne as a sign of our broken, divided Church. There are some things that we Anglicans have that Roman Catholics and the Orthodox struggle to find—a strong sense of lay authority, for instance, with a capacity to embrace the modern world and live with its moral ambiguity. But there are some things that we Anglicans miss in being separated from the great Church of the West, not to mention the great Churches of the East. And one of them is this sense of Mary as our intimate friend and supporter from God, and as a precious gift to us from her son.
So I suggest that we might begin thinking of Mary as a relative we didn’t know we had—as a long-lost mother, perhaps, or, to shift the image, as a wonderful soul friend we have yet to meet—but if we did meet her, she’d be a great enrichment to our lives. Rather than a threat to the all-sufficiency of Christ, then, as the Protestants fear, I suggest today that we might come to think of Mary as Jesus’ first and best witness, helping to knit his life together inside us, just as God knit Jesus’ life together inside her.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women. And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. AMEN.