Most Highly Favoured Lady

by Richard Clutterbuck.

Methodist theology and spirituality would be enriched if only we could overcome our collective hang-up about Mary the mother of Jesus. Almost fifty years ago, in his classic book on the rosary, Neville Ward[i] pointed to the deafening silence about Mary within his own Methodist church. Since then there have been some small developments in our attitude (a few references in the Methodist Worship Book and the annual Prayer Handbook) but it is still true that while the great majority of Catholic and Orthodox Christians place Mary at the heart of their spirituality and faith, most Protestants, Methodists included, keep her at arm’s length. Yet the art of western Europe is shot through with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary while its music has countless settings of Marian texts. My own music collection has several settings of the Stabat Mater (picturing Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross) written by contemporary composers, among them Sir James Macmillan. At the level of popular spirituality statues, icons and shrines continue to be the focus for prayer in places (like Ireland or Italy) with a strong Catholic tradition. You cannot engage with our cultural and religious history[ii] without some appreciation of the place of Mary.

Of course, there are some good reasons for our wariness. Marian devotion has sometimes eclipsed the figure of Jesus Christ, who must always be the centre of Christian prayer and thought. Methodists would not naturally identify with the language of some of the Marian dogmas, for instance the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of Mary. And it is true that the depiction of Mary has sometimes been associated with negative and unhealthy attitudes to female sexuality. But there are signs that a growing number of Protestants want to learn from the tradition of Marian devotion and theology[iii]. If the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are genuine expressions of the Christian life – and we believe they are – then it is likely that our own tradition can be enriched by a critical attention to the beliefs and spiritual practices that sustain them. That is what the phrase ‘receptive ecumenism’ means.

I’m writing this on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th and shortly after my return from an ecumenical Marian pilgrimage to Walsingham.  That pilgrimage was remarkable for the way in which fifty Christians from a wide range of denominations came together in shared worship and thinking. Two of our most significant inputs came from the Methodist Frances Young and the Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos. The event confirmed my personal commitment to a project of bringing the Methodist theological and spiritual tradition into critical dialogue with the Marian doctrine and devotion of the Catholic tradition. I have already done work on how the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary might relate to the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, finding points of convergence and tension. But there is potential for much more. Here is a brief ‘shopping list’ for Marian dialogue:

  • Annunciation and election.
    Methodists have tended to fight shy of the doctrine of election, fearing the ‘horrible decree’ of double predestination. The figure of Mary challenges us to think though what it means to be both eternally chosen and free to offer or withhold consent.
  • Grace and cooperation.
    Salvation is entirely the work of God’s grace in Christ – yet God takes that project dependent on human cooperation. One of my fellow pilgrims asked Frances Young whether she could go along with the term ‘co-redemptrix’ for Mary. Metropolitan Kallistos interrupted by saying that – in a sense – all Christians are co-redemptrix. Perhaps Methodists could start by using the term Theotokos (God-bearer) to describe Mary. It affirms both the truth of the incarnation and also Mary’s key role in the story of its unfolding.
  • Christian solidarity and prayer.
    While Methodists may affirm, with Wesley, that the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion, we have been notoriously better at speaking of personal salvation and holiness than of the holiness and solidarity of the Church. Contemporary Catholic Marian theology has, since Vatican II, been seen as part of ecclesiology: Mary is understood in terms of the community of those who are ‘in Christ’. If it is true that ‘one family we dwell in him, one church above, beneath’ then inviting Mary to pray for us is both natural and right.
  • Liberation and Reversal
    The Magnificat moves us beyond the submissive piety of so much traditional Marian devotion. Methodists will find their own tradition of the social gospel enriched by what Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, calls ‘the dangerous memory of Mary’, the Mary who is ‘friend of God and prophet.'[i]

[i] Elizabeth Johnson, Truly our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Continuum, New York, 2004.

[i] J. Neville Ward, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy: A Consideration of the Rosary, London, Epworth, 1971.

[ii] There is a scholarly and vivid account of this in Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture, Yale University Press, 1996.

[iii] Examples include the short document, Mary, Mother of the Lord, sign of grace and holiness, produced by the British Methodist/Roman Catholic Committee and the Les Dombes Group report: Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints.

[iv] Elizabeth Johnson, Truly our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, Continuum, New York, 2004.

4 thoughts on “Most Highly Favoured Lady”

  1. I also attended a Catholic Mass last week for the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary.
    I knew nothing of the significance of this date in the Christian calendar when, on 25th March 2010, I chose to be a follower of Jesus in a Methodist Church, so I feel very honoured to share this special day with the blessed Mother of Jesus.
    As he was dying on the cross, Jesus was concerned for his mother, trusting her into John’s care.
    I think she should be revered by all denominations, not just the Catholic Church.


  2. I totally agree that we should give a higher profile to Mary; whatever Jesus learned in his childhood, he must have taken in a great deal from his parents [and we need to give Joseph a higher profile too – he’s so often forgotten]. But for goodness sake don’t let’s start down the road of theotokos – Mary bore Jesus, not God, who never did and never will have a mother. This has to be one of the most untheologically sound descriptions ever invented.


  3. I am one of those Methodists who view the veneration of Mary with a dose of skepticism. I agree that our worship is made richer by understanding the role of Mary as the mother of Jesus, the God-bearer who chose a path that is both fantastically difficult and fantastically blessed, but I cannot go so far as to say that we should “invite Mary to pray for us”. This does strike me as being a step too far. I have not found a need to pray to any other than the triune God in the name of Christ. Mary, bless her hemp socks, has played no part in my salvation. Maybe I’ll hedge my bets when I feel death to be imminent, but I’m OK for now.


  4. Hope I’m not too late but I must say I was happy to see this subject raised. Icons of the Virgin and Child amongst others have helped to nourish my faith for many years. The term “Theotokos” recognises that she is someone who has touched God in a way that no other human person has. It is a unique relationship for which she deserves the honour. To say this does not weaken my faith in the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit but I feel my faith enriched.

    Through the years I have become aware that the maleness of our descriptions of God can be very offputting to some people who have experienced a poor or empty degree of being fathered in their childhood. For many it is the mother who has provided the welcome and warmth of childhood. Maybe the memories of that help some to find in Mary a warm welcome into the Household of God and an experience of salvation that we should not belittle or deny.


Leave a Reply to Peter Perowne Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: