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.