Tuesday, December 8, 2009


"The Immaculate Conception of our Lady, was one of the Church of England's gifts to the rest of the Western Church. We borrowed it from the East in Saxon days; Norman bishops tried to ban it on the grounds that it wasn't observed in Rome; but we hung on to it and eventually Rome came round to our way of thinking. An early contribution of the Anglican Patrimony!"

So mused Fr John Hunwicke on his blog last week (with his tongue only half in his cheek!)

Here, then, are a few useful pointers from within the Anglican tradition for our reflection on this mighty work of God's grace:

THE OLD BATTLE: Discussing the differences between the Franciscans and Thomists of the middle ages, Eric Mascall wrote, "The point at issue was simply whether the grace which is normally conferred by baptism was given to her at the moment of her conception or while she was still in her mother's womb . . . And if there is any intellectual difficulty in the matter, I must say that it seems to me easier to believe in Mary's freedom from original than from actual sin . . . To suppose that Mary was free from actual sin without having received any special grace at her creation would seem to me to be very difficult and in fact to place an almost impossible burden upon human free will." (in The Mother of God pp 46-47)

SOME CLASSICAL ANGLICAN EXPRESSIONS: . . . Jesus Christ "Who being true and natural God, equal and of one substance with the Father, did at the time appointed take upon Him our frail nature, in the Blessed Virgin's womb, and that of her undefiled substance".
(From the Homily on Repentance, Homilies, Book 2, 1562)

Jesus . . . "born of a pure Virgin" (BCP Collect for Christmas Day) . . . "who by the operation of the Holy Ghost was made very man of the substance of the Virgin Mary his mother; and that without sin, to make us clean from all sin" (BCP Preface for Christmas Day)

"If Elizabeth cried out with so loud a voice, Blessed art thou among women, when Christ was but newly conceived in her womb, what expressions of honour and admiration can we think sufficient now that Christ is in heaven, and that Mother with him. Far be it from any Christian to derogate from that special privilege granted her, which is incommunicable to any other. We cannot bear too reverend a regard unto the Mother of our Lord, so long as we give her not that worship which is due unto the Lord himself."
(John Pearson, 1613-1686, Bishop of Chester - who, incidentally, was viciously anti-Roman - in his Exposition of the Creed.)

In England, the feast of the Conception of Mary was intimately associated with what was later defined as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and had been especially kept in England. Its retention in the Book of Common Prayer Calendar indicates at the very least that the Church of England did not intend to exclude belief in the doctrine.

(A quote from a paper I gave nearly 20 years ago to a group of clergy).

Later on, I said:

Until the early 18th century the Immaculate Conception was generally held by those of the "high church" Anglican Divines who wrote about our Lady. In beautiful but unremarkable language from a Catholic perspective Bishop Thomas Ken's poem for the Sunday after Epiphany includes these verses:

As Eve when she her fontal sin reviewed.
Wept for herself and all she should include,
Blest Mary with Man's Saviour in embrace
Joyed for herself and for all human race.

The Holy Ghost his temple in her built,
Cleansed from congenial, kept from mortal guilt,
And from the moment that her blood was fired,
Into her heart celestial love inspired.

FROM THE EVANGELICAL TRADITION and at the same time echoing the teaching of Lumen Gentium: "The Immaculate Conception of Mary gives the clue to understanding her particular place among her son's people. She is the first Christian, the first of the redeemed, the first of our flawed human race to have received the fullness of redemption. From first to last - in Catholic dogma, from Immaculate Conception to Assumption - she was a human being, transformed by the grace of God into what, in the divine purpose, she was intended to be."
(John de Satge, in Mary and the Christian Gospel, page 74.)

ANGLICAN & ROMAN CATHOLIC STATEMENT: "It is not so much that Mary lacks something which other human beings 'have', namely sin, but that the glorious grace of God filled her life from the beginning.12 The holiness which is our end in Christ (cf. 1 John 3:2-3) was seen, by unmerited grace, in Mary, who is the prototype of the hope of grace for humankind as a whole. According to the New Testament, being 'graced' has the connotation of being freed from sin through Christ's blood (Ephesians 1:6-7). The Scriptures point to the efficacy of Christ's atoning sacrifice even for those who preceded him in time (cf. 1 Peter 3:19, John 8:56, 1 Corinthians 10:4). Here again the eschatological perspective illuminates our understanding of Mary's person and calling. In view of her vocation to be the mother of the Holy One (Luke 1:35), we can affirm together that Christ's redeeming work reached 'back' in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings. This is not contrary to the teaching of Scripture, and can only be understood in the light of Scripture. Roman Catholics can recognize in this what is affirmed by the dogma - namely "preserved from all stain of original sin" and "from the first moment of her conception."
(Paragraph 59 of: "Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ", the agreed statement on Mary from the Anglican Roman International Commission (ARCIC) released in 2004 (). Go HERE for the full text of this document.)

AND TO COME FULL CIRCLE . . . Here is the last bit of a sermon preached by Fr Hunwicke at Pusey House, Oxford, two years ago.
In a sermon I preached forty years ago, at the Mattins of Christmass Day in the year of my diaconate, I said that the Incarnation meant that God was in the belly of a Palestinian peasant girl who is Queen of Heaven. Critics fell into three categories: those who disliked my phrase because of its physicality and because it placed the origins of our faith among foreigners (surely Mary must have been a middle-class Englishwoman and if not a member of the WI then at least of the Young Wives); those who didn't like the phrase Queen of Heaven; and those who disliked both.

'The Immaculate Conception'. It's a lovely rolling phrase, isn't it (we classicists would analyse its rhythm as the trispondaicus). And it's a phrase, too, that can scare people silly. Is it sometimes the physicality - again, of conception - that disturbs them; conception, a process that occurs a little way south of the tummy button? Not the sort of thing the fastidious want to have dragged in front of their noses. C S Lewis points out that the devils too are fastidious in their horror at the flesh: Screwtape refers to a human as 'this animal, this thing begotten in a bed'. Or perhaps people are scared of the word 'Immaculate'; perhaps it suggests foreign religion - little old Irish women clutching their rosaries or Spanish ladies in black making their nine successive First Saturday communions in honour of the Immaculate Heart (a devotion which Cardinal Ratzinger with gentle irony once called 'surprising for people from the Anglo-Saxon and German cultural worlds'). But 'immaculate' is a completely biblical concept in its Hebrew and Greek equivalents: it means spotless; and only what is without blemish is truly for God (for example, a spotless sacrificial lamb). Because Mary is to be wholly for God, is to give God his body, to give God his endowment of genes, give God the food of her breast: so Mary by God's gift is to be the Immaculate, the one without blemish, the one in whom the Divine likeness has never been marred.

It is because Mary alone in the roots of her being is unmarked by sin that Mary alone is truly and wholly free. In our hearts, too, we should make her free and 'fear not'; she is never to be locked up in the tourist industry as a statue of doubtful taste carried in processions by foreign peasants for the English to photograph from within their coaches; Mary is not to be locked up by the Heritage business in a Merry England; she is not to be the Madonna of the Art Historians imprisoned in coffee table books.

If Mary is the Mother of God Incarnate, she is our Mother too, because we are in Christ, limbs of his body by our baptismal incorporation. Mary comes to us tonight, and what would a mother bring us her children except food; food for her children in exilio; food packed for our journey. Mary comes to this place and to this moment of time; Mary comes, bright with all the beauties known by men and angels; Mary comes to set upon our lips the blessed fruit of her womb Jesus.


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