Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mary had a baby

December is the month when Anglicans spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the Virgin Mary, culminating with the celebration of Christmas Day.

Mary's place in Christian history begins with the Annunciation, celebrated in the church calendar in March. This gives us the best Marian hymn of the entire 1940 Hymnal, Hymn #117. The Annunciation is recounted by Luke’s Gospel, in a passage that was a recent recommended reading from from my subscription to the Bible Gateway verse-of-the-day feed,
And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." (ESV, Luke 1:30-33)
The Orthodox make a big deal about the Theotokos (“Mother of God”) while Catholics have a strong Marian worship tradition that include a Mary altar, and recitations of “Hail Mary.” My sense is that the Anglicans are somewhere between the Orthodox and Catholics at one end, and the bulk of Protestants at the other.

However, when it comes to Mary the Anglo-Catholics seem to be closer to the Roman Catholic Church than to Reformed or Calvinist traditions or even some forms of Lutheranism. If you visit an Anglo-Catholic parish named “St. Mary,” you would expect this even more so.

Sure enough, during the service at Hollywood’s St. Mary of the Angels earlier this month, there were two distinctly Marian references. One is The Angelus which (according to the pew service booklet) comes at the end of every service at St. Mary’s. I didn’t take the booklet (and thus the exact words) with me, but I know it did include three Hail Marys. The other Marian reference was the hymn “Ye Who Own the Faith of Jesus,” which in its typesetting looks like it was from TEH or Hymns A&M. Each refrain “Hail Mary, hail Mary, hail Mary, full of grace.”

Together, the 14 (3+11) refrains of Hail Mary suggest that St. Mary’s is on the Catholic end of the Anglo-Catholic scale.

Interestingly, Mary is less prominent in traditional carols for these 5-6 weeks of the liturgical calendar. Most of the Advent and (Christian) Christmas carols talk about the coming of Jesus — or, as the billboards say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But the child-bearer obviously figures in some of these tellings. In the 1940 Hymnal, a handful of the December hymns reference the Virgin birth: 17, 18, 20, and 41. For some reason, it seems like the oldest hymns are the most devout in their Marian emphasis, as with this most succinct statement (translated for Hymn 18) of the 8th century hymn by St. Germanus: “Behold, a virgin mother brings forth God’s only Son.” Other hymns merely refer to “mother Mary.”

In an odd coincidence, this month as brought two interesting surveys on Christian belief on the Virgin Mary. First blogger Anne Coletta quoted the Spectator (with amplification from a British blogger) which asked leading British Christians the simple question ‘Do you believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ?’ Apparently, some Church of England clergy do not.

Meanwhile 75% of 1,005 American adults surveyed this month by David Barna (quoted by David Virtue) believe the virgin birth to be literal fact. Barna writes:
Of the six Bible stories examined in the survey, this story was the most widely accepted.

Mary’s virgin birth was accepted as literally true by two-thirds of upscale adults (66%) "Upscale" people are those who have completed a four-year college degree and have an annual household income of $75,000 or more.
In a follow up to the Spectator interviews, the leader of the Anglican Communion was interviewed live by Simon Mayo of the BBC on Dec. 19. As transcribed by The Telegraph, he was (as always) somewhat equivocal:
Archbishop of Canterbury: We know his mother's name was Mary, that's one of the things all the gospels agree about, and the two gospels that tell the story have the story of the virgin birth and that's something I'm committed to as part of what I've inherited.

Simon Mayo: You were a prominent part of a Spectator survey in the current issue which headlined' Do you believe in the virgin birth?' there are some people in this survey who would say they were Christian who don't have a problem if you don't believe in the Virgin birth;' how important it is it to believe in that bit?

Archbishop of Canterbury: I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up;, but I think quite a few people that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About thirty years ago I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it - now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story and yes.
Contrast that to the unequivocal answers in the Spectator survey by Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali (one of Rowan Williams' most prominent conservative critics in the CoE) and also by Rev. Nicky Gumbel, developer of the Alpha Course.

Of course, Abp. Williams' in the BBC interview got the most headlines for saying the three wise men (and thus presumably the Epiphany) were a legend, but that’s another story.


Timothy said...

>"My sense is that the Anglicans are somewhere between the Orthodox and Catholics at one end, and the bulk of Protestants at the other."

I'd certainly like to know how Anglicans would have got to the Protestant end as the 1611 King James Bible clearly lists the feast of the Immaculate Conception in its Liturgy of the Hours.

Jeff said...

Its interesting that the one hymn that most exhalts Mary, hides it in the second verse:

"O higher than the cherubim,
more glorious than the seraphim,
lead their praises,
Thou bearer of the eternal Word,
most gracious, magnify the Lord"

In fact, I believe this is the only hymn which effectively refers to her as the Theotokos (Theotokos meaning God-bearer most correctly).

I wonder if there are Evangelical parishes where this hymn, or at least verse, is not permitted.