Today is the feast day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary – and thinking about Our Lady today has caused me to reflect a little upon the nature of the Church, of whom she is at once a symbol and its most perfect member. It has also caused me to consider again the Anglican churches, and what many of those churches believe themselves to be. Broadly speaking, many Anglicans would subscribe to some version of the ‘branch’ theory (even if they didn’t call it that), wherein the Anglican Communion is one of three main branches of the One, Holy, Catholic and ApostolicChurch (the other two being Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). Others, who recognise with a greater degree of clarity the essentially Protestant nature of Anglicanism, both in its historical roots and its current form(s), would more likely subscribe to the idea of a purely invisible Church, made up of baptised believers from across denominations. It is with the former position that I am concerned here, as although I may disagree with its ecclesiology, the latter position is at least consistent with the true nature of Anglicanism.
The idea that Anglicanism is a valid branch of the historic Church originated with the Tractarians, in an attempt to prove that the Church of England, despite its breaking from communion with Rome, had (unlike many other churches borne of the Reformation) maintained the true faith. Considered study of what the Church of England was, both at the time of the Reformation, and the time of the Oxford Movement, led many (most famously, John Henry Newman) to view the idea of Anglicanism as a historic via media between the excesses of Catholicism and Calvinism as nothing more than a ‘paper theory’, existing solely in the minds of its architects. The knock-on effects of the movement however, were to re-dress the Church of England in terms of its vestments, its liturgical practices (e.g.; incense, images in churches), and the reintroduction of devotion to saints, so that nowadays one may walk into many an Anglican church and believe a high Mass was being celebrated. The movement itself died out around the beginnings of the twentieth century, but left quite a powerful legacy, so that although Anglicanism is in essence as Protestant as it ever was, the accoutrements of England’s pre-Reformation heritage can now be seen to one degree or another in parishes all across the Anglican Communion. The so-called ‘HighChurch’ aesthetic has been appropriated with particular glee by Anglican liberals, to the point where (after most who were serious about restoring catholicity to Anglicanism left for Rome) some of the most incense-friendly churches are also the most doctrinally free and easy. ‘Private judgement in glorious vestments’, as many have termed it – always beware an Anglican in a biretta!
Now, one may well ask, what has this to do with our Blessed Mother? Well, in these churches, which I have had plentiful experience of, lip service is often given to how much she is loved and honoured. This may well be true in individual cases; but when it comes down to it, some members of the congregation (and clergy) will have completely different ideas about the role of Mary in salvation, how much she should be honoured, etc, and the ‘old-fashioned’ image of her as faithful, pure and obedient, are substituted for radical feminist reimaginings of her character on a disturbingly frequent basis. The icing on the cake for me, however, is how often Mary’s approval is invoked – ‘I am sure she would want us to do this’ or ‘This decision is very much in the spirit of the Mother of our Lord’ or similar statements, are often reeled out in support of that particular church deciding to do something that flies in the face of two thousand years of tradition, and often as much, in the face of sound reason too (reason being something that Anglicans strangely claim as their special property).
The bottom line is this though – what does the Church believe about Mary; about who she is, about her relationship to Christ, and about her character? Also, what is the Church? Because if Christ founded a Church by giving his Apostles the authority to teach infallibly in His name, then clearly what that Church has to say about Mary will be just as binding as anything else it teaches – i.e.; veneration of her cannot simply be an option that one decides ‘might be nice for some, but not for me’, nor can it be the prerogative of individual clergy to announce to the world that deep down she was really a rebel who would sincerely be in favour of overturning years of sound teaching and practice. Furthermore, it is also clear that if one really loves Mary, as Mother of God and therefore of all those adopted into the faith as children of God, one would listen to what she, and the Church who speaks for her Son, has to say. Mary is, and has been since the earliest times, seen as a symbol of the Church, who is also our Mother. Incidentally, this is why I have never been able to understand the statement mater si, magistra no – if the Church is your mother, and you love Her, why would you then flagrantly disobey what she has to say to you about the Faith, and about living your life? Similarly, if Mary is a type of the Church, and you love her, why would you choose only to obey some of what that Church has taught?
Many Anglicans of the type outlined above (e.g.; liberal and ‘high’) would claim that they are indeed Catholic, and so have just as much a claim to Mary, and to all the Church’s heritage as Roman Catholics. But, however much of the deposit of faith a particular Anglican church chooses to retain, the operative word here is still choose – the faith still remains a matter of private judgement, either individually or corporately, sometimes both. This is not catholicity, and it certainly is not unity; as for apostolicity, it exists in varying degrees, depending upon where you go. I have heard clergy appeal to the diversity of their congregations, as if having a multicultural faithful, either locally or internationally (across the Anglican Communion), was the same thing as being Catholic (also, I have experienced an intolerable amount of smugness on this point, from people who would have you believe that it is only in Anglican churches that different ethnicities can co-exist – seriously!) The truth however is, that no matter how much incense is in the air, how glorious the vestments are, how much lip service is paid to the honouring of Our Lady, the inner logic of Anglicanism remains essentially Protestant. Blessed John Henry Newman captured the sense of what I am saying, when he stated that the Church of England was like:
‘…a river bed, formed in the course of ages, depending on external facts, such as political, civil and social arrangements. Viewed in its structure it has never been more than partially Catholic. If its ritual has been mainly such, yet its Articles are the historical offspring of Luther and Calvin. And its ecclesiastical organisation has ever been, in its fundamental principle, Erastian. To make that actual, visible, tangible body Catholic would be simply to make a new creature – it would be to turn a panther into a hind.’
– Letters and Diaries, Volume XXII (1972), Nelson, p. 170
Apart from the Erastian form of church government, this description applies to all churches that would call themselves Anglican, in all places and all ages; and if some would stress their independence of government in decision making processes, I would then ask where, as children of Henry the Eighth, do they find the authority to make any decisions whatsoever? Because after all, it does come down to this, that the Faith is what is universally known to be true by all and in all places, not a diffusion of different ideas, varying in definition and practice from one place to another, and that, furthermore, it is a living Faith, which develops as the tree grows from its seed, and grows within that Body which has nurtured and protected it from the time of Christ’s departure from this earth. As the Eternal Word lay in the womb of our Blessed Mother, the truths of Christianity lie in the womb of the Church, ever growing, yet ever the same. Hence it is only the Church chosen by Christ, fully in communion with the successor of Saint Peter, who can decide when growth is valid and when it is not. The question I would ask of any Anglican is, if any of the great saints (including Our Lady) walked into your church and heard what was taught there, would they really recognise it as being in continuity with what they know; indeed, if Christ Himself walked in, would he see it as part of his living Body – his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?