Saturday, 8 May 2010


The other day, in a conversation about other things, I was met with this: "Yesterday I was driving past a Catholic church and on the roof there was a big cross but in front of it was a statue of Mary....I don't want to argue about it, but it frustrated me and I just needed to get it off my chest." Whereupon the conversation moved on.

I have often wondered where the Evangelical fear of Mary originally came from. It's an interesting historical question. You won't find it anywhere in the Reformers (the feast of Mary's Assumption was preached on by Luther after his break from Rome and continued to be practiced even in Zwingli's Zurich). Nor is it anywhere in evidence in the Anglican divines (John Pearson, who wrote polemical works about the early history of the papacy and engaged in a high profile debate against two Catholics in 1658, wrote "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?"). Perhaps a Puritan influence? But then Pearson (unlike, say, Donne or Lancelot Andrewes) was ministering after the Restoration.

The question is of more than academic interest. Even after 6 years as a Catholic, I still find myself occasionally reacting aversely or regarding with suspicion some of the more florid Marian prayers or Marian-flavoured practices (though, interestingly, my love of the Rosary has never stopped increasing; indeed it grows the more often I pray it). I wonder sometimes if it's not some kind of neurosis; not least because this kind of Mariaphobia has surprisingly little to do with the few doctrines Catholics accept about her but Protestants reject. I know this because those doctrines made sense to me quite soon after I first applied myself to examining their merits, yet the phobic response remained and remains. Similarly for other Evangelicals I've spoken to. One can quite easily accept the Virgin Birth, the Theotokos, the Immaculate Conception, the perpetual virginity and the Assumption but still have the vague and irrational sense that God and Mary is a zero-sum game (the closer to Mary, the further from God; the closer to God, the further from Mary). The difficulty in reversing this kind of mental reflex reminds me of many atheists and agnostics I know for whom God is necessarily a tyrant intent on inhibiting people's freedom. No matter how one tries to demonstrate that such an idea of God is inaccurate (be it by rational argument, personal anecdote or any other method), the conception won't budge, until at last all one can say is, "But I know Him. He's not like that at all." Sometimes I feel like saying that about Mary, not just to others but even sometimes to myself: "I know her. She's not like that at all."

What's curious is that the suspicion attaches to Mary alone* (and is unique to modern Protestants, being unknown to any other sort of Christian, past or present). I know of a low-church Anglican parish that did a Bible study that centred, not on the Bible, but on a book by John Piper (it had a study guide and everything!). This was not seen as odd or worrying. It occurred to no one that they were focussing too much on John Piper and not enough on Jesus Christ. God and John Piper was not a zero-sum game.

Of course, it's common-sense that in order to foster one's relationship with Jesus Christ, a good thing to do is to spend time with someone who enjoys an even closer relationship with Christ than you do. But for some reason, while it makes sense to Evangelicals to treat John Piper or John Stott or Calvin or St Paul in this way, Mary doesn't make the cut. While Paul will draw you to Christ, Mary will draw you away from Him. Why? Where did this double standard come from, and why has it become so ingrained in us? It's no necessary part of Protestantism, much less Evangelicalism, and seems a peculiarly modern phenomenon. So what is its origin? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?....

I did think about the comment with which I began this post for a while after that conversation ended, not least because my initial emotional reaction was not so different from my interlocutor's. And then it occurred to me that, in fact, Mary was in front of the cross. The actual one. On Calvary. Why? Not to block other people from Christ but rather to be as close to Him as she possibly could.

Devotion to the crucified Lord and a desire for proximity to (and some form of participation in) His suffering and death ought to be something I strive after too. Most of the time it is not. A person for whom it is and was is a person with whom I could profitably associate more. The image of Mary before the Cross, then, is a challenge to me in my spiritual complacency. By drawing near to her, I draw nearer to Him. I guess I can think of worse scenes one could put on a church roof.

* Some might venture that Evangelicals feel the same about all saints, but I'm sceptical- Protestant Evangelicals do honour Christians of ages past, it's just icons and the canonisation process that make them uncomfortable- I suppose because of the papal element in the latter and the inherited vestiges of iconoclasm with the former.


Matthias said...

and John piper has come in for some criticism from some Evangelicals,
I think over inviting either Rick Warren or Brian Mclaren -one of the Emergents- to his church,who are deemed as being heretics/apostates by some of the Evangelicals.
I would be interested GAB in your journey to Rome/crossing the Tiber.

GAB said...

Well, it's a long story, but here's a brief version.

In late 2002, I went to a Mass with some other Evangelicals (therein lies another story which I won't go into here). The sermon was about St Ignatius of Antioch, the early martyr, and the priest read some excerpts from his letters to the churches he visited on his way to be martyred as part of the sermon. In one of these was a very explicit statement of Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist. To hear such a statement of (what I imagined was) a medieval distortion of Christian doctrine from an early second-century martyr was an anomaly for me, so I began to investigate. Over the next several months I read heavily in the Church Fathers, and read a fair bit of Luther, Calvin and Trent as well.

Eventually I came to two conclusions: 1) most Catholic doctrine with which I disagreed was not medieval or pagan accretions but was part of apostolic Christianity, whereas the distinctively Protestant doctrines were late medieval distortions (if not later), and 2) there were many and serious problems in the Renaissance/Reformation-era Church, but none of them justified breaking the bonds of ecclesial fellowship.

Thus, in 2004, I was reconciled with the Catholic Church and restored to fellowship.

Matthias said...

Thank you for this GAB much appreciated. i also read the letters of St ignatius from the book EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITINGS and as the editor wrote in the Introduction :
1/the early Church was at once Catholic as it had maintained its Apostolic identity
2/ Evangelical-as it preached the Gospel without fear or favour
3/ Pentecostal-as it utilised people's gifts .

The problems with a great many of the Reformation churches-and i can only speak as a member of one of them -is that they have sought to become culturally and theologically relevant and compromised the APOSTOLIC faith. My own individual church seeks to base itself upon Celtic Christianity as exampled in Ireland ,Northumbria ,lindisfarne,Holy Island and Iona. Good but let's remember that the Celtic Church was a branch of the western church at that time ,and sadly the Synod of Whitby ensured the loss of the unique Celtic Christian identity and practices into the greater Latin church.
My concern is that as people seek to return to the roots of Catholicism,within an Emergent Church context,they may accept practices that are the continuaiton of the distortions that you refer to. Yes talk about Celtic Christianity ,but when i see an Emergent Church writer totally distort the fact that Christ is the Only way of Salvation,or attempt to rewrite what Scripture says about Hell and heaven, then i know that we-some of the Protestant churches- are in a bigger mess than the RCC at the time of the reformation.