Andrew Goddard writes: I was rather shocked last week to spot in my Twitter feed the following tweet from the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Today we mark the Feast of the #Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like Mary, let each of us say our yes to God’s call and trust the boundless love of Jesus Christ.
It was a tweet alongside a video of his trip to Walsingham for its national pilgrimage back in May. I later discovered that this was the second tweet of the day on the subject from the Archbishop and that four hours earlier the video had been tweeted and we had been informed:
It was joyful to be at the national pilgrimage to @ShrineOLW earlier this summer. As we celebrate the #Assumption of Mary today, I pray that the example of the mother of God will draw us to Jesus afresh.
So two tweets on the same day making the same point. What was I to assume (pun intended)? I have to confess that my initial thought—given the reference to Mary saying yes to God’s call—was that the Archbishop’s twitter account must be run by a young intern who had confused the assumption with the annunciation (the biblically recorded account of Gabriel announcing she would bear Jesus, Lk 1.26–38). Or perhaps it was a recognition that many Anglicans do believe in the assumption and mark it alongside Christians of other denominations? Or was it simply a desire to highlight his recent Walsingham visit on an appropriate day in the church’s calendar but which was then inappropriately named? (August 15th is in Common Worship—but not the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, 1928 Proposed Prayer Book, or 1980 Alternative Service Book—a festival in which Anglicans celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary).
Apart from the reference to the assumption, the verbal content of the tweets is excellent and uncontentious: Christ-centred exhortation based on the example of Mary who, because of his orthodox Christology, Archbishop Justin rightly calls “the mother of God” (theotokos). This fits with his pattern of focussing on Christ and with the theme of the Walsingham Festival this year, “Do whatever he tells you” (Mary’s words at the Cana wedding in John 2.5). As he says in the video “It’s about allowing Mary to point us to Jesus and that is for me the centre of this pilgrimage”.
But the basis on which these exhortations are made is surprising: that “we” were on that day “marking” or “celebrating” the “Feast of the Assumption”. To clarify the multiple problems it is helpful to explore three questions:
- What is the Assumption?
- Does the Church of England mark it?
- Should we be believe it and mark it?
The Assumption of Mary
The assumption of Mary refers to a belief concerning how she departed her life on earth. About this, Scripture is silent—we last see her at the start of Acts waiting for the Spirit. As late as the fourth century there was no clear church teaching about the end of her life but shortly after the Council of Ephesus in 431, the first Council to deal explicitly with Mary, this began to change. The Council, on the basis of teaching about Christ as truly God, favoured Cyril and theotokos (God-bearer) over Nestorius and Christotokos as a designation for Mary. Following this, various accounts concerning what happened to Mary began to gain prominent circulation and the event began to be marked by Christians. The “assumption” refers to the belief that Mary’s soul and body were reunited and taken to be with Christ in heaven. In the words of the 2004 Anglican-Roman Catholic (ARCIC) statement on Mary:
The feast of Mary’s ‘falling asleep’ dates from the end of the sixth century, but was influenced by legendary narratives of the end of Mary’s life already widely in circulation. In the West, the most influential of them are the Transitus Mariae. In the East the feast was known as the ‘dormition’, which implied her death but did not exclude her being taken into heaven. In the West the term used was ‘assumption’, which emphasized her being taken into heaven but did not exclude the possibility of her dying. Belief in her assumption was grounded in the promise of the resurrection of the dead and the recognition of Mary’s dignity as Theotókos and ‘Ever Virgin’, coupled with the conviction that she who had borne Life should be associated to her Son’s victory over death, and with the glorification of his Body, the Church (para 40).
This belief continued to be important in much popular piety and in formal celebrations. Tim Perry in his excellent Mary for Evangelicals (IVP, 2006, see also his The Blessed Virgin Mary with Daniel Kendall, SJ) notes that “By the eighth century, the assumption was widely and popularly believed, even if not officially approved” (p 240). Although the Reformation is usually seen as rejecting much of the church’s belief and practice in relation to Mary, the reality was slightly more complex. Many leading Reformers, for example, held not just to the biblically authorised doctrine of the virgin conception of Christ but to her perpetual virginity. Zwingli kept the Marian festivals, including the Assumption, in the city of Zurich. In this continued acceptance of the assumption, however, he was unusual, and most Anglicans rejected the assumption or held it as adiaphora. Paul Williams in his study of Mary in the Anglican tradition (in Mary: The Complete Resource edited by Tina Beattie and Sarah Jane Boss, here at p251) notes Tyndale (1494–1536) was particularly vehement:
Of what text thou provest hell, will another prove purgatory; another limbo patrum; and another the assumption of our lady: and another shall prove of the same text that an ape hath a tail….
As pertaining to our lady’s body, where it is, or where the body of Elias, of John the evangelist, and many other be, pertaineth not to us to know. One thing we are sure of, that they are where God hath laid them. If they are in hyevaen, we have never the more in Christ: if they be not there, we have never the less … as for me, I commit all such matters unto those idle bellies, which have nought else to do than to move such questions; and give them free liberty to hold what they list, as long as it hurteth not he faith, whether it be so or no:…
He also cites Whitaker (1548–95) who commented:
The papists celebrate the feast of the assumption of the blessed virgin Mary with the utmost honour, and the Rhemists in their notes on Acts 1 praise this custom exceedingly: yet Jerome, in his book to Paula and Eustochium, concerning the assumption of the blessed virgin, says that ‘what is told about the translation of her body is apocryphal’…
The place of the assumption of Mary thus marked a clear difference between Protestant (including Anglican) and Roman Catholic theology, liturgy and piety. The growth in Marian visions from the mid-19th century onwards gave added support for many Catholics to the belief of Mary’s assumption and pressure grew for it to become formal church teaching. Mary was particularly important in the spirituality and teaching of Pope Pius XII and in November 1950 in Munificentissimus Deus he officially defined the dogma (para 44):
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
The following paragraph added:
Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.
It is therefore unsurprising that the 1981 ARCIC report Authority in the Church II stated:
The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption raise a special problem for those Anglicans who do not consider that the precise definitions given by these dogmas are sufficiently supported by Scripture. For many Anglicans the teaching authority of the bishop of Rome, independent of a council, is not recommended by the fact that through it these Marian doctrines were proclaimed as dogmas binding on all the faithful. Anglicans would also ask whether, in any future union between our two Churches, they would be required to subscribe to such dogmatic statements (para. 30).
Do Anglicans mark the Assumption?
The tweets say that the Archbishop of Canterbury is joining with others (“We”) to “mark the Feast of the #Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and “celebrate the #Assumption of Mary today”. The problem is that there is no such marking or celebration within the Church of England and there has not been for 470 years.
August 15th is, since Common Worship, a festival in which we remember the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is also the day in which the Roman Catholic Church has the solemnity of the Assumption and the Orthodox Church marks the Dormition. This has, however, never in the post-Reformation Church of England been a celebration or marking of the assumption and in fact the festival may be celebrated on September 8th instead (when the church traditionally marks the birth of Mary).
As we have seen, Anglicans and other churches of the Reformation had significant problems with aspects of Marian piety and teaching, in particular the assumption. These theological disagreements led to changes in Anglican liturgy where in 1549 and 1552 the Calendar initially removed all Marian feasts except the Annunciation and Purification (both events mentioned in the gospels). This only changed in 1561 when, in the words of Colin Podmore, speaking at Walsingham on Mary and the Anglican Tradition:
The Calendar of 1561 is of crucial importance because it saw the return, after those brief breaks that I mentioned, of three of the Marian feasts. From 1561 onwards the Church of England again marked Our Lady’s Conception on 8 December, her Nativity on 8 September, and the Visitation on 2 July. Only the Assumption remained excluded. (Italics added).
Paul Williams similarly notes in his account of the 1561 changes that “the conspicuous continuing omission is the Assumption, which disappeared from Anglican worship in 1549”. He then adds “only partially to return in some twentieth century Anglican calendars”.
I am unclear whether any Anglican calendars actually formally celebrate the assumption on this day (I’d be surprised but am willing to be proved wrong). The connections made to it liturgically clearly vary in different provinces. Indeed, on careful scrutiny, I discovered (to my surprise) that the Church of England’s own liturgy goes quite some way to help those Anglicans who do believe in the assumption in the way it frames the liturgy for August 15th.
The Church of England collect could be read as affirming a special glorious place in heaven at present to Mary. However, it need not be read as such particularly in the light of other prayers referring to the departed in Church of England liturgy (on which more generally see here) in which we pray “according to your promises, grant us with them a share in your eternal kingdom”:
Almighty God, who didst look upon the lowliness of the Blessed Virgin Mary and didst choose her to be the mother of thy only Son: grant that we who are redeemed by his blood may share with her in the glory of thine eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
The set readings similarly include some passages which have been traditionally read in support of the assumption, several of which are used in the Roman Catholic Lectionary on August 15th:
- Psalm 132 is the Psalm for the Second Service. Its verse 8—“‘Arise, Lord, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might”—was often cited in Christian tradition with the ark as a type of Mary in defences of the assumption of Mary to be with her ascended son.
- Psalm 45:10–17 is the Psalm for the Principal Service. This has been read as, in the words of Pius XII in his encyclical pronouncing the dogma, describing Mary “as the Queen entering triumphantly into the royal halls of heaven and sitting at the right hand of the divine Redeemer”.
- The Old Testament reading of Isaiah 61.10, 11 also could take on new meanings in the context of belief in the assumption: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels”.
- Combined with the above texts and figural/typological hermeneutic, the New Testament lesson of Revelation 11.19–12.6, 10 opening with “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant” would be seen as further confirmation of Mary’s heavenly presence, now alongside “her child…snatched up to God and to his throne”.
- Although Song of Solomon 2.1–7 (for the Second Service) is not as prominent as other texts from the Song in traditional attempts to defend the doctrine from Scripture (the 1950 papal encyclical refers to 3.6, 4.8 and 6.9) one can see that the words “Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love” could also easily take on new meanings once read with the woman of the Song as a type of Mary if one believes the assumption.
The Episcopal Church in the US also remembers Mary (simply as Saint Mary the Virgin: Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ) on August 15th and although it too does not speak of “the Feast of the Assumption” its collect (also used in the Scottish Episcopal Church (p 37) and in the new ACNA BCP) points even more strongly to Mary’s assumption than that in the Church of England:
O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In short, despite the Archbishop’s tweets and a certain amount of careful ambiguity in liturgical wording and selection of readings, “we” in the Church of England do not have a Feast of the Assumption and have not had since 1549. That is because we do not believe in the doctrine of the Assumption.
Should we believe in the Assumption?
It is beyond question that a number of Anglicans do believe in the Assumption of Mary, perhaps even in the form expressed in the 1950 encyclical. This has been true not just of more catholic Anglicans such as E.L. Mascall but even of those who might be viewed as more liberal theologically such as John Macquarrie who gave a detailed biographical account (in his Mary for All Christians (T&T Clark, 2001 (2nd edn), pp. 82–96) of his journey to the place where “I have come to see the dogma of the Assumption as the expression in appropriate theological symbols of some of the most hopeful affirmations of the Christian faith”. Evangelical New Testament scholar, John Wenham, could also say at a Mariological conference at Walsingham, in a paper then published by Churchman in 1972:
Finally, I see Mary as our forerunner in heaven. I cannot quite accept the dogma of the Assumption as promulgated in 1950, but I can very nearly. I do not think that there is evidence that her earthly body saw no corruption—I find it very difficult to believe that she suddenly disappeared and that this amazing miracle was not widely known in the Early Church—but I do believe that clothed in her spiritual body, she in her full humanity was taken into heaven.
However, as already noted, the Church of England since the Reformation have never formally accepted the assumption of Mary and this has been one of the major divides with Rome (and, in some importantly different ways, with Eastern Orthodox belief). In an attempt to address this, in 2004 ARCIC produced a report on Mary and the Marian dogmas which concluded
that the teaching about Mary in the two definitions of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception, understood within the biblical pattern of the economy of hope and grace, can be said to be consonant with the teaching of the Scriptures and the ancient common traditions (paragraph 60).
This was just one of a number of controversial claimed agreements in the document. It is important that, in the ARCIC report’s own words, “It is not an authoritative declaration by the Roman Catholic Church or by the Anglican Communion”. In fact, the Church of England’s Faith and Order Advisory Group produced a helpful set of rather critical papers in 2008 including ones from an evangelical perspective by Martin Davie (pp 49–65 and also in Anvil) and David Hilborn (pp 84–90). In February 2011, General Synod passed the following very cautious motion from the Council for Christian Unity and rejected an amendment explicitly welcoming the report:
That this Synod, affirming the aim of Anglican – Roman Catholic theological dialogue “to discover each other’s faith as it is today and to appeal to history only for enlightenment, not as a way of perpetuating past controversy” (Preface to The Final Report, 1982), and in the light of recent steps towards setting up ARCIC III:
(i) note the theological assessment of the ARCIC report Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ in the FOAG briefing paper GS 1818 as a contribution to further dialogue;
(ii) welcome exploration of how far Anglicans and Roman Catholics share a common faith and spirituality, based on the Scriptures and the early Ecumenical Councils, with regard to the Blessed Virgin Mary;
(iii) request that, in the context of the quest for closer unity between our two communions, further joint study of the issues identified in GS 1818 be undertaken – in particular, the question of the authority and status of the Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Anglicans; and
(iv) encourage Anglicans to study the report with ecumenical colleagues and in particular, wherever possible, with their Roman Catholic neighbours.
It therefore cannot be claimed that following the ARCIC Report the Church of England has accepted the doctrine of the assumption.
For evangelicals there is certainly the need for a rediscovery of Mary’s importance after often over-reacting against the place she is given in Catholic teaching and piety. There are signs of this happening as in Timothy George’s 2007 article, Tim Perry’s book and the 2009 Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) statement on Mary taking the same title as the Walsingham Festival this year. As Perry writes, “we can and should affirm the role of God’s grace throughout Mary’s life, so that, as a result of such grace, she is indeed an example to believers and that her example precisely is her grace-enabled perseverance” (p. 285). However, that sentence from Perry begins “While immaculate conception and bodily assumption are notions closed to traditional Protestants…” and, as Davie and Hilborn point out, there are good reasons why this is so and should remain the case. Even if evangelicals need to recover a proper place for Mary in their theology, that place needs to be biblically and theologically defensible and so cannot embrace Mary’s assumption into heaven as part of the teaching of the church.
Hilborn sums up the three classic evangelical objections to the Roman Catholic teaching on the assumption: the lack of biblical authority (as illustrated above, the claimed biblical support depends on peculiar readings of particular texts into which belief in the assumption is read); its relatively late doctrinal development; and its detraction from a focus on Christ.
Davie looks at alleged biblical precedents for Mary’s assumption (as opposed to the typological and figural readings noted above) such as Elijah or Enoch but then notes that
there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that what happened to these two individuals provides a precedent for the fate of either Mary or any other Christian believer. In the New Testament the only person who enters into glory in body and soul prior to the final resurrection of the dead is Christ Himself and there is no suggestion that this will be true of anyone else… there is no general biblical pattern of especially godly people being assumed body and soul into heaven that could then apply to Mary: in the Bible itself what happened to Enoch and Elijah is seen as exceptional rather than normative.
He also highlights that while it is true that believers have been with raised with Christ already, “we shall only experience this fully at the end of time. (Rom. 8:18–25; 2 Cor. 5:1–5) and so we distort the biblical pattern if we suggest that “in Mary at least this tension has already been overcome”. Even more seriously, there is the risk that in talking of Mary’s assumption we give to her “a role that in the New Testament belongs solely to Christ. In the New Testament it is Christ and not Mary or anyone else who foreshadows what will be when the new creation is revealed”.
As the ECT statement says, applying the Church of England’s Article 6, on the sufficiency of Scripture, to the assumption:
At one level, the doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption applies to Mary what the Bible declares to have happened to the prophets Enoch and Elijah—that she was taken into heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life. In this way, Mary is believed to have anticipated what many Evangelicals refer to as the rapture of the Church at the return of Christ. Mary’s assumption presupposes a number of things that are indeed a part of our common Christian confession: the reality of heaven; the communion of saints; the overcoming of death; the resurrection of the flesh; the certain triumph of Jesus Christ over sin, hell, and the grave; belief in the literal, visible return of Christ in glory; the goodness of creation; and the unity of soul and body for all eternity. None of these biblical truths, however, requires belief in the bodily assumption of Mary, which is without biblical warrant (the vision of Revelation 12:1-6 says nothing about Mary’s body being taken into heaven) and has no basis in the early Christian tradition.
The apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (1950), in which Pope Pius XII promulgated the dogma of the assumption, does not take a position with respect to Mary’s death, yet this is a question of some theological importance. If Mary was taken to heaven without death in the manner of Enoch and Elijah, was this because her body was incorruptible and thus not subject to the fact that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)? On the other hand, if she actually died (without having sinned) and then was raised from the dead to heavenly glory, then her resurrection would seem to be parallel to that of Christ who alone died and rose again for our justification (Rom. 4:24-25). Both opinions are present in the apocryphal writings that form the basis of later legends (such as Christ’s surrender of the heavenly kingdom to Mary at her coronation in glory), but it seems prudent to follow here the silence of the Scriptures and the reticence of the Church Fathers of the first three centuries.
In short, there is absolutely no biblical evidence for Mary’s assumption. The biblical truths that it is claimed to be consonant with and to bring to a focus are either truths which relate uniquely to Christ or to all believers. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that the pattern and outcome of Mary’s departure from this life was any different from that of any other faithful follower of her son. To claim there is theological rationale for distinguishing her journey from ours is, furthermore, to make a biblically unwarranted distinction which risks detracting from the unique work of the Saviour she bore. It is through Jesus’ full humanity that our human nature has been redeemed and entered into glory and it is Jesus who in his person as truly God and truly human now intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand.
Predictably, responses on Twitter and elsewhere showed how divided Christians remain in relation to Mary. The Archbishop’s tweets and scenes in the video delighted some and enraged others. Some responses highlighted how Christians fail to engage with each other well or respect different traditions, something Archbishop Justin consistently challenges as he urges us to disagree well. Others, presuming he sends or approves all his tweets himself (which is often not the case for high profile figures), offered their own assessments of Archbishop Justin in the light of how they already viewed him. These too were not always charitable.
The first key question, however, is simply whether the tweets were right in what they said about the assumption. They are right if the “We” refers to “some Christians” rather than “We in the Church of England” or “We Anglicans” although the terminology favours the Roman Catholic West over the Orthodox East (it would have been better for one tweet to use “Assumption” and the next to speak of “Dormition” if that was the intention). But “we” in the Church of England (and the overwhelming majority, perhaps the whole, of the Anglican Communion) have no such Feast. We do not as a church believe in what the Feast marks in other parts of the church. In suggesting otherwise, the tweets therefore significantly misrepresented Anglican doctrine and practice.
The next question is whether any of this matters. In one sense this could all be dismissed as making a mountain of an article out of a molehill of a few words in a couple of tweets. But that is to forget the significance of what appears in the name of the Archbishop of Canterbury, even on Twitter, if it touches on matters of theological controversy.
Another reason it matters is the deeper issue of different approaches to issues on which the church is divided. We cannot and should not deny that different traditions exist and that some of our divisions arise from doctrinal disagreements which are long-standing and significant. Attempts are, however, sometimes made to achieve greater Christian unity by going down that path but ultimately this undermines ecumenical endeavours. The ARCIC report on Mary failed to be received by the Church of England in large part because the Anglicans involved in it were not honest about the real differences, including on the assumption of Mary. It is therefore not surprising if some read the “We” in the tweets as suggesting that celebrating the Feast of the Assumption is part of the teaching and pattern of Church of England worship or implying such doctrinal disagreements are unreal, unsubstantial or unimportant. This understandably upsets and offends many faithful Anglicans, adding fuel to some of the already fiery disputes.
Unity among Anglicans and ecumenically is much better served by being clear about, explaining, and exploring our different beliefs and practices and then seeking to deepen mutual understanding and bonds of Christian love across our doctrinal divides. Ten years ago, Evangelicals and Catholics Together sought to follow this path in relation to Mary and their joint statement ends with these powerful words:
As brothers and sisters in Christ who are in lively communion with the saints on earth and the saints in heaven, we together pray—in words Richard John Neuhaus composed for us before he died:
Almighty and gracious God, Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was in the fullness of time born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from whom he received our human nature by which, through his suffering, death, and glorious resurrection, he won our salvation, accept, we beseech you, our giving thanks for the witness of Mary’s faith and the courage of her obedience.
Grant to us, we pray, the faithfulness to stand with her by the cross of your Son in his redemptive suffering and the suffering of your pilgrim Church on earth. By the gift of your Spirit, increase within us a lively sense of our communion in your Son with the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. May she who is the first disciple be for us a model of faith’s response to your will in all things; may her “Let it be with me according to your word” be our constant prayer; may her “Do whatever he tells you” elicit from us a more perfect surrender of obedience to her Lord and ours.
Continue to lead us, we pray, into a more manifest unity of faith and life so that the world may believe and those whom you have chosen may, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, rejoice forever in your glory. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and forever.
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