The Virgin Mary and Jesus on a window in the chapel of St. Mary’s, Kerrisdale

The publication in May of Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, marks the latest milestone in the ongoing work of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, set up in 1970 to promote dialogue between the two communions. As part of its ongoing mission to clarify and expand points of agreement, ARCIC examined the role of Mary in the life and doctrine of the church. Under the direction of its two co-chairs, Alexander Brunett (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Seattle) and Peter Carnley (Anglican Archbishop of Perth), eighteen members of ARCIC completed their five-year project last year. The published document will now be studied and evaluated by the Roman Catholic and Anglican Communions.

The position of Mary in western Christianity has been extraordinarily complicated and controversial, especially since the Reformation. Broadly put, the issues at stake all emerge from the question of the proper honour and dignity which should be accorded to the mother of our Lord. It has been customary to trace the origin of the dispute back to the popular “cult of Mary” that emerged in the early Middle Ages, and the dogmatisation of certain pious beliefs; notably the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven. But in fact, the disputes over Mary’s status and role go as far back as the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. 

Mary as “God-Bearer”

As part of its effort to define the scope of Christian belief, the primitive church found itself at odds over whether Mary should be accorded the title Theotokos (“God-bearer”) or Christotokos (“Christ-bearer”). The debate had little or no relation to Mary herself; rather, it concerned defining the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity. The title “God-bearer” allowed one faction to emphasize the full divinity of the person of Christ. Opponents, however, pointed out that such a designation was a novelty, appearing neither in scripture nor in the writings of the early church fathers; and that it raised the awkward question of how the created might give birth to her Creator. 

While the title Theotokos eventually prevailed, even today Christians are conflicted over whether to consider Mary the mother of God (the Deity itself) or the mother of Christ (the being in whom God dwelt). ARCIC, both here (§2, §63) and in its earlier document, Authority in the Church II (1981), maintains Mary’s designation as Theotokos. This is in keeping with the historic affirmations of both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but presumes a uniformity of opinion which simply does not exist among laity and clergy. Many are unaware of, or confused by the distinction between the two titles and their theological implications. Given the centrality in the present document of the designation Theotokos as a point of agreement between the two communions, it behoves both laity and clergy to examine the issue with renewed vigour in order to clarify our own thinking on the matter.

Original Sin

A second point of contention with which the ancient church grappled, and which the present ARCIC document revisits, is that of Mary’s relationship to original sin. This is an important issue, since it is inextricably bound up with the doctrines of the virginal conception of Jesus; as well as that of the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven. Scripture makes no claim about Mary’s sinlessness, and even St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bernard of Clairvaux argued that exempting her from sin detracted from Christ’s position as the universal Saviour of all humanity. ARCIC concurs, acknowledging that Mary wasn’t sinless, but that she was filled with God’s grace from the beginning, hence, freed from sin through Christ’s redemptive activity retroactively (§59). This marks an evolution from the traditional Roman Catholic understanding – albeit not a universal one, as evinced by Aquinas and Bernard – that Mary was indeed sinless. 

Historically, Mary had been likened to the “new Eve” parallel to her son’s status as the “new Adam.” As such, she was credited with removing the stain of original sin from the (female) descendents of the “old Eve.” The document removes from this typology the implication that Mary plays a role in salvation, instead arguing that her relationship to Eve is as mother of the church, and primordial mother of all Christians (§26-27), albeit without clear scriptural warrant. 

The effect of acknowledging Mary’s inherent sinfulness cannot be minimized. It gives room for demurral to those who object to the doctrines of the immaculate conception and the assumption (while those who wish to affirm them can point to the “retroactive” cleansing of her sin); and it effectively puts to rest any notion of Mary as an agent of salvation. All the ARCIC document does in regard to the latter is to render the rather anodyne observation that “Mary may be seen both as a type of the Church, and as a disciple with a special place in the economy of salvation” (§57).

We now turn to what we call the “virgin birth” of Jesus; although what we usually mean here is his virginal conception. For early theologians such as St. Ambrose, virginal conception was theologically necessary in order to preserve Christ’s sinlessness. In his view, since sexual intercourse is the means by which original sin is propagated, Christ could not have been thus conceived. This conclusion was adopted by Ambrose’s most famous pupil, St. Augustine of Hippo, and thence found its way into the currency of Christian orthodoxy. 

The doctrine of virginal conception expanded (as doctrines have a way of doing) to focus on Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity. The concern thus transcended the person of Jesus Christ, focussing instead on maintaining Mary’s sinlessness. Theologians pondered how virginity could be maintained in the birth process (some suggested that Jesus passed through the womb in the same way as he passed through the wall of the Upper Room); and wrestled with the clear allusions to Jesus’ siblings in the Gospels (generally rationalised, without a whit of evidence, as referring to “step-siblings”). This reflected the growing belief that Mary, as the co-agent of Christ’s incarnation, must herself be unstained by sin. From this view sprung the more controversial doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception and her bodily assumption into heaven.

In Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, ARCIC is surprisingly restrained in its statements concerning Mary’s virginity; if not in its interpretation of the scriptural witness. It states that “belief in the virginal conception is an early Christian tradition adopted and developed independently by Matthew and Luke” (§18). Traditions, of course, imply nothing concerning value or truth, so it is hard to disagree. It further states that the doctrine of the virginal conception was expounded by the patristic authors in order “to defend both the Lord’s divinity and Mary’s honour” (§33) – again, a neutral historical observation. It concludes by acknowledging the truism that Anglicans and Roman Catholics make the creedal affirmation that Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” We all know this to be the case; but many of us are less certain about what such an affirmation implies. Some suggest that since the creeds capitalise “virgin,” it can be taken as a title of dignity; much as calling a sovereign “Your Majesty’ does not necessarily imply that the bearer of the title is, personally, majestic.

As for Mary’s perpetual virginity, the ARCIC document is even more restrained. It notes only that early Anglican divines affirmed her as “Ever Virgin” (§49) but doesn’t unpack the meaning (if any) of this title. This is wise, given the utter lack of consensus on the matter, and the implications that the belief in perpetual virginity have for opening the door to the doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption into heaven – doctrines about which many Anglicans would be skittish.

The whole question of Mary’s virginity is a tricky one, skirting the rocky shoals of what is by now a lengthy history of Biblical scholarship. Regrettably, the Biblical scholarship manifested in the final text of the document is superficial, uncritically citing allusions in the gospel birth narratives as the ground and basis for the doctrine. Most readers will be aware that the validity of such allusions are precisely what is at issue in current debates. Moreover, these debates are fuelled by an attendant unease over the implication that human conception is inextricably bound up in sin. By designating Mary as a redeemed sinner, while maintaining grounds for subscribing to doctrines designed to preserve her sinlessness, the document muddies the waters. One assumes that heated debate and an absence of uniform opinion will continue to be the norm in the church.

The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary

The wish to preserve Mary’s sinlessness is the foundation of the Roman Catholic dogmas of her immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption (1950). These are both problematic on a number of levels. In the first place, as stated above, the ARCIC document has removed the original motivation for the establishment of these doctrines (that is, maintaining Mary’s sinlessness). There is now no reason to suppose that Mary necessarily had to be conceived without sin (never mind the infinite regress problem: if sexual intercourse transfers original sin, why stop with her parents?). In the same way, there is no reason to believe that there is some relation between sinfulness and the bodily corruption of death, thus necessitating her bodily assumption. Quite apart from being unnecessary to faith, there is also the absence of scriptural warrant for these dogmas, just as there is none for the claim of Mary’s sinlessness.

Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ frankly acknowledges the absence of consensus. With regard to the immaculate conception, all the authors can assert is that “Christ’s redeeming work reached ‘back’ in Mary to the depths of her being, and to her earliest beginnings” (§59) There are orthodox Christians who would make this claim about themselves and others as well, since “redeeming work” could mean just about anything (which, I suppose, is the point). With regard to the assumption, ARCIC affirms only that “God has taken the Blessed Virgin Mary in the fullness of her person into his glory as…understood in the light of Scripture” (§58); an understanding that will obviously differ depending on whether the dogma of the assumption is accepted or not.

The document recognizes that these two doctrines will only be considered by Anglicans as necessary to faith if they are accepted as divinely revealed truths, thus superseding the traditional consensus that “Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required…[to] be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation” (Article VI of the XXXIX Articles) (§60). The authors further concede that the condition for a doctrine to be required of the faithful of both communions would be the consent of an ecumenical council (§62). In the meantime, they stress that we concentrate on what is important: “The doctrines of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception of Mary must be understood in the light of the more central truth of her identity as Theotokos, which itself depends on the Incarnation” (§63; my emphasis).

Prayer and Devotion

Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ highlights the diversity of the role of Mary in the personal and corporate piety and worship of Anglicans and Roman Catholics. The authors note that “Anglicans have tended to begin from reflection on the scriptural example Mary as an inspiration and model for discipleship,” while “Roman Catholics have given prominence to the ongoing ministry of Mary in the economy of grace and the communion of the saints” (§65). It is assumed that devotional practice will be consonant with scriptural and doctrinal understandings of Mary as articulated by the communions. There is, however, a strong affirmation that prayers for her intercession are offered through Christ, the one mediator with the Father; noting that “asking our brothers and sisters, on earth and in heaven, to pray for us, does not contest the unique mediatory work of Christ, but is rather a means by which…its power may be displayed” (§68). This is a far cry from the widespread (albeit not universal) view of earlier times, in which Mary was seen as mediator between Christ and humankind.


One must admire ARCIC for shoring up the creaky dam of orthodox doctrine against successive tidal waves, beginning with the Enlightenment and most recently culminating in postmodern relativism. Whether the dam will hold in the long run is an open question, but the degree of movement gives one grounds for optimism. Given the subject, agreement on broad generalities is all for which one could reasonably hope; and the fact that people on both ends of the spectrum have objected to even this supports this assessment. The objections of some evangelical Anglicans notwithstanding, my own belief is that it is the Roman Catholic Church which has conceded the most, making vulnerable their two key Marian dogmas and minimizing her role in the economy of salvation.

Anglicans had less to lose, since we are fortunate in being members of perhaps the most ecumenical of Christian denominations. We have traditionally prized tolerance and ambiguity, particular gifts (but also challenges) in times of doctrinal flux and uncertainty. Since the time of Richard Hooker, that great sixteenth century progenitor of the Anglican ethos, we have deduced inferences from Scripture based on reason, nature, and tradition. This has permitted Anglicans of different times, places, and dispositions to view the mother of our Lord through all available lenses.

The Rev. Neil Fernyhough

Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ

is to be commended to all Anglicans for study and discussion, both in the hope that it will assist in the project of ecumenical dialogue with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers, but also in the hope that it will spur greater discussion and reflection concerning the mother of our Lord, and her role in the life and doctrine of our own Anglican tradition. The document is brief, readable, and is available online .