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Grace is Not Faceless: Reflections on Mary

by Kristin S. Lassen | June 23, 2022
Cover of Grace is Not Faceless

Grace is Not Faceless focuses on Mary, mother of Jesus: her presentation in Scripture and reception throughout church history, with careful attention to the poetry of Isaiah and that of subsequent writers. Ann Loades writes from an Anglican perspective with discussion of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox particularities of Marian theology.

The book opens with an introduction by Stephen Burns who provides helpful background information about Mary from the wide scope of church history. Burns presents an overview of Mary from the gospels, historic church feasts, prayer, Anglicanism, the Roman Catholic dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Glorious Assumption,1  and Ann Loades's own journey. Burns notably refers to the fifth-century debate with Nestorius over Mary as Theotokos, the "Mother of God" or "God-bearer." The historic emphasis on the importance of Mary calls to mind the denigration of the same in Protestantism in general and American Evangelicalism in particular.2

Chapter one acknowledges that many Christians worldwide have centered Mary in their expression of faith, both within the concerns of feminist theology and quite apart from them. Ann Loades offers a baseline definition of feminism as "a movement which seeks change for the better in terms of justice for women."3  Not all feminist theologians are women, nor do all female theologians share this goal.4  Men can be important allies to women and to the full flourishing of Christ’s body on earth.

The primary need at present is for women to understand themselves and their place with the God heretofore presented to them by the same religious tradition that causes hurt and barriers for them in God's name. In other words, women have been brought to faith through the same system which now attempts to restrict the use of their God-given gifts.

Centuries of habits in the gendered way in which we talk about God, exegesis, and ecclesiastical practice need to be reexamined. When considering Mary, reformer Emma Martin in 1844 said the following about asking clergy for "rational answers to knotty questions": "they won't [sic] answer them because they are asked by a woman, yet they obtained Christ from the same source. I wonder they did not object to him on that account."5  Is this observation not the crux of the issue still today, regarding women's opportunities in the church?

The chapter goes on to discuss the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and its troublesome features relating to traditional views of women's (particular) impurity.6 Daly and Ruether call for real women to be acknowledged and for genuine reciprocity between women and men in the churches.7

One of my favorite thinkers, C. S. Lewis, did not have a robust theology of gender until late in life.8 On page 31 of Grace is Not Faceless, I hear (a quotation from) Lewis saying that separating the traits that make for a mature human being into "masculine" and "feminine" virtues leads to a warped humanity. The implications of this “arrogance” are role distinctions based on gender. Lewis calls those who do not grow in traits that are difficult for them, "poor, warped fragments of humanity." These fragments make role distinctions based on gender plausible.9  

This first, significant chapter ends with Ann Carr moving Mary from the impossible ideal of virginal motherhood to a symbol of a "healed, reconciled, finally transformed world.”10  Mary is the capstone and forbearer of the unconventional and "thoroughly idiosyncratic" women in Mary's (Jesus's) ancestry and coming apostolic tradition.11  Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel takes Mary out of an ecclesiastical singularity, that Mary be relatable to women in the spectrum of women's vocations.

Chapter two asks with Donal Flanagan in 1986, “Are we fated to choose between a flat ‘ecclesiastical Mary’ unrelated to the modern woman, and ‘a theory of woman, feminism, which has no place for the greatest woman who ever lived?’"12  Will the Christian tradition "be alive enough to change for the better," regarding the voices of women in ecumenical discussion?13

One foundational problem in the church is the "gap between the proclamation of full personhood for women . . . and the practice" which keeps women bound to pre-incarnational models of human society and views of women.14  In other words, Mary is held as a model of submission and passivity—not a willing risk-taker.15  This chapter outlines a Mary who, together alongside man, images God (Gen. 1), gives her assent to the work of God's Spirit in her (Luke 1), negates the traditional view of feminine evil, and stands in the Christian community where the privileges of race, status, and sex have been abolished in Christ.16

Grace is not faceless (Cornelius Ernst), and this face can be female just as it has so long been envisioned male.17  Reciprocity between men and women is the goal; active and passive human traits are the domain of both sexes.18  Women, like men, must know themselves deeply and be allowed to carry the sacredness of the "virgin" alongside the essential relational capacity of the "mother."19  

In chapter three, Loads explains Mary and the Trinity in Anglican theology with discussion of the Nicene Creed’s Latin prepositions, nineteenth century conflation of Mary with superstition and idolatry, the Book of Common Prayer, and Mary’s importance as the human role-model for Jesus in her human relation to God (Rowan Williams).

Chapter four delineates discussion of Mary for the 2005 Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and, importantly, concludes calling for “women’s bodily presence in the manifestation of salvation.”20  This conclusion follows a Mary un-idealized and remembered in concord with Eve’s “’mothering’ of all the living, graced by God” and “re-presented” together in women active in every ministry of the Church.21  

Do you know the difference between the views of Mary’s Dormition and Assumption? This is also addressed.

Chapter five reviews the Nativity in biblical and recent poetry, as understanding is expressed verbally. Poetry was a (possible) medium that helped to shape both Mary and Jesus in their relationships to God.22  Joseph’s importance as human father of Jesus is given particular attention as well.

Chapter six highlights “some of the disastrous consequences for women, and therefore also for men” from the writings of other Christians: the works of Evelyn Underhill, (peer and correspondent of C. S. Lewis) Dorothy L. Sayers, Margaret Barker, and others, as well as Karen O’Donnell’s teaching on Mary’s importance in trauma theology. Mary is particularly relevant to trauma recovery as related to the Annunciation,23  as well as theology as it relates to miscarriage and other manifestations of holding “a place of death within oneself, even as one lives” which is manifest in Mary’s life.24  

“Since it is Mary who ‘first offers up the bodily elements that will become the flesh and body of Christ’ and who makes her agreement with the work of God, she provides the role model for a priest, participating ‘with the Spirit’ in particular revelation of Christ, the divine already present in all things, and source of nourishment and life.”25  Here Loades, referencing O’Donnell, is unclear about “the divine already present in all things,” which may cause some unease. I understand it to refer to God as creator and sustainer of all, with God far more intimately at work than some perspectives allow for; there is no indication of a pantheist or panentheist intent. The point in this segment is that Mary is best understood as a role model for pastors, priests, and every believer.

Chapters seven to nine contain Ann’s sermons on Mary. Ann emphasizes Mary at Pentecost, her physical and daily reality as mother of Jesus, and the historic view of Mary’s Assumption.

Conclusion

Mary allows us to catch a glimpse of the mystery of God toward a gender-inclusive theology that rises above "what a particular society makes of relationships between males and females” (ie: gender), which presents in astonishing variety across time and place.26  Loades explains oft-forgotten views of Mary throughout church history, corrects common misconceptions, and brings striking insight on Mary’s real-life-lived and her importance to Jesus’s developing humanity. A background in church history and theology is helpful for following the presentation, but all readers can catch the weighty practical points offered in the book. Mary is rounded out to be more than a flat model of submission but "someone fully living out her partnership with God in the Christ event.”27

Loades concludes the book with a powerful sermon stressing Jesus’s relationship with his mother, Mary’s faith, and the overcorrection made during the Reformation. We are not to pray to, or honor Mary as opposed to Christ, but this discretion is taken too far if we do not, at the least, recall that historic honor was shown to Mary in the Feast of the Assumption. Mary was also the only person in Scripture twice Spirit-graced. Reading this short but weighty book may advance your appreciation of Mary as much as it has for me!

Notes

1. Doctrines are teachings and beliefs taught by the church; whereas dogmas are teachings of the church considered incontrovertibly true. “Dogma” is a stronger word. All dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas.

2. At the least, there is a void of attention given to the person and theology of Mary. See Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes DuMez for more on the view of women in 1900’s American Fundamentalist Evangelicalism, for insight into why this lack of attention may be the case. The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr also adds clarity on the development of modern views of women in the church.

3. Loades, Grace, 18.

4. "Justice" and fair treatment of women are presumably goals for all Christians but are defined in light of an innate hierarchy between the sexes, with inborn roles, by those who do not share the (feminist) concerns of equal opportunity for and respect of women.

5. Loades, Grace, 19.

6. Loades, Grace, 19. As a scholar educated in an egalitarian Reformed setting, I had never considered the Immaculate Conception apart from Augustine's view of original sin (adopted and modified slightly by Calvin) which places inherited guilt upon men and women alike. Given the cultural views of women's ontological impurity that were adopted by the medieval church and propagated by reformers, explained in the study of Greek philosophy and of history by Beth Allison Barr in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, I can understand the felt or actual sense of gendered insult in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

7. Loades, Grace, 31.

8. He was not married until age 58. Joy proved his former culturally influenced views of role distinction to be faulty. A helpful debate over Lewis’s views of women can be found in

9. This point is as deeply insightful as it is shocking. May we not be content to remain where Lewis places "most." Instead, may we seek to grow. Let us see beyond the provisional, to what God does in women (in addition to men) who are called to lead the full church faithfully. At the least, let us refuse mediocrity and seek to grow personally, asking God for eyes to see what Lewis only realized late in life. For more on C. S. Lewis’s views on gender see Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen's, A Sword Between the Sexes? Find CBE’s book review here: https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/book-review/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/book-review-mary-stewart-van-leeuwens-sword.

10. Loades, Grace, 32.

11. Loades, Grace, 32.

12. Loades, Grace, 39.

13. Loades, Grace, 37.

14. Loades, Grace, 39-40.

15. Loades, Grace, 40.

16. Loades, Grace, 40.

17. Loades, Grace, 40.

18. Loades, Grace, 41-42.

19. Loades, Grace, 42.

20. Loades, Grace, 73.

21. Loades, Grace, 69-73.

22. Loades, Grace, 80-81. The poetry of Isaiah is particularly in view here.

23. The Annunciation is the angel’s visit with Mary inviting her to participate in God’s plan of incarnation. Ann Loades stresses her genuine choice in the matter.

24. Loades, Grace, 109.

25. Loades, Grace, 109.

26. Loades, Grace, 41. The object is to value difference without using it as grounds for hierarchy.

27. Loades, Grace, 33-34.

Book info
Author:
Publisher:
Darton, Longman and Todd
Year:
2021