"High honour is due, and rendered": Churches of the Reformation against Barth on the Blessed Virgin Mary

Where ever Mary is venerated, and devotion to her takes place, there the Church of Christ does not exist.

This quote from Barth's Church Dogmatics received some attention recently on Twitter. It is, at best, a foolish statement, profoundly uncharitable to very many in the Body of Christ. Upon first encountering the statement, my thoughts turned immediately to a local Roman Catholic Benedictine community, the brothers ending Compline each night with an anthem to the Blessed Virgin, before her icon.  To say that this prayerful, grace-filled community is not the Church of Christ - constituted by Word and Sacrament - is, frankly, blasphemous. 

In historical terms, the statement is similarly deeply foolish. It excludes from the Body of Christ vast numbers of the baptised in East and West over centuries. To suppose that the grace of God in Christ, proclaimed in the Scriptures and ministered in the Sacraments, could not justify and sanctify because of exaggerated, or even erroneous, Marian devotions is to utterly fail to take grace seriously.

This, however, is not the only historical sense in which Barth's statement is foolish.  It also entirely ignores those Churches of the Reformation in which a scriptural and patristic veneration for the Blessed Virgin Mary is to be found. A good example of a Church of the Reformation giving expression to such veneration can be in the response of the bishops of the Church of Ireland to the 1950 papal proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption. Robustly rejecting the dogma as "a human speculation" contrary to "the ancient Rule of Faith", the Church of Ireland bishops declared the grounds for a rightly-ordered veneration of the Blessed Virgin:

Her place and function in relation to the taking of flesh by the Eternal Word are unique. She stands solitary in the mysterious privilege with which she was favoured. It can be shared by no other. High honour is due, and rendered, to one so chosen as to give Him birth and to pass some thirty years in His company in the life of the home.

Her unique role in the Incarnation - confessed in the three catholic creeds - is the basis for Churches of the Reformation venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

This has found expression in three practices common to Anglicans and Lutherans. Firstly, the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer.  The BCP 1662 notes that this is "the Song of the Blessed Virgin Mary", the use of her title differentiating both her and the canticle from "the Song of Simeon". Day by day, Anglicans at Evensong rejoice with the Blessed Virgin that "all generations shall call me blessed", the title given to her throughout the BCP and in the Articles of Religion. As for Lutherans, Luther declared of this canticle, "sung in all the churches daily at vespers", that from it "we may learn how to show her the honor and devotion that are her due".

Secondly, the observance of her festivals. In BCP 1662 the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary - also described as the Annunciation of our Lady in the Lessons Proper for Holy-Days - and the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin celebrated her role in the mystery of the Incarnation.  As Hooker said of the latter feast, it was "the testification of his true incarnation by the purification of hir which brought him into the world" (LEP V.70.8). The Black Letter Days of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Nativity of B.V. Mary, and Conception of B.V. Mary pointed to a recognition of the grace of God preparing her for her unique vocation. Lutheran church orders celebrated the Annunciation, Visitation, and Purification, with Luther's sermons on the feasts providing a rich source of Marian teaching and devotion. In his sermon on the Visitation, Luther declared of the Blessed Virgin, "No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity".

Thirdly, Anglicans and Lutherans both maintained the dedication of churches to the Blessed Virgin.  Hooker commented that "not a few" English churches were "in memory" of "the blessed Virgin", which gave "occasion of mentioning [her] often" (V.XIII). Lutheran custom is seen in Vor Frue Kirke (Denmark), Vår Frue Kirke (Norway), Vårfrukyrkan (Sweden), Maarian kirkko (Finland), and Frauenkirche (Germany). The Lutherans lands and the lands of the ecclesia Anglicana are marked by churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, signs of the confession made in the catholic creeds and the Marian festivals.

Barth's statement, therefore, requires a firm, robust response: Nein! Not only does Barth's assertion radically undermine the truth of the grace encountered in Word and Sacrament by ordinary Christians across the centuries, it also utterly fails to recognise those Churches of the Reformation in which the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated and in which there is devotion to her. Such Marian piety in these Churches of the Reformation is indeed modest and reserved but this does not at all mean it is any less meaningful and authentic than more extravagant piety and devotion, for here "high honour is ... rendered" to the Blessed Virgin, after the teaching of the Scriptures and the Fathers.

(The first photograph is of the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Salisbury. The second is of Visby Saint Mary's Cathedral, Visby S:ta Maria domkyrka, in the Church of Sweden.)


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