History has been made this week with the announcement of the first woman bishop in the Church of England. The candidate is someone that has not been on any of the media shortlists and was not one of the bookies favourites but has been one of the eight women observers at the House of Bishops’ meetings. She is an ordinary priest, Vicar of Hale in Manchester, though no doubt with some extra ordinary gifts, as so many have. She is one of the batch of women who have been ordained in the natural order of things – she was among the first to be deaconed and priested according to the same timescale that her male colleagues have been through. She was not ordained in any of the catch up ordinations. She is, as I termed it at the diocesan celebration of 20 years of women priests in the Church of England, held here in June, part of the ‘new normality’. All of this is an occasion for great rejoicing. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” (Luke 1:46) “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:23)
Libby Lane will be consecrated in the New Year, on 26th January in York Minster. She will need our prayers for what lies ahead, even without the added pressure of being the first woman to hold such an office. There will be a media whirl around her and I pray that she will not have to bear this weight on her own for long, that there will be a flurry of similar appointments over the coming months – there are certainly plenty of vacancies and women with the gifts and skills required to match them. I expect at least one of the diocesan bishop vacancies will be a woman in the coming months too. It would be bizarre if that were not the case. Clearly there is a determination for it to happen.
An ordinary woman changing history, bearing Christ to the world, bringing to birth God’s grace among us! Well, where have we heard that before? We have heard it in our gospel reading as the angel announced the startling news to Mary that she was to bear and give birth to the Christ, God among us and this would be possible because the Holy Spirit would make it happen (Luke 1:26-38). God brings life to spring up where there was previously none. He makes those who think new birth is no longer possible to conceive as in the case of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. She is already expecting. God has worked wonders already. Just because it hasn’t happened before is no straight jacket for the Christian Church founded on this gospel. Astounding things are part of the new normality which Christ brings in through being brought to birth by Mary. The Christian faith has radical transformation, change and disruption written into its title deeds.
And the wonder is that this comes through an ordinary woman. We know next to nothing of her background, though traditions have been built up over the centuries. Sadly some of them serve to make her exceptional and something separate from the rest of us and to my mind these miss the startling point. The idea that Mary’s conception was itself out of the ordinary, the belief held by some known as the ‘Immaculate Conception’, is to the my mind a distortion of what we are presented with in Mary. She is ordinary. She is just a young woman. And the rest of us are just ordinary too. But we also know that we can do remarkable things and be agents of change in the world. So it should not surprise us that she can too. We are all called to bring Christ to birth in our hearts and lives and to be midwives of his kingdom. That is remarkable too. Mary being chosen is exceptional, but also not. It is God’s incredible, profligate love at work and it touches us too.
All of this is because God has confidence in his creation. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t bother with it. He made it, brought it all into being through the mysterious and wonderful processes that are creation and evolution, and this was not accidental but planned and thought through, if we can use that language. Mary stands as an incredible symbol of that confidence. God is not distant but literally among us and inside us bringing his purposes to fruition and completion. The world is pregnant with the grace of God and so are we. This is startling news. We don’t need to be born through some out of the ordinary way for God to find us worthy of his attention and overshadowing. We just have to say ‘let it be with me according to your word’.
But there is a desire to keep God at a distance – God is so much safer that way. If we could find a microscope surely we could find God in the shadows or tucked away in some distant corner of the universe. But this is not what the God of Christ brought to birth through Mary reveals about himself. We will not find him like that because he is not separate in that way. The world is alive because of God and without God would not be. It is not separate from but exists within. So God breaking in, or breaking out, however you want to see this, is not actually that unusual. And when we have got our heads round the observation that there is sentient, conscious and intelligent life at all, then God’s presence concentrating or popping up is not that fanciful after all.
Some of what we talk about when thinking of Mary is heavily laden with metaphor as are all our religious musings. Some of those metaphors work better than others for me. I find myself bristling when the metaphor being used serves to distance us from God, rather than affirm God’s confidence in his creation as it should do. So when the choir sings anthems from a past age to Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, wonderful pieces from the choral heritage that they are, at best I find them unhelpful – sometimes audibly so, as my colleagues will testify! Everything we say about Mary is actually about God’s grace among us and for us in Christ. She is one of us, not separate from us, and so if we affirm her to be in a state of grace it is because that is the hope we have been given in Christ, the one she bore, for ourselves. It is metaphor as are the crowns of glory that await God’s saints, the holy ones, those who are brought into the inheritance of Christ as sons and daughters of God. But it comes through Christ, through God’s redeeming confidence in his creation. That message gets confused and lost at times, and when I feel that is happening, that is when I bristle! As a son of the Reformation and unashamedly so, I want to restore a balance I think has been lost, which is what the Reformation was about – recalibrating the balance.
Some of what we say about Mary carries misogynistic overtones. We refer to her sexual status. On one level this points to the wonder of God’s activity, bringing life and his grace to fruition, whether that is as a metaphor or literal, but it is set in the context of a world that made women ritually unclean and required purification after childbirth. This now seems strange at best to our ears. So we need to watch out that what we say doesn’t slip into assumptions which are now seen as sexist and misogynistic. Mary is an unattainable ideal as a virgin and a mother. This can form a wedge where we want to affirm her unity with us. Mary can be made into a stick a patriarchal church uses to beat women and in turn that ends up beating men too because of what is lost of our self-understanding under God through this distortion.
So any celebration of Mary always comes with a health warning. What we say about her should enrich and enhance our understanding of God in Christ, and our place in his love and purpose. She is not the fourth member of the Trinity, which is mathematically not possible, and we should be careful not to imply she is. If we do we damage the radical message and revelation which God brings about through her. God has confidence in his creation and loves it so much that he bothers with it. Special as she is in the story of our salvation it is in her ordinariness that we find our hope. God calls us all to bring Christ to birth in our hearts and lives and to be midwives of his Kingdom.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 21st December 2014