Anglican Mariology: A Modern Reformation

This post is part of “Ecclesia Anglicana,” a series devoted to all topics pertaining to Anglicanism. Stay tuned for more!

Modern Protestants have always had a troublesome relationship with the Virgin Mary. Seeking not to stumble into the pitfalls of their separated Catholic brothers and sisters, Protestants have put a sort of ‘de-emphasis’ on Mary as to not be associated with anything which could be confused as ‘Catholic.’ However, the Anglican tradition consciously avoids the pitfalls of the nuanced hyperdulia of Catholicism and also the modern de-emphasis on Mary. Rather than seeing Mary as a theological ‘bump in the road’ to the Gospel narrative, Anglicanism emphasizes Mary’s role as the Theotokos: the God-bearer who carries the fullness of God’s grace in her womb and delivers him into the world. Anglicanism also pulls from the rich and beautiful Marian dogma of the Catholic Church, but centers Jesus, rather than Mary, in the place of sole honor.

Anglicanism remains as that branch of the Protestant tradition which holds fast to the rich traditions of the church and can be, both historically and liturgically, tied to the Roman Catholic Church.[1] While other Protestant traditions emulate these characteristics, none do so like the Anglican tradition. That being said, one can see the rich Mariology of Catholicism present within Anglican liturgy. This is where Anglicanism receives its popular slogan: “too Protestant to be Catholic and too Catholic to be Protestant.” Although a blanket statement which may be misleading at times, pertaining to Mariology it does fit well. Truly, Anglican Mariology is far too Catholic for most Protestants to be comfortable with it, but also far too Protestant for Catholics to agree.[2] 

The first reason that Anglicanism holds a high view of the Blessed Virgin, namely her role as the Theotokos, is because throughout the history of the Church, Mary has always been held in high regard. The ecumenical councils of the Church and the creeds which came from them are foundational to the Anglican tradition.[3] These councils and creeds are filled with deep and rich Mariology which supports an orthodox Christology. For example, the Nestorian controversy of the Council of Ephesus led to one of the greatest formations of early Marian dogma. According to Nestorius, Mary did not carry in her womb the Son of God, the second member of the Holy Trinity. Rather, she carried a mere human child; one who would be united to the divinity of God – something apart from the humanness of Jesus. Nestorius argued that the Godhead joined with the human in the same way a man enters a tent or puts on clothes. In short, Nestorius believed he could “hold the natures apart, but unite the worship.”[4] In response to this, Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most fierce, ruthless, and respected Fathers of the Early Church, sought to resolve this heresy. In the crucible of this theological fight for orthodoxy the language of Mary as the Theotokos was affirmed.

Secondly, in the past century there has been an even greater emphasis placed on Mary within the Catholic tradition, and a reactionary de-emphasis from the majority of the Protestant tradition(s). However, Anglicanism continues to look back to the tradition of the Reformation which did not react in opposition to Catholicism, but rather took what was good and beneficial and reformed it through a Protestant lens. 

An example of this is found in Martin Luther’s writings on Mary. Luther brings to light themes of justification and high-Christology without sacrificing genuine belief in Mary as the Theotokos and without losing a high sense of respect and veneration towards Mary, the Mother of God. In his reinterpretation of Gabriel’s declaration in Luke 1, “Hail Mary, full of Grace,” he ‘reforms’ the Catholic interpretation that this is a declaration of Mary’s achievement of this status. In Luther’s understanding of the righteousness of God, he interprets Gabriel’s proclamation to be a gospel proclamation. “Blessed are you Mary, because you are full of the grace of God, which is Jesus Christ! He is within you, and he is coming!”[5] 

A more recent example of this may be found in Protestant versus Catholic interpretations of Mary’s “Yes” to Gabriel’s proclamation.  While the Catholic tradition understands the narrative of Luke 1 to affirm the purity of Mary insomuch as she is then able to bear Christ into the world, Anglicanism follows Luther’s interpretation and emphasizes her declaration of servanthood alongside her unworthiness. In this we model after Mary – we are unworthy to be used by God, yet we daily surrender to him and in our unity with Christ we are given the power to be used by God.[6]

Furthermore, beyond various interpretations of Scripture, Anglicanism also continues this spirit of reforming Catholic dogma spoken ex-cathedra.[7] For example, Catholics believe in the bodily assumption of Mary (declared by Pope Pius XII, 1950).[8] According to Catholic theology, this singular participation in her Son’s resurrection anticipates the resurrection of other Christians. In Anglicanism, the emphasis is placed on Mary only insomuch as she goes before us as all other saints, sharing in the divine glory of the eternal kingdom.[9] 

Another example may be found in the nuanced Catholic doctrine Hyperdulia. Doulia is a Greek term which theologically describes honor paid to Christian saints. Latria, also a Greek term, designates supreme honor and is used to connotate worship given to God, the Trinity. Between this general honor (doulia) and the exclusive worship given to God (latria) is hyperdoulia, which is veneration and honor given distinctly to the Blessed Virgin Mary because of her unique role in the mystery of redemption, her exceptional gifts of grace from God, and her pre-eminence among the saints. While this may remain within the boundaries of orthodoxy, Anglicanism remains true to the Protestant tradition in avoiding such nuanced terminology which often is lost at a local level. Instead, the Anglican tradition understands Mary as the model of humanity redeemed by Christ, and the principal type of the Church (this also is tied deeply into Catholic Mariology). Any adoration or contemplation of Mary and the Saints is beneficial insomuch as it is an expression of the unity of the whole family of God in Heaven and on earth, a unity rooted ultimately in the believer’s unity with Christ.[10]

In short, Anglican Mariology is rooted in a continued ressourcement and reforming of Catholic doctrine. Further, it is an embrace of the unique position the Anglican tradition holds within Protestantism. It continually seeks to avoid the pitfalls of Catholic dogma and of modern Protestantism in order to stand as a bridge between these traditions. Deeply rooted in the traditions and history of the early church, Anglicanism calls believers to look back and remember the saints before, to stand in our moment now and continue to redeem and reform that which is around us, and lastly to look forward to the return of Christ in the fullness of his glory. 

Amar Peterman is Associate Director of Neighborly Faith and currently studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. He completed his BA in Theology at Moody Bible Institute where he was also President of the Student Theological Society and Teaching Assistant to Dr. Ashish Varma. 


[1]  Mark Chapman, Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2]  For more on the boundaries of communion for the Anglican Church, see The Chicago Lambeth Quadrilateral

[3] Editor’s Note: hence the name of this very series, “Ecclesia Anglicana.” The Church of England was born from the church in England.

[4] For an expanded narrative, see Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007).

[5] Bridget Heal, The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early Modern Germany: Protestant and Catholic Piety, 1500–1648 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[6] See the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin in the Book of Common Prayer (August 15)

[7] Literally translated to: “from the chair.” This is in reference to the chair of Saint Peter which, according to the Catholic Tradition, represents the line of apostolic succession which the Pope is a part of. That which is spoken “from the chair” is a declaration made by the Pope through his apostolic authority.

[8]  For the full declaration, see http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificentissimus-deus.html

[9]  See The Book of Common Prayer, p. 192, 391.

[10] The Anglican Service Book, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Anglican_Service_Book/addl_devotions2.html#angelus

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