Nicola Barker

Is the Virgin Mary being sidelined by Rome?

Chris Maunder fights heroically against the Catholic church’s recent tendency to see enthusiastic Marian worship as unsettling and eccentric

Is the Virgin Mary being sidelined by Rome?
Madonna of the Recommended by Cola da Roma and Giovanni Antonio da Roma. [Bridgeman Images]
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Mary, Founder of Christianity

Chris Maunder

Oneworld, pp. 288, £18.99

The Catholic church has always venerated Mary (‘Mother of God’) above other saints. But in recent years there has been a slight (a very slight) cooling in the church with regard to the inclusion of Mary in the liturgy of the mass. It’s been an English custom since medieval times to recite a Hail Mary (a verse of the rosary – the traditional Marian prayer) at the end of the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ – the sequence of introductory prayers in the main body of the service.

But just over a decade ago Rome decided to gently discourage this practice. It still continues in many churches (old habits die hard) and in some senses represents a small disjunction in the English church’s relationship with Rome. Okay, not small – tiny. Infinitesimal. Even so, as a practising Catholic, albeit not a particularly well-behaved one, I have observed at first hand how enthusiastic Marian devotion is perceived as a vaguely unsettling and slightly eccentric fringe activity in the modern church. It can be greeted at best by incomprehension, at worst by polite derision; and this alone makes painstakingly scholarly and well-researched works such as Chris Maunder’s Mary, Founder of Christianity so piquant and so timely.

To say that Maunder is walking gingerly into a minefield in the book’s opening chapters is no exaggeration. This isn’t simply because of how traditional and fundamentalist Christians might be expected to feel about a work whose main agenda is to place Mary unapologetically centre stage in their faith narrative (Maunder is a Catholic, although his book is determinedly ecumenical in tone), but because he is also tentatively engaging with a whole gamut of other modern social, sexual, political and cultural niceties. If you are familiar with the exquisite (and unabashedly homoerotic) Antonello painting of Saint Sebastian tied to a stake and stuck full of arrows, then this may give you some flavour of how limited Maunder’s room for intellectual manoeuvre is. It’s painful! He is bound! And a significant portion of the book represents Maunder’s heroically measured and utterly meticulous attempts to position himself on sure moral/scriptural ground. It doesn’t always make for easy reading to observe how careful he needs to be – how he must perpetually validate and self-justify.

Faith is, of course, a contentious subject, and it’s definitely no bad thing for an author to strive to operate within strictly defined boundaries. If the moral and intellectual violations of Trump and Putin have taught us anything, then surely it is this. Have not some of our greatest (and most radical) cultural artefacts been made by artists and thinkers apparently operating within the powerful confines of a strict hegemony?

At the heart of Maunder’s work is a desire to explain, challenge and re-contextualise the apparent patriarchy of the Christian tradition. He pores over the four Gospels and teases the historical away from the mythological. He looks for clues and inconsistencies. He makes some tentative leaps of faith. He deals with (among other subjects) the Virgin birth, the resurrection, Mary’s role as the first intercessor (and the originator of Jesus’s active mission) and goes on to argue cogently that there is scriptural evidence that Jesus’s family, led by Mary and his brother James, were powerful, central figures in the early church.

‘Mother’ church as we find her today is at some level the product of a 2,000-year-old struggle between Mary and St Paul. St Paul, perhaps the church’s greatest evangeliser, made the Christian message available to all (Mary and James, Maunder contends, were more attached to the traditions of Judaism). But at what cost? In moving away from the influence of Jesus’s family, did Paul not also distance this fledgling faith from its powerful feminine core?

On paper this may seem like relatively small beer, but it isn’t. Maunder’s book actually touches on one of the most critical issues of our time: the ongoing struggle between the forces of tradition and patriarchy (the tethered, the ‘masculine’, the ‘thought’) against those of the untethered, instinctual, the felt (or ‘feminine’). If there is one power shift that might be said to define our modern age (certainly to divide generations) then surely it involves a conversation around gender.

This isn’t so much a binary division between the sexes (aren’t we moving beyond all that, now?); it’s about what some call the ‘warrior’ and ‘goddess’ aspects of our individual human psyches – the first identified with reason and masculinity, the second with intuition and femininity. A natural and productive power struggle within us all. Faith and psychology have become inextricably interwoven at this point in history. Linear ideas (progress, science, the spirit) must jostle against cyclical ones (the natural, the bodily, the soulful, the intuitive). Both serve a purpose. Both are essential. Mary, unbound, within the Christian narrative, is both powerful and radical. As such she is (and has always been) a potentially game-changing figure. The Church needs her in order to evolve, to grow and to flourish – to find a new and richer meaning without losing what is valuable and already known. Mary is a signpost both to the past and to the future. She is important. All credit to Chris Maunder for fighting so heroically, inch by passionate inch, to try and allow some extra room for her.