St Mary, Women, And Church

Have you ever felt like you’re on the outside? Have you ever felt that people simply don’t see who you really are?

If you have, you’re not alone. It’s been the experience of millions of people, for all kinds of reasons. Whether it be race, nationality, class, economics, education, or gender, the division between inside and outside is often stark and very painful.

When faced with something that is challenging, or doesn’t quite fit, the temptation is usually to domesticate it. To fit it into a box, give it a clearly defined role, and generally in so doing remove most, if not all of its power.

This is what some people argue has been done with St Mary, and by extension to generations of women. When we think of St Mary, the image that very often comes to mind is either that of the Madonna and child, or the incredible, harrowing tragedy that is the figure of the Pieta. We either see a woman cradling her infant, or a mother mourning the death of her son. But in both cases the woman is defined by her child, and is not there in her own right.

In all that follows, I emphasise this is my own thinking from many years of reading, reflection and experience, and is not intended as a scholarly exposition, but rather a thread of thought. I write as a woman, as a mother, as a priest, and as a single parent and thus the breadwinner for my family; and I hope and pray that I cause no offence to any, for my only intention is to share some thoughts on Mary and how perhaps the Church (and society) have perceived women, and what of that lingers today.

For a very long time, the Christian church (in its various denominations) has had a tendency to define and control the place of women, and has often used Mary to do this. The place of a woman is at home; raising children; looking after the men; and generally always in a support role. A woman may win best supporting actress, but she’s rarely there in the title role.

I began to watch the TV series Mrs America, and it struck me in just the first episode just how true this was. Cate Blanchett, who plays the “anti hero” Phyllis Schlafly, embodies this. There is an incredible moment when she realises that her husband only supported her bid to run for public office because he believed she would fail; if he had thought she would win, thus inconveniencing him and his family, it is clear he would not have done so. And yet she continues to support the antifeminist stance (and her husband) because this principle is what her entire life is built upon. She is the epitome of the best supporting actress, and ironically is famous for campaigning to support the system which denies her what some might consider the title role in her own life.

There is a paradox in this. Because arguably, the role of mother is one of the most important in our society. It is for mothers (potentially more than fathers) to nurture the next generation with love, empathy, and compassion so that when it is their turn to take to the stage, they are well equipped to do so and to shine in their own lives, whatever it is they may choose to do. And yet, there is too often a stigma for those women who choose to stay home and to be primarily mother; and a lack of value within society for this vital role.

Equally there is deep criticism for those women who choose to go out to work (or more likely have to go to work) and to carve some kind of independence and a career for themselves. And this is to say nothing of those who have no choice but to juggle everything all at once – mother, breadwinner, taxi service, homework assistant, and everything in between! The statistics of the division of labour during lockdown have revealed just how far equality between the sexes has not come!

To get back to Mary, I find it strange that the Church should uphold her as the epitome of conventional motherhood when she is in fact nothing of the kind. I return to my opening questions: have you ever felt on the outside? Have you ever felt that people don’t really see who you truly are? To present Mary as this paragon of obedience and quiet womanly virtue, when, if we look at her story more closely, that could not be further from the truth.

Mary was an unmarried teenage mother. That isn’t easy now; in her culture (as is still true in some places), it could have led to her death. She became a refugee with her husband and her son. Her son then becomes an itinerant rabbi with politically and religiously dynamite views; and how many people would have looked askance at her for how she brought him up, that he would behave in such a way. Whether she followed him in his ministry are not is a little uncertain. What is fairly clear is that she was there at his death. There is little in this story which suggests a quiet and unassuming little woman! Indeed her very words in response to the Archangel Gabriel when he comes to visit her to tell her that she is to become the mother of the Messiah are indicative of a woman of rather feisty opinion.

Mary has come to represent the feminine balance for many Christians who find the male Trinity sometimes a little overwhelming. She puts a female figure right at the heart of Christianity where otherwise there would be only males.

For some who feel unworthy to approach God directly, Mary is the one they choose to pray to, asking her to speak to Jesus on their behalf, feeling that Jesus will listen to his mother whereas he might not listen to them directly. Mary is the one to whom the humble and the broken have often turned seeking nurture and comfort, perhaps because we more instinctively turn to our mothers than our fathers in such moments.

And so Mary has almost become for some Christians the Divine Mother. In some traditions she is called Mother of God. For others this title is blasphemous; but as one theologian famously asked, if she isn’t the mother of God, then who is she? The Greek Orthodox call her Theotokos, meaning literally God-bearer. But my observation is that in our Western Christian culture in particular, it can feel as if, in confining Mary as mother, we take away her power as a person in her own right. Have those who held the power in the Church historically made her – and by extension all ‘good’ Christian women – into a certain mould, leaving no room in the divine hierarchy for those who don’t fit. Just think of Joan of Arc!

But it is through Mary that God becomes one of us, in Jesus. It is interesting to wonder whether, in this act of Incarnation, perhaps God restores the balance once more between men and women, between male and female. Perhaps this is a way of helping us to realise that we are completely interdependent and we need one another. I hasten to add this is not in the ‘complementarian’ argument, where women occupy a very necessary but also subordinate place to men. But rather in the sense of true interdependence, where one cannot fully thrive unless the other also is able to fully flourish and be themselves.

So next time when we look at Mary and we are tempted to dismiss her and the church’s portrayal of her as simply the Mother of Jesus, a compliant, quiet, obedient and uncomplaining figure, let us look again. For in the face of that woman holding the child, I see a warrior. In the figure of the woman holding the body of her son, I see one who understands the grief of the world. And in the words of the girl who was chosen by God to be the mother of his son, I hear the words of hope, possibility, and divine love.