The next Archbishop of Canterbury is devoted to Our Lady, says Luke Coppen. Protestants in his own communion are not happy
Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin by Rowan Williams, Canterbury Press £7.99
There is an intriguing passage in St Louis Marie de Montfort's classic treatise on Marian devotion, True Devotion to the Ble.s.sed Virgin, where the saint looks forward to an era when Church leaders will be marked by an outstanding commitment to Mary. In this age, St Louis says, there will be ministers of the Lord who consecrate themselves entirely to the Virgin as "slaves of love". "They will experience her motherly kindness and affection for her children. They will love her tenderly and will appreciate how full of compassion she is and how much they stand in need of her help. In all circumstances they will have recourse to her as their advocate and mediatrix, with Jesus Christ. They will see clearly that she is the safest, easiest, shortest and most perfect way of approaching Jesus and will surrender themselves to her, body and soul, without reserve in order to belong entirely to Jesus." The appearance of these "great men" will signal the imminent arrival of Christ.
In the 1930s, St Louis's `heady prophecies fell into the hands of a young actor who felt the stirrings of a call to the priesthood. The actor read the treatise through several times then . decided to put the saint's teaching into practice. When he became a priest, and later bishop, people commented on his remarkable Marian devotion. When he was elected pope in 1978 he added the letter "M" to the papal herald as a sign of his attachment to Mary. Soon Pope John Paul H was dubbed "the Marian pope".
So far, so good for St Louis. But is there anything remarkable about the appearance of a pope devoted to Mary? Marian devotion is, after all, a hallmark of Catholic piety. A Marian Archbishop of Canterbury? Now that really would be something.
Step forward Rowan Williams, Archbishop-designate of Canterbury. In the months preceding his appointment almost no aspect of Williams's personality — or hirsute appearance escaped comment. But few writers noted the Catholic pedigree of the future head of the Anglican Communion. While discerning his vocation, Williams was a regular visitor to Downside Abbey and he seriously considered joining the Benedictines. Those who suspect Williams's attraction to Catholicism was merely a youthful flirtation should go out immediately and buy his latest book, Ponder These Things. They will learn from the introduction that these beautifully crafted reflections on the art of icon writing were first given during a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. They will also discover the strength and ardour of Williams's devotion to Mary.
Williams considers the three great "families" of icons of Our Lady — the Hodegetria, the Eleousa and the Orans. Each family, he says, tells something about Mary's role as an intercessor between man and God. They reveal her as "the person who stands on the frontier between promise and fulfilment, between earth and heaven, between the two Testaments", heralding the redemption of the world through Jesus. His reflections are sparely written, penetrating and provocative. Looking at the Eleousa image, which shows Jesus clinging to his Mother, he sees a God who is prepared to humiliate himself to arouse mankind's love. It is, he says, an image of "the love of God in search of us, as unselfconscious and undignified as the clinging child, as undignified as the father in the story of the Prodigal Son running down the road to greet his lost child, an image of the immense freedom of divine love, the freedom to be defenceless and without anxiety".
His acute insights are, for the most part, unblurred by Anglican fuzziness. The great exception is his reflection on the Orans image, which shows Mary at prayer with Christ in her womb. Here
Mary is presented as the praying Church, "a Church that does not need constantly to be reassuring itself of its success or even its total purity ... a Church that understands it does not always understand what is most important or central in its life — or, in other words, a Church that is not too worried about pinning down where the centre is".
0 ne can't help sensing an implicit criticism of the Catholic Church here. But there is little elsewhere that will irritate Catholics and much that will inspire them. Indeed, it is staunch Protestants, not Catholics, who will be most offended by this book. When the first copies went out, Williams was accused of heresy by Anglican evangelicals. To them, the Archbishop of Canterbury's praise of Mary smacked of Mariolatry. One can think of no greater recommendation for reading it.