TRIGGER WARNING. This post deals with theological discussions which have often upset people. Read with caution and kindness, or simply move on. Not all tenets of faith need to be deconstructed, at least not by all of us, at this time of year. I hope that those who persist in reading this might understand that there is majesty and divine grace in the ordinary parts of this story too…
I grew up attending an Anglican church which was very much on the ‘evangelical’, or even ‘charismatic’ wing of the church. Those for whom these labels mean little just need to know that we practised a fundamentalist version of Christianity, claiming biblical inerrant truth alongside an embrace of charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues and divine healing.
Whilst we had little time for what we saw as the idolatrous worship of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, that seemed to be happening in other parts of the church, nevertheless, we were firm in certain beliefs about Jesus’ miraculous conception.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,From ‘the apostles creed’
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Into this safe world of secure truth came the distant rumble of disruption, in the form of this man, who we regarded as the enemy;
I remember well how we denounced him because, above all else, he dared to doubt the virgin birth. A quote from this article gives some idea of the febrile atmosphere that I remember well;
In the mid to late 1980s the bishop of Durham was a public figure in the way no church figure has quite managed since. He had been a wholly unknown theology lecturer when he went on a scarcely watched television programme to say that he didn’t believe in the literal truth of the virgin birth. He also said that the resurrection “was not just a conjuring trick with bones”. This was reported, with a dishonesty that is still astonishing, as “comparing the resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones”.
I should probably explain that “the resurrection” refers to the central Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. A prime minister saying on the eve of the World Cup that football was extremely boring and they hoped England would lose quickly might carry the same emotional charge of treachery.
In Jenkins’ case, an Essex vicar raised £2,000 from his scandalised congregation to mount a campaign against Jenkins getting the job; the archbishop of York, John Habgood, went ahead and consecrated him a bishop anyway – and three days later York Minster was struck by lightning.Andrew Brown writing in the Guardian, 2016
Leaving aside the fact that we seemed to beleive that God would send an angry thunderbolt at the enthronment of a heretical bishop, whilst failing to intervene in any visible way at all those other human excesses like war and genocide, what this story reminds me of is what I have come to see as the house of cards version of religion. The edifice of faith I grew up always felt like a shuggly stack of cards. If you removed one of those cards, the whole thing would come tumbling down. Jenkins was shaking this tower and because of this, we hated him an everything he stood for.
As an aside to this story, years later I read an article in which an interviewer asked Bishop Jenkins to reflect on his leadership and in particular, asked ‘what if, when you get to heaven, you discover that you were wrong?’ His answer will stay with me forever. ‘I will fall in to the arms of a loving god’.
Jenkins was trying to encourage people to interact with the stories of the Bible in the way that he was used to doing with his theological studies – to see the stories not as scientific facts, but repositories of truth of a different kind. These days, I am fully at peace with this.
But back to our virgin. If you are interested in exploring the narrative around Mary’s virginity in a deeper way, both in terms of the theology and history of how it has been interpreted, then I very much recommend listening to this podcast.
Does it matter whether Mary was a virgin or not?
To many people, it matters enormously. Perhaps this is because of the house of cards stuff I was describing earlier, but more than this, for many, this part of the story is precious in that it carries an idea of the seperateness, the special purity of Mary herself, and how her pregnancy was entirely different.
This kind of incarnation seems to concern itself with extra-ordinary humanity. I like the idea too that the god child was born into the mess of the ordinary life.
God-with-us is not a reluctant participant, holding his nose against the stench.
Mary is a woman, not a pristine test-tube experiement in a heavenly air-gapped laboratory.
I no longer need to tick a doctrinal box about the nature of divine conception.
There, I have said it. All these years later it still feels transgressive. I am still ducking potential thunderbolts.
And does the house of cards come tumbling down?
Where you born already divine;
A scrap of human flesh with a
God only skin deep?
Or did the shape of Messiah-
The mewling lion of Judah
At the breast of this mother
Scarcely beyond child herself
You took in milk
What sort of woman
Might school the star maker?
Whose sharp words
Could cut through a
Heavenly tantrum like a
Shaft of light through shadow?
Did she teach the turning of
The other cheek against some teenage
Or perhaps this was always the point-
Power and might made tender flesh
The highest now most lowly
The filling up of hungry mouth
The arms that hold
The pride at a first step
The learning and the loving
The pulse of blood in fragile vein
The summer cough
From this material
A man was made
Who was also Messiah