The Return to Allegory: Sermon for the Blessed Virgin Mary 2021


The Blessed Virgin Mary

15th August 2021

Christ Church Cathedral


Discerning the Mystery, Andrew Louth, Clarendon Press 1983

Praise Seeking Understanding, Jason Byassee, Eerdmans, 2007

I will make your name to be remembered

through all generations :

therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.

Psalm 45

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In just over two weeks time I will, God willing, be staying in Burgundy just a few miles from the Taizé Community in France. Taizé is a community of brothers, monks, founded in the second world war, drawn from both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. There are now dozens of brothers in the community and every year, Covid notwithstanding, thousands of young people gather to pray, live and work with the brothers.

It is an extraordinary, life-changing place.

I have visited almost every year of my adult life.  As a Headteacher in Lewisham we always took a group of Year 10 pupils, fourteen and fifteen year olds, for a week’s pilgrimage to Taizé.

In the community church there are many large icons. In 2012 the pupils I had taken asked me if we could commission an artist to paint an icon for our school. When the new school year began we consulted with the School Council and Governing Body and a small group of pupils was selected to oversee the project.

We found a well known iconographer, Helen McIldowie-Jenkins, and invited her to come and visit us. The pupils liked her at once and she set about showing them many icons and talking about what they wanted. The school was a majority black school and Helen showed the pupils pictures of some of the world’s famous black Madonna statues and images, they immediately noticed something about these figures. Most of them may have dark skin but the features were European not African. Occasionally a Madonna with dark skin would be accompanied by a distinctly Caucasian looking Jesus.

The pupils were determined that both Mary and Jesus should be properly African, in shape of face, skin colour and hair.

This is a reproduction of the original icon which is about twice as big and covered in much gold leaf. I think it is very beautiful.

Jesus’ afro hair is clear, as are Mary’s braids emerging from her head covering. The cloth of Mary’s clothing reproduces west African Kente fabric but using the school logo. The four medallions at the top represent the four archangels the school’s Houses were named after. Mary is seated on the throne of wisdom, the teacher’s seat, and points to Jesus. At the foot of the icon are two rivers representing the two rivers running through Lewisham, the Quaggy and the Ravensbourne.  At the centre of the foot is a well, illustrating the holy well that had been a feature of medieval devotion to Mary, Our Lady, in Lewisham and giving its name to the area known as Ladywell to this day.

In today’s gospel Mary in her great hymn of praise sings of overthrowing powers, of the lowly being lifted up.

I don’t want to reflect this morning on the significance of the Magnificat in issues relating to race. 

Rather I want to apply this overthrowing of the powerful to the academic world of biblical studies which has so dominated the way Christians read our Scriptures.

I suggest, quite strongly, that we need to overthrow the model of biblical studies that has been dominant for over a century and a half and raise up the church’s traditional way of reading Scripture that has been treated as the lowly cousin of true academic study for too long. 

Historical-critical methods of reading Scripture have dominated not only the academic community but clergy training and seminaries, bible studies and popular reading on Scripture. Our life, the life of the church has been diminished by this dominance, we have been starved of our connection to the christians of the early centuries, our imaginations have been blighted, our connection to Jesus in the Old Testament severed and our understanding of the way that the biblical writers themselves read Scripture left rudderless.

Look at the icon of Our Lady of Lewisham. Of course Mary, the woman of Nazareth, Miriam married to Joseph, was not a black African, she didn’t have braided hair or wear Kente cloth, Jesus did not have Afro hair. 

But that is to miss the point entirely.

When you look at the icon of our Lady of Lewisham you are looking at an allegory in picture form. Mary, the first believer shows us all the way of faith in Jesus. Her ‘yes’ is the ‘yes’ that every human being, black women, black men, white women, whoever we are we can say ‘yes’ to Jesus.

We all have human biology, it is not that which makes Mary the one, who as Psalm 45 put it, will be “remembered through all generations”.

And of course, whoever wrote Psalm 45, however many centuries ago could not possibly have any idea that these verses would be sung, in a twenty first century cathedral in Oxford about a first century woman in Nazareth. Thank you to Amici Coro for singing this psalm so beautifully this morning.

To put it bluntly and, no doubt simplistically, the historical critical method of reading Scripture asks only one question: “What was the original author’s intended meaning?”

This is not an unimportant question, and the answer for the various genres of Scripture is certainly not in itself uninteresting or unhelpful, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough to sustain our Christian lives, to enable us to meet Jesus in all of Scripture, not enough to deepen our prayer, to convert us ever more to the holy living that is God’s intention for each of us.

It would not be enough if we were talking about literature of any place or time. Yes, it is great to see productions of Shakespeare that seek to reproduce how a play might have been originally performed. But how much more wonderful to see as I did in the Cathedral Garden two weeks ago a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 70’s disco gear and woven in with ABBA hits.

Now just in case you are worried that the Sub Dean has taken leave of his senses, which, after all might be perfectly understandable, what I am calling for is nothing original to me. I think that the theologian Andrew Louth is responsible for the phrase, back in 1983. It is nothing less than a “return to allegory”.

Louth describes allegory  “as a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the scriptures”.

A recent writer, Jason Byasee, goes so far as to say that “Christianity is an inherently allegorical faith”.

It is when we abandon allegory that we end up with fundamentalisms of all kinds. It is simply a myth that there is any such thing as “the plain meaning of Scripture”, or that it would desirable that there were.

Life is complex. The world is complex. Simplistic explanations are the fake narratives that lead to Donald Trump being elected President of the United States.

For the complexity of Scripture let’s think for a moment about the psalms. the psalms are the essential element of Christian prayer. Psalm 45 which we have just heard is a good example. Historical criticism tells us that it is a “royal psalm” possibly used as a wedding song for the marriage of a king of Judah.  Some think that it may date to the time of Solomon.

All of that is good to know. But for us as Christians, this psalm is chosen for this feast of Mary, we read it in relation to her, think of her a syou hear these words:

Psalm 45:10–end

10 Hear, O daughter; consider and incline your ear :

forget your own people and your father’s house.

11 So shall the king have pleasure in your beauty :

he is your lord, so do him honour.

12 The people of Tyre shall bring you gifts :

the richest of the people shall seek your favour.

13 The king’s daughter is all glorious within :

her clothing is embroidered cloth of gold.

14 She shall be brought to the king in raiment of needlework :

after her the virgins that are her companions.

15 With joy and gladness shall they be brought :

and enter into the palace of the king.

16 ‘Instead of your fathers you shall have sons :

whom you shall make princes over all the land.

17 ‘I will make your name to be remembered

through all generations :

therefore shall the peoples praise you for ever and ever.’

To return to Jason Byasee, he places Scripture and Creed at the heart of our Christian faith, indeed we shall recite the Nicene Creed in just a moment, that Creed is from the heart of the Patristic faith, faith of our fathers and mothers, the faith hammered out in the early centuries of the church.

Byassee states “You cannot have patristic dogma without patristic exegesis; you cannot have creed without allegory … the theological heritage treasured in common by Protestants and Catholics alike rests upon a “foundation” of allegory.”.

So my plea on this feast of Mary, is that we embrace complexity and reject simple falsehoods. That we use our imaginations to read Scripture multi-vocally, to hear many voices. To allow the Word of God to speak to our own complex selves. To meet Jesus in the psalms, to recognise him as the living Word at the very beginning of creation. 

As I think of Mary, I have never, even as a child, been able to imagine her as a demure and obedient maiden. That didn’t match any actual girl or woman I knew.

Now, in later life I imagine her rather like those older women you see in Malta, or Greece or southern Italy. Women dried out by the sun and by life, but with eyes as sharp as ravens. Women about whom it could so easily be said ‘takes no prisoners’. I love those women. I love Mary and I love having her in my life.

When we commissioned the icon of Our Lady of Lewisham the school chaplain, Mother Juliet wrote a prayer for her.

Generous God,

source and fountain of life,

in Mary, Mother of us all,

we see courage, boldness and strength

risking all to welcome your Son Jesus.

As we celebrate our diversity

grant that her ferocious love may well up with us

to bring justice and establish your peace.

May Our Lady of Lewisham, pray for us, may we know her in all her complexity, may we experience her ferocious love.


Singing the Daily Office – August 2021

UPDATE 13 08 21 here is the booklet I use for the Ordinary Time Office to provide Common refrains, musical setting of the Magnificat and Benedictus refrains in Comon Worship and Hymns:

On working days I arrive in the Cathedral just before 6:30am, turn the lights on, pay a short visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the memorial Chapel and then pray at the shrine of St Frideswide. It is a beautiful time and a beautiful way to start the day. At 6:45 the duty verger arrives. I can tell which of our verging team it is by the sounds they make. At 7 I move to my stall in choir. I know the order my sister and brother canons and clergy will arrive in and recognise the sounds of them entering the building. I love this sense of our community gathering for prayer. The sadness of the Dean’s empty stall a reminder of the difficulties of our community but also of the steadfastness of the prayer in this place, faithfully fulfilled for over 1300 years despite the turbulence of each age.

Like many Anglo-Catholics I have a well developed inner monastic and thought, as a teenager, that I would join a monastic community. That romanticism has never left me and my romantic spirit is well fed as we gather for prayer in Christ Church day by day. Even on my days off I think of the gathering in my absence and often sneak into the building to say hello to St Frideswide at some point in the day.

We say a fairly straightforward Common Worship Daily Prayer Morning Office. In the evening we pray Prayer Book Evensong, usually sung by one of our choirs and in normal times by visiting choirs in the vacations. Despite not having a great voice I love to sing. My first experience of the Office was at Douai Abbey in my early teens and the sung Office always seems normative to me. I have written often on my blogs about singing the Office, the joy of punctuating the day with the traditional Little Hours, of praying Psalm 119 daily and rising early on working days to vigil the Lord. I love the Grail translation of the psalms but using three different translations (CW, Grail and BCP) proved tiresome, so a few months ago I began using CW texts at all Hours. This post is simply a place to provide the Ordinary booklet for those who might want it for their own personal use. So here it is in PDF format. If you would like it in Pages format please email me and I will send it. I use Pages rather than Word. The Vigils booklet is also provided for those who want it, the cover is provided first.