England will be rededicated to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ, on March 29th, 2020. This renews a formal public dedication in 1381 by Kind Richard II. His Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel spoke of the tradition of England being the Dowry of Mary as being even then “of common parlance”. We know of this idea of the country being dedicated to Mary – this reality indeed – as a matter of deeply held devotion, of historical continuity with England before the Reformation, of poetry and picture and song. The beautiful Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery (picture – below) is the most marked representation of this we have and a miraculous survival from those times.
Embedded in history, in our own devotional life, in the story of our country, what has been the effect of the whole country being under her protection beyond this sphere? Has it affected and moulded our history in the fullest sense, in our laws, in our governance, in our customs, in our society? This has been little examined. The poet’s cry at the time of the Great War in 1914:
‘What stands if freedom falls? Who dies if England lives?’ begs the question – what is this England that it should live, that it must live?
And when Winston Churchill in June 1940 said:
“The Battle of France is over: I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions”, he was describing institutions shaped above all in the period when England was proclaimed the Dowry of Mary: Parliament, the Law, the Monarchy were all intrinsically formed in the centuries prior to the Reformation. How much of this depended on England being the Dowry? This has not been examined at all. It is a vast and speculative enterprise even to start to do so. But it may well be answered by approaching the matter from the perspective of our own times. For one of the motives for the re-dedication is of course the re-evangelisation of England; and, given her history, not so much to be seen as a conversion of England as its reclamation, its restoration to its true self. But how is that to work? How does the Dowry work in the public sphere? How and with what ideas or ideals, and with what purpose do we work from the private devotional sphere of the Dowry, of pilgrimages to Walsingham where the national shrine is, from our prayers and our practices to the public issues of our country? Do we do that at all?
The general aspect of Christian witness, of individual formation by the example and aid of Mary, of pilgrimage and devotion stands clear and sure. But the Dowry is a more profound matter. It touches on the whole country. It is a question of identity.
As Mary was the mother of God, and the second person of the Blessed Trinity was incarnate in her very person, so we must look to a similar “conception” in the dowry itself.
It also serves as a script for our own public witness to Christ that seeks to imbue again – reclaim and restore if you like – the whole of England with the virtues of her son. Make England incarnate in its own nature the virtues and the “lyklynesse” of his kingdom.
This has a general aspect – to understand our work in the public sphere and our evangelisation not just as witness in the heart and mind and soul, which is of course where it must start, but carried over into the public sphere. An exemplar of how this has and did work in history is the very compelling prayer of Admiral Lord Nelson before Trafalgar, where the public duty is predicated and informed by the private piety and the two flow together. The story goes that on the morning of Trafalgar, Nelson was found kneeling in his cabin, saying this prayer, which he also wrote down:
‘May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my
country and for the benefit of Europe in general,
a great and glorious victory: and may no misconduct,
in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory
be the predominant feature in the British fleet.
For myself individually, I commit my life to Him
who made me and may His blessing light upon
my endeavours for serving my country faithfully.
To Him I resign myself and the just cause
which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.’
It is that kind of engagement that a proper understanding and devotion to the Dowry can then prompt in our public dealings and in our work, social activities, professions, witness.
It is this idea of incarnating in our public life the virtues of Christ and his kingdom – making those things unseen seen in the functioning of our body politic and in our social relations – in exactly the same way Mary made the very person of God incarnate in her body and then visible to the world, in for instance the Epiphany, the Presentation, the Wedding at Cana, that carries over from the private sphere of devotion into the public realm of action and argument and process and practicality.
And it is not inaccurate to see the tale of our country in this light, with those great “gifts” of England to the world – the rule of law, Parliament, liberty, care for others in the welfare state – being exact counterparts of this incarnation.
To regain sight of that gives us motive from our private devotion to Mary and to the Dowry for its proper public expression. But it is even deeper and more critical to the world we live in today, beset as it is by the twin pressures of a rampant secularism that almost denies religion the right to exist in the public sphere, and at times almost in the private; and the fundamentalism of political belief – whether of right or left and also now of religious allegiance – that would use violence to establish its “rule”. Between these – as Christ ever did between the two thieves – stands the “English” or British way of resolving conflict without killing; of appealing to and respecting the higher role of the law, independent of partiality and prejudice; of asking the people who are governed what their government should be. It is interesting and illustrative of my thesis that the word “vote” and the word “vow” come from the same Latin root – volens, that which is of a person’s free will, what they wish, what they volunteer. This is a prime example of how the internal devotion passes into the public sphere.
But with this shrine at Walsingham there is an even more particular aspect to this that touches on the great theme of our history – the defence of freedom. For what is the feast that the shrine honours? The Annunciation. And what happened at the Annunciation? Mary was asked to become the mother of God. Note: asked, not compelled. The catechism of the Catholic Church makes this abundantly clear. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992 para 494 “Thus giving consent to God’s word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus.” Mary as in the Deuteronomy she would have known so well – I have set before thee life and death; therefore, choose life – was given a choice. She chose and we are forever the beneficiaries.
Again, this personal link – the intimate inner communion with God in his spirit with her consent at the Angel’s words to conceive his son in her womb – passes over for England into the very thing she has defended with such passion, such pain, such blood and cost down the centuries – Freedom! The list is known to all schoolchildren. King Alfred and the Danes, the Armada, Napoleon at Boulogne and our own Nelson at Trafalgar; the Somme and Passchendaele; and above all in the skies over England in 1940. As the Poles who fought so well and to such good effect at that time, whose 80th anniversary falls this same year as the rededication we are set upon, always said “For your freedom and ours“. But it is that act of will that the shrine honours in the incarnation of God’s son in human flesh that then becomes the rallying cry of the best of our purpose as a nation. Is it coincidence? Hardly, I think. It is woven into the fabric of who we are, of every inch of our history. And it finds its ground and origin in the feast that the shrine honours, the Annunciation (right). How does this carry over now, in our time, into the public sphere?
It is interesting how something that has emerged in the last few years – Fundamental British Values that must be taught in all schools – are in fact the fruit of the long Christian centuries this country has lived. There are also very direct parallels and analogies between the Dowry, the shrine at Walsingham and Christian witness in certain quite fraught but vital areas of modern life. Education for instance, where the image of mother and child gives a pattern for the role of parents as primary educators which is an acute battleground at the moment and where Christian witness could well join to Judaic and Islamic witness – all drawing from the core Abrahamic tenets of all 3 faiths – to uphold the role and rights of parents and the family. The shrine itself was a house, not a statue, and represents the holiness of the home and the affections that are formed within it.
There is the recovery of Marian processions, crownings, the language of making sacred our ordinary life, which give ceremony and blessing on our ordinary affairs by exalting them in her name and image.
There is of course the whole role of women with Mary’s own life portraying so many particular female experiences – exile or refugee, protection of her child from the murdering state (abortions, trafficking), social justice in her Magnificat, we presume widowhood as Joseph does not appear in Christ’s Ministry?
How much is this true now with so many children born of single parents, afflicted by the breakdown of marriage or their parents being together, beset with so many influences that strive to deny their natural life in having parents, in being born male and female, as scripture says he made them. How much is the shrine and the image of Mary so potent a symbol for our own times, encompassing so much of what afflicts us!
But there is a further aspect where the Dowry has acute significance in the troubles of our own time and indeed in our own country.
Mary is both a symbol and a focus of the ability of those of different faiths to work together. This is again one – the fourth – of those Fundamental British Values that we are enjoined to teach our children “mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs”. She is both a Jewish maiden, the mother of one of Islam’s prophets, and of course for Christians the mother of our incarnate God. There is no need to gloss over our theological differences. They are real and cannot be imagined away. But there is no dispute over Mary’s humanity, her motherhood of Jesus, her own devotion as a woman of prayer. Being the person England is endowed to, England therefore can be a place where these three great faiths – so often in conflict or division – can find a common focus for their joint contribution to society in seeing this country as belonging to her whom they all venerate in different ways. But in the societal, public sphere that can act as a tremendous focus and agent of mutual respect and tolerance, as we all have her in common.
This does not exhaust what the Dowry has to offer our country. But uniquely for us as Christians, it can provide the bridge from the private to the public and to the evangelistic. For formed in the Holy House of her faith and example, we can then, as Christ did himself all those years ago, set out from her house imbued with its values to form and frame the social and public relations we engage in with the very values of that kingdom of love, justice and peace that inform its inner essence, which can then, through us as its agents, translate into the public sphere to his honour and glory … and reclaim our land for its rightful King & Queen, who reign for ever in heaven.