During my recently-concluded vacation, I read (and very much enjoyed) Ken Follett's World Without End, a novel set in fourteenth century England and in which the Black Plague is one of the main characters. The narrative suggests that the terror associated with the Plague helped spur an increase in devotion to the Blessed Virgin. As a sympathetic feminine presence, many perceived her as more accessible than God, who was too busy being God (including sending the Plague to punish miserable sinners) to be a likely source of succor. Sometimes we just need a Mom.
Of course, a couple of hundred years later, the Reformers responded strongly to what they perceived as excessive devotion to Our Lady, believing it to compromise the unique mediatorial office of her Divine Son. Ever since, she has been a lightning rod in the various controversies between the Catholic and Reformed traditions in western Christianity. My sense is that both sides have indulged in hyper-reactivity to one another. Protestants are generally downright Mary-phobic, forgetting her own words in scripture, "All generations will call me blessed." And while I don't impute this to official Roman Catholic teaching, the Marian piety of many Catholics does seem a little "over the top," giving rise to jokes like the one about Jesus walking into St Patrick's Cathedral and trying to get the attention of a woman kneeling in prayer. Her response? "Don't bother me. Can't you see I'm talking to your mother?"
We are not, thankfully, suffering today anything like the Black Death of the fourteenth century (estimated to have wiped out perhaps half the population of Europe). But we apparently still need a Mom. As long ago as when I took the General Ordination Exams (1989), I knew to be careful not to use masculine pronouns for God, and to be parsimonious in my use of "Father" and "Lord," lest I arouse the ire of those who would be evaluating my work. More recent seminarians inform me that committing such offenses in academic writing these days yields an automatic 'F.' Experimental liturgies, Anglican and otherwise, are not at all shy about giving 'Mother' at least equal time with 'Father' in referring to God, and the routine use of the feminine pronoun in speaking of the Holy Spirit is increasingly widespread.
I'm not going to do any heresy-jousting in this post, beyond saying that there are all kinds of theological reasons why these things really creep me out. Curiously, the impetus for such licentiousness in theological language is much lower among our Roman Catholic friends. Yeah … I know … not entirely absent. But much lower. Of course, one can attribute that to a very hierarchical polity with a small group of single old men at the top of the pyramid. But I think that's a simplistic explanation. I think the main reason Roman Catholics and Orthodox don't feel the need (as much) to feminize God is that they already have a Mom, and they know who she is, and they're comfortable bending her sympathetic ear.
As an Anglo-Catholic (and loyal son of Nashotah House), I like to think I'm on friendly terms with the Mother of God. I pray the Angelus and the Regina Coeli. I pray the Rosary (the real Rosary, with the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and now Luminous Mysteries—not an "Anglican" surrogate). Many other Anglicans do as well. This is well and good. But I would suggest, with apologies to Emeril, that we need to "kick it up a notch." For many Anglicans who have any Marian piety (and I'm looking in a mirror here), it is yet too conceptual, too cerebral. We need to make it more a matter of the heart. It's a good thing to honor and revere the Theotokos. It's a still better thing to love her. She is, after all, our Mom.