Flower Pot Theology

March 28, 2014 Length: 25:28

Fr. Gregory Hallam describes the short shrift given to the Holy Theotokos and her Annunciation in some Christian circles as "Flower Pot Theology."





The origin of the public house or pub in England, what our American friends call a bar, is to be found in the front room of a larger townhouse which, in the Middle Ages, was given over to hospitality of travellers, providing both ale and food. In those days many people were illiterate and it was necessary for the public house to display its identity on the street. In times when Christianity could be overt and on display in the public square, unlike the circumstances of secularism which afflict us today, the public house sign often had a Christian theme. Common amongst these were depictions of the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to our Lady, today’s feast of course. The name underneath for those who could read was often simply “The Salutation.” This refers of course to the greeting with which the Archangel Gabriel hailed Mary. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. For thouy hast born the Salvation of our souls.”

Western iconography at this time was still recognisably Orthodox, so the pub sign showed the Mother of God kneeling in prayer before the Archangel and by her side a flowerpot with a white lily, characteristically the symbol of purity for the ever Virgin Mary in the Christian West. Now there are still pubs today called The Salutation, one indeed can be found in Manchester city centre. Rarely if ever, however, will you find a sign depicting the Annunciation over these pubs. Sometimes the title of old pubs of this vintage has changed; sometimes the title was kept but instead of the biblical saying we get all sorts of other greetings and meetings, a different context.  They were, as they say today, rebranded.  Some Salutation pubs in England for example show the famous scene when Sir Walter Raleigh met Queen Elizabeth the First and spread his cloak over a puddle across which the Queen could pass. This speaks volumes of course of the 16th Century Protestant English rebranding whereby the Virgin Queen Elizabeth replaced the Queen of heaven Mary. We may detect other changes in the titles and signs of these old public houses which also map the development of English religious sensibilities since the Reformation and these are highly instructive for our understanding of the mission of the Orthodox Church in the West today. So let us consider them.  My main reference will be to England.

At the Reformation the veneration of Mary fell into disfavour with low church Protestants. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she got airbrushed out of the pub sign. Substantially what was left of course was the Angel. This is why we have so many pubs today, more numerous than The Salutation, entitled The Angel. In the 17th century the Puritans, (who of course were strongly represented in the early American colonies and took their traditions there), were true iconoclasts and against the depiction of any creature in art, claiming that it broke the second commandment.  This was quite unlike Luther’s own position which was generally not iconoclastic unlike Calvin and his successors.  Anyway the Puritans in the 17th Century were stricter in their stance against figurative art, (much like Muslims and Orthodox Jews), also including a ban against the cross in some places, so the Angel had to go as well. This meant that many of those pub signs and titles which had formerly been the Angel now simply became The Flowerpot, often with the lily missing, for rather obvious reasons. This explains the legacy of those pubs, quite numerous today, called the Flowerpot. They are certainly not an homage to Alan Titchmarsh.  There are a number of these also in the Greater Manchester area and throughout the country.

Now what’s the point of me telling you all this? It’s instructive, it’s amusing, it’s incidentally connected to today’s Feast - but does it have a theological significance for us as Christians? Yes indeed it does. On the one hand I shall refer to flowerpot theology (the title of this sermon) and on the other I shall show how the recovery of the Annunciation might help to put the lily back in the pot, the Angel back in the top corner and the Mother of God back in the middle, not just of the pub signs of course (as trivial issue perhaps) but of our personal and social lives, including a Christian presence in the public square, now under attack in the west.

First what is flowerpot theology? Flowerpot theology is a theology stripped of the sacred and all that is holy and divinely human. It is a theology, heterodox of course, which has no place for the Incarnation on the grounds that God does not dirty His hands with becoming human, still less intervening in the affairs of this world. The “god” of flowerpot theology is abstract, inert, impersonal, theoretical and devoid of all human warmth. Flowerpot theology like the flowerless flowerpot itself is a meaningless and empty thing neither attractive, nor functional, nor inspirational. Rather flowerpot theology is both the perfect vehicle for secularism and the absence of Christ, his Mother and the Saints in the public square. You can see this in the modern rebranding of certain pubs that formerly had an explicit Christian reference in the name.  So “St. George” becomes “The George” and “St. Peter” becomes “The Keys.”  This stripping of Christian references and symbolism is nothing less than the death of Christianity in the public consciousness and imagination.  It has followed the trajectory of the long drawn out decline of the Christianity in the west and its fearful retreat into an arid little corner of privatised religion, pious sentiment and abstract scholastic theology. To remedy this the flowerpot theology must be smashed (metaphorically speaking; I am no Taliban Christian!), the sign, that is, the icon, redrawn and the pub, the Church, the divine hostelry of everything good and human in Christ our true God must be rebuilt. This rebuilding must be with the stones of Orthodoxy and not in any way retaining the desiccated remains of Protestant Christianity, or at least what remains of that after its rationalistic and deistic transformation in the so called Enlightenment.  To employ another mental analogy we must leave aside the wolf that blew down the straw house of Christianity inherited from the late medieval period in the west.

I have emphasised the necessity of breaking the flowerpot and raising to the ground the old decrepit building which is Christianity in the West in order to restore the vitality and warmth of Christianity and its connectedness to all things human as validated in the Incarnation. As Orthodox we can only build on the Faith of the Apostles attested to in the Scriptures and unfolded in the dynamic Tradition of the Undivided Church if we want to see this country reclaimed for Christ. Once the old edifice has been destroyed and let’s face it, it has destroyed itself, we need to rebuild.  In doing that, we need to keep open avenues of dialogue, debate and common action with others who are not Orthodox.  This rebuilding starts with the Annunciation, the Salutation and all that this signifies.

Before I leave flowerpot theology I just want to describe what might be characterised as the legacy of hyper-Calvinism.  This was the theology of the extreme Puritan movement.  What the Puritans and their successors were so incapable of grasping was that salvation was to be found in the whole dispensation of Christ, not only the Cross, which they focussed on to the exclusion of almost everything else, but also forward through the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost and in time backwards through Christ’s work and teaching to the Incarnation itself.  All of that dispensation is saving albeit that the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes the central hub around which all else turns.  The Incarnation was made possible by the “yes” of the Theotokos to God’s invitation given to her at the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel. This also has saved us.  Neglect that fullness and you lose the gospel itself, which is in fact the longer term legacy of the Puritan movement.

Sometimes when people visit an Orthodox Church and hear the words: “Most Holy Theotokos save us!” they think that we are putting Mary on a par with Jesus who is our only Saviour, Mediator and Advocate with the Father.  This, however, is to fail to appreciate and understand the Theotokos’ role in the Incarnation.  Without Mary there is NO Incarnation, NO Christ, NO Saviour.  It won’t do for them to say: “oh well, there would have come along an obedient Jewish girl eventually if not Mary, because, in that case, the same would need to be said of her instead.  NO woman, NO consent, NO Saviour, NO salvation.  So that’s why this all has to start with the Conception of Jesus and the.  All of this is saving.

The British now need to rediscover the central significance of the ever Virgin Mary in Christian belief, piety and action for it is she who brings Christ to us in her womb, a spiritual paradise according to one of our Christmas hymns.  By her example also in the Wedding at Cana of Galilee she also shows that we must do whatever He, that is Christ, tells us. Her own dedication from the time of her entry into the Temple as a little girl to the Annunciation itself and beyond was to do whatever God required of her.  As she said at the salutation of the Angel, “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word.”  People forget that Luther himself commended the saving obedience of Mary to God as something for all Christians to emulate!  Her obedience brought us Christ, our only Saviour. 

The Mother of God was once referred to as England’s dowry representing the bridal union of a whole nation and by extension to the rest of Britain to God. This wedding gift of the nation to God expressed in the idea of Mary’s dowry was so beautiful, evocative and intimate, speaking as it does of a common obedience bringing forth holiness. Remind the English of this now though and many get all hot and bothered thinking that we are worshipping Mary instead of Christ but the dowry remains a true and lasting part of our Christian heritage. 

However, in the 16th and 17th century the very heart of the Christian gospel began to be ripped out of our culture notwithstanding the sincerity, piety and commitment of many of our Reformed Brethren to their understanding of the Gospel. They perhaps could not have known what would happen so many centuries later when Christianity came under the knife of rationalism as developed by Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers.  Remember that this also happened in America where many of the Founding Fathers of modern America were not Puritans at all, as their forefathers had been but deists, those who placed God at a safe distance from creation and who instead emphasised the power of human reason.  The result was a desiccated, abstract and lifeless faith.

Back in England the same Enlightenment rationalism had taken hold.  It was Wesley, the architect of the Methodist movement in the Church of England and someone quite close to the spirit of Orthodoxy who called for something warmer, more vibrant, a living faith in the living God.  At his own conversion he felt his heart “strangely warmed” by the Holy Spirit as he heard the preacher’s words commenting on a text from Romans.  Wesley was strongly aware of the need for Christianity to be revivified in the west, renewed, to become warm again.  This explains his great devotion to St. Marcarios the Great and the Macarian Homilies which spoke of God and faith in similar terms. 

This part of the sermon therefore should not be read as a rant against Protestsant Christianity but rather as an acknowledgement of the heartfelt desire of many outside the Orthodox Church in the west to explore and rediscover what we, hopefully in a spirit of humility seek to proclaim and live out.  We rejoice in fact when any Christian person or tradition makes these discoveries and incorporates them into their own church life, in parallel to us as it were.  This is the basis for a true and lasting ecumenism.  This is in fact to bring the humanity of the Incarnation back into focus in the west and Mary’s place and role is central to that common endeavour.

Finally, there are many things that we could and should do to help bring Our Lady and the Incarnation back into the centre of Christian culture and imagination, thinking perhaps of how we can put the lily back in the flowerpot, the angel back in corner and the Mother of God back in the foreground of that great recovery project.

Perhaps we could start by encouraging particularly English Orthodox Christians to observe the beginning of the New Year on its original mediaeval date, not 1 January in the depths of winter but today, 25th March.  I understand the place of 1st September in our calendar but here in the west and in England in particular the 25th March, celebrating the Annunciation and the Conception of Jesus in the springtime would make much more sense as it recovers an important local Orthodox custom.  (Sorry Fr. Christopher, I know your love of January 1st New Year celebrations and Hogmanay with your Scottish connections, but there it is!).  Let’s move on to something a little more important.

In our Christian education and proclamation we must give due weight from the Tradition of the Church to the place and the role of the Theotokos, the Mother of God and Our Lady, in Christian faith and life.  We should welcome this approach when it is rediscovered or renewed in other churches as well.  It is part of our ecumenical work to do this.  We should also teach our own children and adults to be as familiar with the Hail Mary as the Our Father and to use this prayer of the Angel frequently and lovingly and faithfully, thereby invoking the aid and protection of the Mother of God in our lives. We should also seek out those ancient British sites of pilgrimage to the shrines of our Lady, most notably of course Walsingham and make them the flourishing vibrant centres of Christian mission that they once were.

A final issue must be addressed, and a sensitive one in connection with the gender wars of the 20th Century.  As Orthodox we need to challenge the over masculinised versions of heterodox Christianity that surround us and introduce again as a life giving balm the veneration of the woman whose womb was a “spiritual paradise”.  We do this not to reduce women to one vocation only, child-bearing, which is a feminist calumny, but because our salvation was only made possible through this holy woman, the Panagia.  The Mother of God consecrates all women to the task of presenting Christ to others and saying to men and women alike:- “do whatever He tells you.” 

Mary’s life was not one of domesticity, this calumny presented to us again by feminism. Hers was a hard life when she saw her Son die on the Cross when all the other disciples save herself and St. John had fled in fear.  A sword pierced her own soul also.  She was there with the disciples at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was outpoured.  She was there enabling, encouraging and developing her own witness to Christ when she went into exile.  Al this she presents to us as the calling of men and women alike to be effective Christians, modelled in her own consecrated person and work.

Now whether other people will take that ball and run with it and call for a fresh examination of the role of women in the Church including the ministry of women is an open question and cannot be discussed in this sermon.  Nonetheless I remind you that at the end of the Liturgy here, Fr. Christopher and I (and indeed other priests in this Deanery) deliberately say:-“Through the prayers of our holy fathers AND MOTHERS, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us, Amen.”  This is a reference to ALL the saints of the Church so we must be careful with our language and not leave 50% of these holy ones out of the picture!  (By the way “Fathers” in the original is not narrowly defined to those who worked for and sat on the Ecumenical Councils.  It is a reference to ALL the saints). 

We must also be careful with our practice.  I, for example, have been personally at meetings in the Orthodox Church on more than one occasion when a dozen or so middle aged men have gathered to make important decisions and there has not been a single woman in sight.  This is not acceptable.  How for example was St. Nina able to convert the first Christian nation, Georgia, whilst at the same time always having to enlist a priest or other man to do the preaching and catechetical work for her?  Think about it. 

So having done something to ensure that the Theotokos is properly honoured in our catechesis and our prayers, having renewed the ancient Christian shrines of this land dedicated to Our Lady, having ensured that in our ministry in various forms women as well as men are called, supported, equipped and honoured, what else can we do to help bring this nation back to Christ?  I think that it must be for each one of us to develop a close, personal and warm relationship with the Mother of God.  When I became Orthodox I knew something of this on account of my previous Christian tradition, but in truth I did not know the half of it.  At the beginning, I will be honest, it was a little difficult but what I have learned over the last 20 years is this – that not only is Christ in my heart by the power of the Holy Spirit but that she also is with me and she is also with all Christians.  And she, being that wonderful woman who responded to God’s call, is able to bring new life back into the Christianity of these Isles.  So it’s not simply about seeing Jesus but also about seeing Jesus through Mary’s eyes and that makes a big, big difference.

And so we ascribe as is justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always, now and ever and unto the ages of ages Amen.