Hail, Mary

She was there at the Cross. Yet Protestants seldom talk about Jesus' mother at Easter — or at most other times. But they are starting to now

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But things have begun to change, and not just among theologians. Xenia, Ohio, is no radical hotbed. Campaign signs there still promote Bush, half the weekday- morning radio dial features conservative religious fare, and most of Westminster Presbyterian's 300 members are middle-aged or older. Yet with a few exceptions, the 21 who recently gathered at the Rev. Maguire's Bible class were fascinated by his thoughts on Mary. "I always thought of her as the first disciple," said Corinne Whitesell, 74. "Rosaries and Hail Marys, that's not right. [But] that total submission to God is one of the most beautiful things about her." Said Gloria Wolff, 78: "We grew up in a time when women couldn't be elected as church elders. It's important to teach young women about the strong female role models in the church." Remarked John Burtch, 75: Maguire is "the new guy on the block, and he's got some interesting ideas. So we listen to him. We're open to change."

IN A SHIFT WHOSE IDEOLOGICAL BREADTH is unusual in the fragmented Protestant world, a long-standing wall around Mary appears to be eroding. It is not that Protestants are converting to Catholicism's dramatic exaltation: the singing of Salve Regina, the Rosary's Marian Mysteries, the entreaty to her in the Hail Mary to "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." Rather, a growing number of Christian thinkers who are neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox (another branch of faith to which Mary is central) have concluded that their various traditions have shortchanged her in the very arena in which Protestantism most prides itself: the careful and full reading of Scripture.

Arguments on the Virgin's behalf have appeared in a flurry of scholarly essays and popular articles, on the covers of the usually conservative Christianity Today (headline: THE BLESSED EVANGELICAL MARY) and the usually liberal Christian Century (ST. MARY FOR PROTESTANTS). They are being preached, if not yet in many churches then in a denominational cross section--and not just at modest addresses like Maguire's in Xenia but also from mighty pulpits like that at Chicago's Fourth Presbyterian Church, where longtime senior pastor John Buchanan recently delivered a major message on the Virgin ending with the words "Hail Mary ... Blessed are you among us all."

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