Mary Sumner’s secret weapon

by
18 November 2009

The Mothers’ Union has long been a neglected asset, argues Cordelia Moyse

Home front: the Mothers’ Union stall at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, March 1950

Home front: the Mothers’ Union stall at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, Olympia, March 1950

IN THE middle of what the Arch­bishop of Canterbury calls “a fractious and suspicious ecclesial environment”, one does well to consider the Mothers’ Union.

Since its creation by Mary Sumner in 1876, the Mothers’ Union (MU) has provided Anglicanism with a great cloud of witnesses. It has 3.6 million members, living in more than 70 countries. The MU, however, is far from firmly fixed in the institutional memory of the Church.

This is so for a number of reasons; but ignoring the largest lay organ­isation in the Anglican Communion means neglecting the most import­ant barometer the Anglican Church has of its own missional health.

The MU’s reputation has suffered, says Frances Knight, author of The Nineteenth Century Church and English Society, because church history has “been largely written from the centre, from the perspective of events in Oxford and Cambridge, Lambeth and Westminster, the cathedral close and the episcopal palace. It has tended to dwell on the problems and priorities of men who were at home in such places.”

Feminist historians, too, have been slow to recover a group of women who do not present themselves as radical or sub­versive.

As both symptom and cause, the Mothers’ Union itself has often lacked enough self-esteem to de­mand proper recognition.

Paradoxically, one of the bishops who took the MU most seriously in the post-war era was Dr Graham Leonard, whose opposition to the ordination of women did not mean he missed their apostolic importance in the life of the Church. He wrote that the MU’s growth could “hardly be paralleled outside the pages of the Acts of the Apostles”.

Paradoxically, one of the bishops who took the MU most seriously in the post-war era was Dr Graham Leonard, whose opposition to the ordination of women did not mean he missed their apostolic importance in the life of the Church. He wrote that the MU’s growth could “hardly be paralleled outside the pages of the Acts of the Apostles”.

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In seeking to renew Anglican identity at a time of crisis and conflict, the Archbishops of Canter­bury and York are looking to engage the Mothers’ Union in ways not seen for decades. Reflecting on their ex­tensive experience of the MU across the Anglican Communion, the Arch­bishop of Canterbury and Jane Williams recently wrote: “In the ravaged environments of African states that have been through the nightmare of conflict, the MU offers what often no other group can: the local, effective, liberating building of capacity and mutual support among women.”

SUCH a powerful force originated in an entirely different setting. In 1876, in a living room in a Hampshire vicarage, Mary Sumner, a well educated, middle-class rector’s wife, began a women’s group for those en­gaged in bringing up their children.

The idea originated in her sense of personal inadequacy as a mother. Sumner wrote that motherhood was “one of the greatest and most im­portant professions in the world, and yet there was no profession which had so poor a training for its supreme duties”.

What made the Mothers’ Union unique was that, unlike so many church initiatives at this time, it was not conceived as a vehicle by which the wealthy did good to the poor. Rather, it was an organ­isation that provided a com­mon ground for women of all classes “to unite in prayer and seek by their own ex­ample to lead their families in purity and holiness of life”.

After Mrs Sumner had spoken about her ideas at the 1885 Ports­mouth Church Congress, par­ishes and dioceses across the British Isles quickly took up the new model. And by the early 1890s, the popularity of the MU — it had by then attracted a member­ship of more than 100,000 — drove the need for a central organisation.

After Mrs Sumner had spoken about her ideas at the 1885 Ports­mouth Church Congress, par­ishes and dioceses across the British Isles quickly took up the new model. And by the early 1890s, the popularity of the MU — it had by then attracted a member­ship of more than 100,000 — drove the need for a central organisation.

  Consequently, in 1896 the MU moved from be­ing a net­work of par­ishes and dio­ceses to an organ­isation with a central consti­tution. A sign that the MU had arrived in the national life was that in 1897 Queen Victoria became its royal pat­ron, as have all sub­sequent Queens.

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MEMBERSHIP did not remain confined to the British Isles. Women from all classes took the MU with them as they travelled and settled across the Empire. Early overseas strongholds were Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Initially spread among British migrants, the MU was soon seen by missionaries to provide a model of discipleship for indigenous women recently converted to Christianity.

Early in the 20th century, it was instrumental in popularising and shaping the idea that the Anglican Communion was a global organis­ation with an imperial mission. Later, in an era of British decolonisation, it was at the forefront of creating an in­digenous female church leader­ship.

The rapid growth of the Anglican Churches in the Global South and the decline of MU membership in its traditional heartlands now mean that the typical MU member is no longer white, nor living in the British Isles, but a young black woman in Sub-Saharan Africa. It has become the mouthpiece for the most au­thentic voice of grass-roots Anglican identity in the 21st century.

For its members, the MU has pro­vided a woman’s space outside the home which does not negate what remains, for most women in the world, the locus of their primary identity. Through the MU, millions of members have exercised leader­ship and developed organisational skills, and gained liturgical, public, and even political experience in ex­pressing themselves. Members have applied their domestic and pastoral skills to serving their community with­out requiring the status and constraints of professional training or a bishop’s licence.

In countries such as Burundi, Malawi, and Sudan, it provides a vital channel for women’s economic development, through literacy and other development programmes. And within the Church it has given women a safe space for a female spir­ituality. By holding its own meetings, services, and prayers, whatever the quality, the MU provides a particular opportunity for women in an insti­tution that remains largely patri­archal.

In countries such as Burundi, Malawi, and Sudan, it provides a vital channel for women’s economic development, through literacy and other development programmes. And within the Church it has given women a safe space for a female spir­ituality. By holding its own meetings, services, and prayers, whatever the quality, the MU provides a particular opportunity for women in an insti­tution that remains largely patri­archal.

TO UNDERSTAND the enduring importance of the MU to Anglican­ism, one must understand the way in which it continually reinterprets its mission to support family life.

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The MU has had to learn painful lessons whenever it has ignored the realities of contemporary family life — and especially when it sees itself as the Church’s last line of defence against changing social mores.

Nowhere was this more evident than in its resistance to divorce for the sake of the “sanctity of marriage”. Through much of the early 20th century, it believed this meant opposing all divorce. Public political cam­paigning against divorce legisla­tion supplemented, and then increas­ingly competed with, the MU’s identity as a support group for all mothers.

More seriously, it made “purity” of behaviour (not seeking the remedy of divorce for matrimonial breakdown oneself, nor advocating divorce in any circumstances for others) a con­dition of membership.

As the 20th century progressed, the MU found its stance of opposi­tion to divorce in any circumstances was no longer shared by the general population — nor, indeed, increas­ingly by its own membership.

The Anglican Communion’s own think­ing about marriage and divorce encouraged a more pastoral view of divorce. It took institutional schism in the 1960s, however, driven by members from Canada and New Zealand, to force the MU to recon­sider its position.

The obsession with divorce dis­tracted the MU from its mission to family life. A new commitment in the 1970s to support and strengthen family life in all its forms was the single most important decision in the MU’s history. Just how transforming it was is evident in considering where the MU now stands regarding the biblical, ethical, and ecclesial issues raised by the inclusion of homo­sexual people in the Church.

SO FAR, the MU has been an ex­emplar of conflict resolution in the Anglican Communion. At their 2005 worldwide gathering, the MU’s provincial presidents asserted that, despite the pain they felt arising from divergent views and doctrines on sexual ethics, what united them in Christ was greater than what sep­arated them, and none would seek disaffiliation.

It was in the light of this statement that the Archbishop of Canterbury designated the MU one of the principal if unofficial “instruments of unity” of the Anglican Com­munion.

It was in the light of this statement that the Archbishop of Canterbury designated the MU one of the principal if unofficial “instruments of unity” of the Anglican Com­munion.

This instrument of unity has been one of not simply words or prayer, but sustained action. From the 1980s, those in and outside the Church be­gan to acknowledge that poverty and injustice disproportionately affected women and children.

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At this time, Anglicans began to articulate a more holistic sense of the missio Dei, the mission of God. For the first time, the majority of MU members lived in the developing world. As a result, the MU became involved in pursuing an inter-national development and justice agenda.

In 2000, it achieved special con­sultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN, joining 2300 other international organ­isations.

Subsequently drawing on the know­­ledge and experience of its mem­­bers, it has taken part in con­sultations on poverty, gender equal­ity, and HIV/AIDS. MU members have created income-generating pro­jects and micro-finance schemes, as well as run literacy courses and worked to prevent HIV and combat stigma.

The MU has also made a distinc­tive contribution to Anglicanism through liturgy. Never an exclusively high-church organisation, the MU none the less fostered a sacramental culture around communion, bap­tism, and confirmation. Teaching the importance of regular communion, making it the centre of its corporate spiritual life, the MU contributed to the notion that what makes an Anglican is being a communicant at a local church.

Its branches have also supported the traditional liturgical calendar by holding regular midweek eucharists, at which weekday saints’ days are often commemorated.

Another of the MU’s contrib­utions is the preservation of a place of honour for the Blessed Virgin Mary. By its commemoration of the Annunciation through annual Lady Day services, Mothering Sunday, and the profusion of Marian images on countless MU banners in parish churches around the Anglican world, the mother of our Lord is highly esteemed.

YET DESPITE these profound con­tributions, as well as the essential but dull work of propping up countless church rotas, parish fêtes, and social events, members of the clergy often feel no shame in articulating distrust or hostility towards the MU.

Some of this has its origins in its historic censoriousness rather than com­passion over the issue of divorce. But it may be that much more of it is rooted in the Church’s long custom of valuing the clergy more than the laity, men more than women, and the young more than the old.

The genteel misogyny that some of the male clergy continue to lavish on the MU may even be rooted in the fact that the MU is a rare group of organised laypeople, often confident in their faith, and with an outlook that goes beyond the priest and the parish.

Precisely because it is organised and visible, it is an easy target on which to project frustrations with the mundane realities of parish life. But while clergy relations with the MU are not always harmonious, even in dioceses outside the British Isles, there is often a greater sense of partnership there in the mission of the Church — an approach from which the C of E might learn.

The MU is keen to play its part in sharing more widely its cloud of witnesses, not least by ensuring that its archives are now part of the outstanding collection of Lambeth Palace Library. These archives con­tain 130 years of women’s experi­ence of prayer, study, advocacy, em­powerment, and repentance. In short, what is called discipleship, or formation, in the body of Christ.

Dr Cordelia Moyse is a Fellow of the George Bell Institute and a lecturer at Lancaster Theological Seminary and Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her book, A History of the Mothers’ Union: Women, Anglicanism and globalis­ation 1876-2008, is published this month by Boydell & Brewer (£50 (CT Bookshop £45); 978-1-84383-513-4).

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