THE Mothers’ Union is celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. It founder, Mary Sumner, held the first meeting in her Hampshire rectory in 1876, although the idea did not really catch on till she spoke at the Portsmouth Congress in 1885, and dioceses around the country began to sign up. In 1905, she ascribed the greatness of Britain to three causes: belief in the Bible, the observance of Sunday, and faithful marriage. Yet the previous year, 1904, she said, the number of divorces had reached 1098. “England was approaching the state of affairs in America.” Since then, of course, the state of affairs — perhaps an apposite phrase — has worsened: 28,027 divorces in 1954; 152,923 in 2004. Since then, the number has dropped, but, at least until recently, largely because of a fall in the number of couples who marry.
Divorce is looked at differently now. Most people see no value in preserving damaging relationships. When couples do marry, it can be in the wrong spirit. A glamorous jamboree in a local hotel seldom emphasises the solemnity of the commitments being made. Despite this greater tolerance of divorce, however, the emotional and financial cost is widely acknowledged, particularly where children are involved. This would be a reason on its own for the MU to persist, even if it were not engaged in life-changing programmes around the world to combat the effects of poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance.
Although the Mothers’ Union remains strong overseas, the number of members in the UK has been declining. For the whole of its life, the organisation has struggled with the distinction between do-gooders and the done-good-to. It is at its strongest when it unites both. In 1888, the Mothers’ Union Journal advised members: “Umbrellas are very necessary to women and girls, and repay you many times for the few shillings they cost. . . The doctor’s bill or a bottle of medicine comes to more than the price of an umbrella.” A wide membership among poorer women who can advise and support each other is what sustains the charity even now, though this sort of demographic is more commonly found overseas. Mrs Sumner was not shy of recruiting richer, educated women, who received an edited membership card without such strictures as “You are strongly advised never to send your children to the public house,” but who, she argued, needed the Mothers’ Union and its moral support much more than the poor. She also united mothers and grandmothers, acknowledging that women could work more effectively to better the lives of others when their own children were off their hands, as was her own case — and remains the case today.
The Mothers’ Union has plenty of large-scale, prestigious projects, but it remains at its most admirable in countless small pockets, where individuals and small groups help each other to survive the harm done to families by various aspects of modern life. Despite our affluence relative to 1876, the quiet, patient work of the Mothers’ Union is needed now as much as it ever was.