The Mothers' Union was founded in 1876 by Mary Sumner to support mothers bringing up their children in the Christian faith.
The Revd Richard Ginn shares his thoughts below on this outstanding book which documents and discusses the history of the Mothers' Union from its inception up to 2008.
A BOOK TO CHERISH: ‘A History of the Mothers' Union 1876-2008' by Cordelia Moyse
This book was first published in Woodbridge in 2009 and was reprinted in paperback in 2011. (ISBN 9781843836063)
The author was given access to the archives of the Mothers' Union. She pieced together a continual narrative and reflected upon its spiritual significance for all women and, therefore, for the world. Overall, she came to the conclusion that this organisation ‘at its best models a spiritual community for women'. She charted the mistakes and challenges of the past, but came out with a remarkably positive view of this organisation as it faces the new adventures of our times. And this is important, because this book explores the story of the concerted effort of millions of women across the world to work together, to pray for each other, and to support each other during 132 years. Whether or not someone belongs to the Mothers' Union there are lessons here for us all - ranging from episodes of divine inspiration to the prospect at times of the whole enterprise getting bogged down and drowning in a mire of misunderstandings.
To illustrate the depth and the quality of this book I am only going to reflect on some of the lessons that we can draw from the last twenty years of this history of the Mothers' Union, from the chapter called ‘Mission and Spirituality in a Global Age'. Get the book and then you can read just what a roller-coaster ride the MU has had, which is illustrated, for example, by the way that in 1949 they watched helplessly as their missionaries were expelled from China following the communist revolution; and then in 1995 their representatives were back in Beijing as participants in a United Nation's Council's Commission on the Status of Women.
So - here is an outline of the lessons that the MU has been learning in recent years and a reflection on why this is important for us all. There are lessons here for us in our villages - lessons which we can apply and through which God can change our lives and the lives of those around us. Perhaps the first thing is that the MU learnt that the Kingdom of Heaven tends to be built more in small gatherings rather than in big meetings. This is because they have recognised that relationships are more important than dogma.
Christianity provides a framework for inclusion rather than for élitism - that is to say that Jesus wants to include as many people as possible in his new society, the Kingdom of God - the result is that we can learn to value the poor and the dispossessed and participate with them. The MU has recognised that in order to move forward we have to build mutual trust, and for that to happen they have discovered that we have to work to understand the factors that have shaped one another's lives. That means learning to share our stories. So it is not enough merely to know the bland and respectable details of someone's life's story - things like where we were born and where we went to school; this is actually about becoming aware of the things with which another person has struggled in life - the things that have been too much for us - the things that made us feel good about ourselves or our families - the things that amuse us - the things that drive us crazy and so on. And to do this we need small gatherings rather than big meetings. Being human involves the difficult bits as well as the good bits, and these can only be shared in twos or threes.
Perhaps we are conscious that we live against the background of a culture of success, and we are nervous of appearing to have failed in some way. But the reality of our lives is more about the human struggle than it is about any glossy veneer of achievement. And it is struggle rather than success that often demonstrates human greatness. So, when we have understood something of the things that have shaped one another then we can build mutual trust. And it may well be that women are better at this sort of sharing than men. It's something to do with being prepared to be vulnerable - and that is the beginning of love. And love - the love which flows from God through Christ in us - that love is the beginning of our mission and of our spirituality.
And then, we wonder how we are going to go about ‘doing' mission. Again, there are things that we can learn from the Mothers' Union. The clue comes in the Lord's Prayer - ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven'. We have to work for transformation in our locality. We have to ask questions like ‘what does God think are the biggest problems for people here where we are?' ‘how can we change the world where we are so that it comes to be more like what God wants?'. The sort of transformation that we are looking for is in our immediate locality, and builds spirituality as we work towards transformation. Whilst this is at the level of general principles, the mission to which we are called affects us and there is a transformation in us as well as in the world around us.
So - the question emerges - what needs to happen to transform the life of our hamlet or street or village? We may feel that there are so many things that we can't change that we may forget that there are some things that we can be used to change. But what would transform the lives of those where we live? Maybe one of the things that you notice is the way that people may feel discarded by life - as though they don't matter or have little significance. This could be a facet of the modern disease of loneliness. Perhaps that is one of the ways in which our villages need to be transformed. To learn to value each other and to learn to be valued is so important.
This chimes in with another insight from the Mothers' Union - that whatever we develop needs to be project-led. One of the things that the MU has learnt is that if they try to recruit people by having a membership drive, then membership falls nationally. But if there is a project, then people can join in and join up - they join up because they can see what the organisation is striving for. This is perhaps something that we can begin to see demonstrated in the lives of our churches and their spread of activities. But the point is that action is attractive whereas being passive does not attract. Did you ever hear of an organisation which used as a recruitment slogan: ‘Come and join us and do nothing!'?
Many may recall the ‘Jubilee Campaign' for the Millennium. Centrally, the MU were astonished at how people got so involved with this campaign to try to persuade governments to write off the debts of the poorest nations. So what projects can we get involved in? We need things at a local level that support and express our aspirations. The challenge may be to find something that can be sustained and that would be a sustained focus of interest.
The Global Age tries to subvert our significance as individuals. We've thought about some of the possibilities of forms of mission. But what about our spirituality? Well - spirituality tends to be driven by vision. The vision that the Mothers' Union embraced in 2008, right at the end of the compass of Cordelia Moyse's book, was a vision ‘of a world where God's love is shown through loving, respectful and flourishing relationships'. And that went with the aim ‘to demonstrate the Christian faith in action by the transformation of communities worldwide through the nurture of family in its many forms'. Well, even if our relatives are scattered far and wide, the cluster of cottages where we live can become a family. As a rule of thumb, for our efforts to be effective, it could be a good idea to be involved with eleven other people as a sort of extended family. Jesus found that 12 was the ideal group; and within that twelve there were smaller groups of threes and fours where there was a special closeness.
Perhaps the key thing that we can absorb from this is that God loves us as individuals - he loves each one of us. But we are all different. There doesn't have to be a stereotype. But because there are so many people in the world now, we tend to think that our efforts as individuals no longer matter - we may even think that we no longer matter. But we matter to God. All mission is now experimental. The world is changing at such an astonishing rate that set patterns and set answers no longer work. And people have to learn that they matter to God as a first step before they can begin to realise how much God matters to them.
So, back to the first thing that we observed: that the Kingdom of Heaven tends to be built more in small gatherings rather than in big meetings. For our faith to flow, we have to be obedient to the teaching of Jesus, and put into practice his teaching of compassion, forgiveness, worship & fellowship. We can meet in our threes and fours, we can read the gospels together, and we can pray. The words of Jesus are words of life and his words must shape our transformation. We have to be agents of transformation, and we ourselves have to be transformed, so that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. And this sort of process is a slow build - it takes years - the Kingdom of God does not come flat pack or as a prefab.
We have to be active rather than passive. The reality of our lives is more about our human struggle than it is about any glossy veneer of achievement. If we pursue our commitment to God's agenda then we can, in the words of Psalm 47, confidently look to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.