Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Mary Sumner 1828 - 1921

Today we remember and give thanks for the life of Mary Sumner the founder of the Mother’s Union. She was born on 31st December 1828, in Swinton near Salford, the third of four children, to a father who was a banker and a mother who was known for her faith and devotion to God.

The family moved to Colwall near Ledbury in Herefordshire and just a year later the family were devastated to lose her younger brother who was just six weeks. It was probably a combination of that, her mother’s faith and the mother’s meetings she organised that combined to inspire Mary to begin the Mother’s Union.

Although Mary was taught at home she was well educated able to speak three foreign languages. She was musical too with a fine voice and it was in pursuit of further learning in this area that she, her mother and elder sister visited Rome where she met her future husband George Henry Sumner the son of the Bishop of Winchester who later went on to be ordained in the Church of England. The couple went on to have three children.

In 1851 George was given the living of Old Alresford in Hampshire his father’s Diocese and it was there that Mary dedicated herself to raising children and helping her husband in his ministry by providing music and Bible Study classes. In 1876 following the birth of her daughter Margaret that she realised how difficult motherhood can be. She was inspired therefore to call a meeting of mothers in the parish to offer mutual support.

What was radical about Mary’s work was that her meetings cut across the social classes and she saw motherhood as a profession every bit as important as those of men, if not more so. The first meeting did not start well as she was so nervous that her husband had to speak for her and invite the women to return the following week, but after speaking herself at the second meeting her confidence began to grow and she took all the meetings herself.

At first this Mother’s Union was limited to her own parish but in 1885 at a meeting of the Portsmouth Church Congress the then Bishop of Newcastle was asked to address the women churchgoers but felt he had little to say so he invited Mary to speak instead. Although nervous she gave a passionate address about national morality, the importance of women’s vocation as mothers and their influence to help change the nation for the better. Inspired by her address a number of women went back to their parishes and founded their won mother’s meetings based on Mary Sumner’s pattern and the then Bishop of Winchester made the Mother’s Union a Diocesan organisation.

The organisation began to spread across the Dioceses and then throughout the UK. By 1892 there were 60,000 members in 28 dioceses and eight years later that had grown to 169,000. To date is can be found in 78 countries across the world and the membership stands at around 3.6 million carrying out all kinds of important work from small scale farm initiatives in Uganda to a network of family support groups in prisons around the UK.

Mary Sumner died on 9th August 1921 aged 92 and she is buried with her husband who pre-deceased her by 12 years, in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral.

A few reflections:

Victor Hugo once wrote that “there is nothing more powerful as an idea whose time has come” and Mary Sumner’s idea struck the right note at the right time with the women of her day who needed the help and support of one another to meet the challenges of motherhood. But we must not forget that the soil from which that idea was sprung:

First it was her mother’s faith and devotion to God that gave her eyes to see the need around her. Faith in God does open us to the world around so that we are able to see beyond our own small circle of family and close friends. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son". (John 3:16) is a wonderful motivation for us spread that love as widely as possible. It was that vision of God that enabled Mary to see beyond the social barriers of class and see other women as her equals and the object of God's love and mercy.

Second, the transient nature of life in the death of her brother also impressed itself upon Mary. We only come this way once. In the words of Psalm 90:12 after pointing out that our time our is limited to 70 years or 80 if we have the strength, the psalmist calls on God to “teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom” . Mary saw in her brother’s death a clear message to use her time wisely in the service of God and others and wisdom in the Bible is always associated in the first place with God and His will.

Third, as someone who had not long become a mother herself she was able to identify with the demands and difficulties involved. She also saw the importance of the Church Community in providing the help needed for others in a similar situation. In Psalm 68 verse 6 it reads that “God sets the lonely in families” and there is nothing more lonely than struggling with something and feeling that you can’t manage. Even in a family or a circle of friends, if we are the only ones with that particular problem then life can be very lonely and we feel isolated.  Mary’s idea was born on the back of the church, as God’s family, being His means of helping people who were lost and lonely and showing them the love of God in practical and helpful ways.

How much does the MU of today, in the West in particular, remain true to Mary’s idea and vision? Sadly all too often they are social clubs where people meet and organise trips and speakers. For those who are elderly that is a much needed opportunity for companionship and a break from the monotony of life alone in the house. But is this what Mary was intending when she founded the MU? And aren't there other organisations that can serve the same purpose in helping the elderly?

Motherhood plays a less central role in the life of the nation nowadays and for some it is not seen as important as a career or a hobby to some. This sidelining of what is a very important calling is potentially dangerous as the family unit continues to be dismantled and undermined. We need Mary's vision for motherhood today and the MU remains as important as it ever was, if not more so today.

Here is her Prayer:

All this day, O Lord, let me touch as many lives as possible for thee;
And every life I touch, do thou by thy spirit quicken,
Whether through the word I speak,
The prayer I breathe, or the life I live. Amen.

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