Day 26 27th March Mary Sumner
With St Augustine’s strong history of Mothers’ Union it is very appropriate that one of the saints in these Lenten reflections should be Mary Sumner, who was a real pioneer and visionary. She was very aware of the importance of family life, and the stresses this responsibility placed upon mothers, and she sought to build a support network to enrich family life.
She was born in Swinton, Greater Manchester, in 1828. She married an Anglican priest in 1948, and in 1951 they moved to Old Alresford, near Winchester, where her husband George became vicar. They had three children. It was when the eldest of those children, Margaret, gave birth to her own child in 1876, that Mary Sumner began to explore ways in which young mothers could be supported, and be organised into being able to share mutual support with each other. She organised the first meeting of mothers at Old Alresford and it was very much a local organisation for its initial years. It was in 1885 when the Bishop asked her to speak at a diocesan meeting about her vision that things began to take off. A number of others began to do the same thing in their own parishes, and the Mothers’ Union soon became a diocesan organisation. From there it quickly took root in other dioceses. By 1882 the Mothers’ Union was established also in India, the West Indies, South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Mary Sumner died in 1921 aged 92.
In the time that has followed, the Mothers’ Union has continued to develop and adapt to differing social circumstances and needs. It has adapted without losing the original vision of Mary Sumner, to keep prayer as central to family life, and to live lives that teach children by example. The question has often arisen of what Mary Sumner would have made of modern family life, which has changed drastically from the time she set up the organisation. The modern family often has a single parent, or parents of the same sex, or children are brought up by parents who live in separate households, which is very different from family life in her day.
I would say in response that one of her first goals was that it would be a meeting of people from different classes and backgrounds who would join together in support of each other. I am sure that she would say that the same still holds true, and that whatever the family circumstances we have a responsibility to support and encourage each other in the best way we can. May her vision hold true in all the variations of family life today.
Remember, to be yourselves what you would have your children be.
The above is a quote from Mary Sumner which I think is one of the most important things that she ever said. It is very easy to put our biggest efforts into teaching our children by words – trying to give sound wisdom and advice; trying to guide them with sound principles which we hope they will embrace and abide by. But Mary Sumner saw that there is something even bigger to place our energies in, and that is by the example that we set with the way that we live our lives. Our words count for nothing, if they are at odds with the things that we actually do. St Francis of Assisi said something very similar when he said:
“There is no point in walking to preach if we do not preach as we walk.”
Sadly, we live in a world where we are all too busy and rushed, work far too many hours, have far too little time for recreation, creativity, enjoyment and rest. We live lives that are stressed, that cause us to live with anxiety and tension, and give us little time to give the younger generation what they need from us the most – our attention, a listening ear, approval, encouragement, space; and genuine interest in their lives, opinions, thoughts and ideas.
I remember some years ago when my children where young teenagers. I was on sabbatical leave and therefore had more time. One of my children asked me to take a look at something they were doing, which I did. They looked up at me and said “I like it when you are on sabbatical and I can show you things.” I defensively said that they could show me things anytime they liked. “I know”, said my teenager, “but usually you say ‘give me a few minutes’ or ‘I just have to make a phone call first’”. That brought me up short, and made me realise that there was a gap between what I said and did, and how I thought I was and how I really was. I like to think I was a quite good dad, but I wish I had given my children more of my attention and time when they were younger.
But I am not just talking about parents and, to be fair, parents do have to work hard to provide a home, food and clothing for their family. We are all parents to the younger generation. We all have responsibility “to be ourselves what we want our children to be”, the younger generation to be. If life continues to go on becoming increasingly busy and stressful then we will pass that on to the next generation. We have to begin to model for them a healthier attitude to living.
The modern day Mothers’ Union is very aware that the whole community does play a part in the care and development of children. May we be willing to learn to be ourselves what we would wish our children to learn, and to walk what we preach.