Preaching last week at a service celebrating 140 years of the Mothers’ Union, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addressed the “myth” of Victorian family values, the “radical reimagining” of marriage, and the perseverance and persistence of family, faith, and God.
Mary Sumner, of course, started the Mothers’ Union, to support family life. That remains the objective: your aims are summed up succinctly and clearly on your website:
“The focus of Mothers’ Union is on promoting marriage and building stable family life within local communities.
This care is delivered through our three strategic steps as we:
- Pray for relationships to be flourishing and loving.
- Enable development of all kinds: economic, relational and personal so that family life is strengthened.
- Campaign for social justice for those on the margins and for greater recognition of the value of stable family life”.
… It is so important to remember that the golden age mythology of stable Victorian values was just that: mythology. Family life in the Victorian period was under great pressure, especially in the poorest parts of the country. Mary Sumner acted out of concern not only for her own family but for a country in a terrible situation, in which children were not nurtured, women were at risk, households were not stable and the church was not doing very much about it, other than preaching.
You will see the parallels with today. In almost all circumstances of human life the greatest source of hope, and the main location of despair, is found in the family. …The structure of families range from the oppressive and abusive to the utterly liberating and healing.
Families are complicated things; I know that personally. They always have been, they always will be – that is the reality. And that is the call and [challenge] of the Mothers’ Union.
In addition to the rapid growth of the fluidity of traditional family structures, sometimes with a strong core surrounded by various people who appear and disappear like random comets, there is a radical reimagining of the nature of marriage through the Same Sex Marriage Act of 2014 and similar measures in many other countries.
Here the change has been even faster. In this country, whether we agree or not, it is true that same-sex marriage is now understood to be normal, acceptable and unchallengeable, whereas in the 1990s the very idea would have been heard by the vast majority as incomprehensible, revolutionary and absurd. The speed of change – a change which is not always [welcome] – has led many groups, such as churches and I’m sure the Mothers’ Union, to experience themselves living in a culture that they have not even begun to come to terms with, and every Christian denomination and church struggles with the results. It is neither less nor more challenging now to have strong families – strong and fit for the 21st century – than it was when Mary Sumner was a prophetic voice, and the need for reliance on God is the same. …
Your long history tells us that circumstances may change, but the needs of human beings in households and families do not. The first reading speaks of a faithful God amidst a weak people, of the need to celebrate the work of God, to identify that work as God, working through human beings and to give God the glory for what has been done. The second reading looks to the future, to a God of love and faithfulness, and says that if the corrupt and arrogant judge can be battered into submission by a weak and obdurate widow, how much more will the God who reaches out to us in Christ, with love and generosity, answer prayer as you seek courageously to set a new pattern for Christian family living in a new world.
The Most Revd Justin Welby preached on 1 Samuel 7:3-12 and Luke 18:1-8 (the “parable of the persistent widow”) at the 140th anniversary celebration of the Mothers’ Union at Winchester Cathedral on September 22. Find his full sermon text here.
Photo: Mary Sumner, founder of the Mothers’ Union, via oremus.org; public domain