Anne Bell considers some home truths

If you put your hand to the telephone and dial (020) 7222 5533, you will find yourself talking to a representative of the Mothers’ Union at Mary Sumner House in Westminster. She will affirm, if questioned, that the MU is a Society whose purpose is to have a special concern for all that strengthens and upholds marriage and Christian family life. Your attention will naturally be drawn to their 750,000 members here in England and overseas. When asked for the policy of the MU in relation to abortion, you will be offered leaflets explaining the policy and an assurance that their members have been fully consulted. When pressed for a more definite reply, it will be revealed that the Society backs the right of a woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Yet just recently I heard the comment from an incumbent to the effect that he found members to be inarticulate on this subject. So, what is the truth?

I was reminded in a recent article that the pernicious effects of the prevalent ambivalent attitude to pregnancy are found everywhere, not least in the plans for a referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland, and one wonders how it comes to be found in the policies of a Society with the ideals of the Mothers’ Union.

This is where we must turn to Mary Sumner who probably had no knowledge or experience of abortion; she is well known for a quotation which one cannot ignore: ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ Could this be an insight into that much misunderstood word, ‘motherhood’? Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a charismatic figure who reached out with so much compassion in her pioneering work with children in India, spoke with discernment in observing, ‘an abortion kills the child, but it also maims the conscience of the mother.’ This leads one to reflect on the surprising fact that only 3 percent of all terminations are carried out for medical reasons.

Sumner herself

At this point we should seek to understand the inspiration behind the MU movement and the vision that came to Mary Sumner, its founder. Old Alresford Parish Church in Hampshire is a good place to start, for this is where her husband was incumbent for many years. Here we can see a memorial plaque to her memory. Its inscription is revealing. It runs as follows:

‘In 1875 with the help of her husband, Mary Sumner founded the Mothers’ Union to uphold Christian marriage, and to sanctify the homes of people endowed with special gifts of body, mind, and spirit. She was able by the Grace of God to quicken and inspire with her love and zeal the hearts of many in this great work throughout the world.’

On exploring further we were to find that Mary lived to two truths in her daily life: Be yourself what you wish your children to be, and Prayer is the unseen power that moves mountains. Wonderful words! Yet alongside this was a nagging unease, and she was quoted as asking repeatedly, ‘What can be done to raise the national character?’ To this she came back with an answer which spurred her to action: ‘Let us appeal to the mothers of England.’

Many people are critical of Mary Sumner’s lifestyle; she indeed lived in great comfort in accordance with the standards of many country clergy of the day, yet she displayed overwhelming concern at the poverty of her husband’s parishioners, and did her best to help them. This led her to the conviction that there was a neglect of motherhood and the skills mothering required, and we may not ignore her vision as she sought to inspire all women, rich and poor, literate or uneducated, and in later years black and white, regardless of the social structure which surrounded her. For she saw them as sisters to each other. Her message was: ‘each child is a gift from God and without prayer and effort you will not succeed in their upbringing.’ She recognized the overwhelming importance of a mother’s love and authority in the early years of a child’s life, and this cannot be satisfactorily delegated.

The Way We Live Now

I wonder what Mary would comment on our glib talk of decline in religious belief. What would she say about the beautiful and well-appointed houses which stand empty all day, while both parents are at work to pay the mortgage? Her first thought would probably be for the children: ‘where are they?’ She would be knocking on your door in the evening and asking awkward questions. Mary was already convinced in her day that non-sectarian teaching was leading to the belittling of the historic Christian faith. Hackles rise today at such authoritarian attitudes!

So how do we answer her in the year 2001 when morality in its traditional forms is cast aside in the striving to establish the dogma that men and women are in all respects equal? She would certainly be surprised to hear that we women through emancipation and equality of education had achieved a level of independence which reinforces our strength as women and promises a future in which both mothering instincts and power in the market place can be combined. She would be reduced to silence to be told that women now have access to renewed sources of resilience and insight into their true nature. Certainly her silence would be broken were she told that a child in the womb could be removed through induced abortion for social reasons. The first word that would come to her in answer would be ‘sanctity’. For this word reflects the holiness of life and the inviolability of life itself from conception.


Shortly before she died, the Mothers’ Union took Mary’s insistence on ‘Sanctity’ seriously and applied it to their definition of Christian Marriage. So the first object of the MU was defined as follows: ‘To uphold the sanctity of Marriage as a life-long and indissoluble union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others on either side.’ It was taken very seriously as subsequent decades testify. But following the 1939–45 World War, it was found that young married women found the promises to be a commitment too far, and the leaders sought a compromise through the Young Wives movement in association but short of membership.

Even so, the principles are worth reflection, for they are often quoted in different forms by politicians. ‘The prosperity of a nation springs from the family life of the homes.’ ‘Family life is the greatest institution in the world for the formation of character in children.’ ‘The tone of family life depends in great measure upon the married life of the parents and their mutual love, loyalty and faithfulness to each other.’ Religion is the indispensable foundation of family life, and the truth of the Christian faith should be taught with equal conviction at home and at school. Parents are themselves responsible for the religious teaching of their children.’ ‘Character is formed during the first ten years of as child’s life by the example and habits of the home; example is stronger than precept and parents therefore must be themselves what they wish their children to be.’

In the mid-sixties of the last century, the MU movement came to a crossroads; for the leaders became increasingly aware that the trend of secular thought had rejected absolute values and clear moral precepts. Could the Christian parent be led to swim against the current? In the years after 1945, emphasis was laid upon individual judgement, and trust placed in the sincerity of parental aspiration to instill the virtues presented in the gospel. Concern at the centre led to a commission chaired by the Rt Revd Graham Leonard, then Bishop of Willesden, to consider how the objects and policy of the MU might be affined in the changing moral environment. Conclusions were reached and published in a report entitled ‘New Dimensions’ in 1972. The key recommendation of this document, that advisers should be trained and paid to encourage the wives and mothers in the Branches in parenting and motherhood was never implemented; yet it was this policy which has over the years proved so successful in Africa and other provinces overseas. This proved to be a failure of nerve and the Society continued to drift with the compromise values of the secular world. The clear principles set in place by Mary Sumner and her successors were watered down, but the cardinal failure was one of teaching. Today in 2001 many of those who have over the years been closely involved with the MU perceive that behaviour which was previously regarded as morally wrong, is now accepted as inevitable and thus to be endorsed as the best that can be achieved in the ambivalent culture surrounding the Church. What then is the outlook for this valuable movement, which has been the source of strength for countless women here and overseas in the Anglican Communion?

Is it not time however painful it may be, for the MU to give a greater credence to the principles of their founder, and the plain teaching of the New Testament? Put simply, is it not time for the MU to become again a vehicle for truth: to stand for a renewed family life alongside a rediscovered motherhood?

Paying the price of folly

Women are paying a high price for ignorance, lust and vanity, yet how far is it their fault? How much can the blame be laid at the door of the doom-laden experts on world population, the intellectuals and politicians who press for a libertarian society, and the manufacturers who lean on Christian leaders to give a free run to contraceptive drugs whose steroid side effects are untested, condoms, and the spread of pornography?

Yet one finds in our desires, for those whom we love, we do not change from one generation to the next; we all yearn to see healthy children and grandchildren as our proudest achievement. Has the MU truly helped the younger generation to fulfil that desire? It is uncomfortable to be out of fashion, but Mary Sumner gave the movement a breathtaking, comprehensive outlook, which could encompass all the problems that have arisen in the course of the twentieth century. Her vision was marginalized. There has been a failure to stand up to the libertarian innovators who pushed the oral contraceptive as a stepping stone to early sexual awareness, and disparaged the Christian virtues of continence, chastity, and self-control. These same influences have brought in endless government dictates to take the mothering out of being mothers. As a result we see a spiritually inspired movement seeking to bring in a business structure at every level and by every means.


The mothers who are members of the movement should be striving with every fibre of their being to put ‘sanctity’ back into marriage. We should be using our influence to demonstrate that it is in the interests of all to strengthen the sense of responsibility in taking on the married state. The MU should be the Church’s great ‘prayer union’ to seek God’s will in our sinful condition. We know that the remedy lies in our own hands, but it begins at a point we seem to ignore; for the instant of conception is a unique and beautiful moment for a Christian. We can return to the assertion of truth if we so wish, but it demands courage. To shrink from truth is to play the coward. The mystery of the incarnation is most clearly disclosed in the image of Mary with her Divine Child; out of love for our children, the mothers and fathers of the future, the Mothers’ Union should challenge the nation to change its ways.

Ann Bell is a writer and artist living in the Diocese of Bath and Wells and has been an enrolling member of the Mothers Union.