Speaking at the St Mary’s MU Annual Ecumenical Service & Tea , Deacon Sarah said:
First of all can I just say thank you for inviting me to be with you this afternoon on a rather grand occasion not only the annual ecumenical gathering of fellowship groups in Abergavenny but importantly for those of you who are members of the Mothers Union this celebration 140 years of the biggest lay Christian organisation in the World! I was pleased to be invited to talk to a branch in Newport whilst in my last parish, however It had be at least 20 years if not 25 before that when I was last at a Mothers Union meeting. It has memories for me of being placed in a corner with some child like entertainment, but noticing the Mothers Union table cloth, the fine china being brought out for tea and the small raffle there was at each meeting. The other thing that I have memories of is Mum’s Mother’s Union prayer book being kept in the bureau next to her copy of the 1984 Book of Common Prayer Volume one.
My other child hood memory of the Mother’s Union is that in my home parish Mother’s Union had their turn on the coffee after church rota. Now if I remember rightly when I was very small they were the rota! Once a month the ladies would boil milk at home, bring it in their trusty thermos flask and serve mellow birds milky coffee after the main Sunday Eucharist!
They were also responsible for the annual parish trip! And They chose the new china for the new building back in 1998. Oh my life. . . no one touched the mothers union china without being supervised!!
Well you maybe pleased to know that since then my horizons have been expanded and I’ve been more informed about the work and witness of the mothers union. Like the church I guess it is one of the organisations in the world that has had to constantly challenge its response to the understandings of its primary focus. The function and existence of family life today is something that I’m sure Mary Sumner never expected to happen when she founded the movement. Did she ever expect that 140 years after her initial idea to help families bring up children in the Christian faith that here in Abergavenny you would be supporting a contact centre for split families to engage in good parenting. . . or from my other realm of work your counterparts in Raglan and Monmouth and Usk would be visiting those in prison who are separated from their families and help to support them in maintaining family ties? You may say not! But maybe God had the future firmly mapped out for this organisation in promoting what it means to be family then and now!
But I think one of the important founding principles of the organisation of mother’s union is the supportive network of people together. Now I would of said women but of course in recent years the Mother’s Union has admitted men to its number to help support and promote its mission.
Had this organisation been founded 10 years ago we would perhaps be calling it a fresh expression of church! Church as community of people with the most amazing common purpose. . . to show Christ’s love to the world and supporting them to live in that way.
There is inbuilt in all people the need for some form of human community. There are key elements for the development of any kind of community, but especially one of Christian origin. The first of those elements is the common task. There should be a common purpose to the people who are gathering together to form a community, this is what draws people together. In Christian terms this could be the aspect of Christian mission, a vision to draw and invite others to know and understand the love of Christ. In the instance of your organisation it has been for these many years now the promotion of family life and the raising of children in the Christian faith.
The second element is the idea of shared or common ‘space’. This does not necessarily relate only to the building, but it can comprise, and I think is better understood as, a period of time set aside to be with each other in what ever location. It should be a space that feels like it should belong to that community where an area for worship can be created. Time is the next essential key for the developing of Christian community. It is incredibly difficult to have community without time for community. This is the place where together the community can engage with finding out what the world needs so that it can respond to it. The church and its organisations have in its history always have had to re-evaluate what its response to the world has to be. And as I suggested at the start you’ve been no different. Today’s needs of family life are so very different even to 30 years ago when I was taken along with my mother to the Mothers Union meetings. The amount of broken families who needed third party help to maintain parental relationships were some what less. But it is in worship where we are nourish and sustained and inspired to go out and respond to God’s call of us to see to the world.
The final element is vulnerability and openness. This is needed for being able to understand Christian community. Christian community should be willing to be challenged and open to feeling the sufferings that Christ himself felt. This is not just to be within ourselves but through engaging with the wider world Mary Sumner did not create the Mother’s Union for it to be for itself but for the wider world. Its focus is about working in local communities. Its in our own expression today meant to be church without walls! And that means of its members to be ready to respond to what that maybe.
Scripture in essence emphasises that the church is the body of Christ whose members are intended to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are many images of church as community to be found in the bible especially in the New Testament. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says to the Christians in Corinth that they are the Body of Christ: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body so it is with Christ” In the same letter Paul refers to the community as a building:
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Another powerful image of the people of God is found in the gospel according to John. In chapter 15 verses 1 to 8 the author recounts Christ referring to himself as the vine and the Father as the vine grower and refers to the people of God as the branches. In this image the people of God are dependent upon God for nourishment and guidance. The spiritual lives of all the faithful should be of the desire to constantly be seeking this from the source of all life.
The book of Acts tells us the church is the gathering of the people. A group based on human interaction where people are called and drawn together by God, assembled together for the purpose of worship and time together, where the barriers of creed and colour are broken down and which move beyond the barrier of age. In this situation different gifts are valued and used for the glory of God and the good of the overall community.
In our understanding of God as trinity we talk of a God who is constantly in community and relationship. God as Trinity is community and relationship, and we are made in that image, for relationship.
It was only relatively recently that I realised that the Mother’s Union had its own chaplains. And of course my role as a secular chaplain has highlighted for me the fact that this organisation has always had at its heart the call of faithful women and more latterly men to a specific role within the church. That you should be spiritually nurtured and fed in order to go out and fulfil the mission of your distinctive nature.
Whatever the group you’ve come from today what is clear to me is that you are one of the bunches of grapes on that vine. And you are to be fed via the true vine itself. And the Mother’s Union’s distinctive grape type is to be a presence throughout the world to support family life. And lets be honest without it the world ceases to go on! But the organisation has referred you to remembering that first and foremost its is about your life as a member of Christ through your baptism. That mark upon you that has gathered you here today together from whatever denomination you come to rejoice together and give thanks to God for the witness you bring and asking him to continually challenge you in the next stage of your mission here.