[ACNS, by Adrian Butcher] “The world’s greatest women’s group” – that’s how the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the Mothers’ Union at a celebration in the UK to mark its 140th anniversary on Thursday.
More than 2,700 people – some from as far as Australia, Canada and the United States – gathered for two services of commemoration at the cathedral in the southern English city of Winchester, where the MU was founded by Mary Sumner in 1876. Among them were the 42 members of the Mary Sumner Choir from Lusaka in Zambia, who led some of the worship.
Archbishop Justin paid tribute to the work of the MU around the world, likening members to a great army. He urged them not to focus on what remained to be accomplished or on challenges that seemed insuperable, but to look at what had been done through the MU and to see God’s hand in it.
“It is an army that is facing struggles in most countries of the planet,” he said. “It is four million strong. It faced the plague of HIV/Aids in much of Africa and produced grass roots solutions. It is a powerful voice in education, both formally and informally – both in scholastic education and the education of Christian values and family life.”
And he added, “The Mothers’ Union campaigns excellently, it nurtures wonderfully, but above all and beneath all, it prays – thank God.”
Archbishop Justin said the MU more often met in places of suffering, poverty and struggle than in great cathedrals. And he likened their campaigning zeal to the persistent widow in one of Jesus’ parables who presses a judge for justice.
“They can relate to the tough widow, faced with injustice, indifference and corruption,” he said. “And for these reasons – for their weakness, their poverty, their marginalisation, their suffering – they are loved . . . the Mothers’ Union are loved by God.”
The Archbishop described the MU’s founder, Mary Sumner, as a prophetic voice. He said the idea of a golden age of Victorian family life was a myth. Family life in that era had been under real pressure, especially among the poor. Mary Sumner had acted out of concern not just for her family but also for a country in a terrible situation where children were not nurtured, where women were repressed and households were not stable.
He said that in almost all circumstances, the greatest source of hope was the family, in its many forms. Good families were a foundation of society. But families were complicated and always had been. It was as challenging for the MU now as it had been in Mary Sumner’s times to have strong families fit for the future.
The service also heard a moving tribute to the Mothers’ Union from Neil Obbard, a former British Army sniper, whose life was transformed at a holiday organised by the MU. Neil left the forces with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing horrific scenes. He explained how he’d been invited to take his family on an Away From It All holiday and while there, he’d had a “massive experience” of God and had become a Christian. He’s now an evangelist, a lay Reader and works as a volunteer on the holidays, seeing other lives miraculously changed.
MU Worldwide President, Lynne Tembey, said the commemoration had been wonderful.
“It is an amazing occasion. I loved the sense of celebration and excitement. Being here means coming home to thank God for his servant Mary Sumner and for instilling in her this amazing vision about transforming lives, celebrating families and nurturing children. We want to say ‘thank you’ for what has been achieved and to look to the future.”
MU Chief Executive, Beverley Jullien, was equally effusive. “It has been a totally fantastic celebration,” she said. “The number of people here shows that the organisation is alive. It is very different compared to Mary Sumner’s time, but it is thriving and it’s as meaningful as it was when it was founded.”
Worldwide trustee, Libbie Crossman, flew over from the Brisbane diocese in Australia to join the celebrations. “It is amazing experience to be here,” she said. “It is good to look back and to see how far we have come. But also we must proclaim that the Mothers’ Union is not a past organisation but it is a present one. We are a mission agency for now.”
The Mary Sumner Choir said they were thrilled to be taking part in the services.
“It is a great privilege and joy for us,” said Lusaka Diocesan MU president, Catherine Chanakila Mwanza. “To be here is a sign of the love and unity in the Mothers’ Union around the world.”
“It is just amazing for me,” added Joyce Msoni. “It means so much to all of us. The Mothers’ Union is a great organisation – it does so much for the poor and the orphans. It is good to celebrating today.”
- More details about the service – including photographs and a video – will be posted on the Mothers’ Union website next week.