A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Wincanton
on the 8th Sunday after Trinity, 7 August 2022
Readings: Genesis 151-6; Luke 1232-40
Alison has asked me to include a reference to Mary Sumner, whom the Church of England remembers on Tuesday. So, let me tell you – or remind you – of her life.
Mary Elizabeth Heywood was born in 1828 at Swinton near Manchester, the third of four children. Her father, Thomas Heywood, was a banker, and her mother a woman of personal piety. When Mary was four, the family moved to Colwell in Herefordshire, on the western edge of the Malvern Hills. But a year after the move, Mary’s six-week-old brother died. It was at Colwell that her mother started holding mothers’ meetings.
Educated at home, young Mary learned to speak three foreign languages and to sing well. To complete her musical education, she travelled with her mother and elder sister to Rome. While there she met her future husband, George Henry Sumner, the son of Charles Richard Sumner, the Bishop of Winchester – a brother of the next Archbishop of Canterbury [1848-62] and related to William Wilberforce.
Mary and George were married in 1848 at Colwell. Three years later George became Rector of Old Alresford in Hampshire, in his father’s diocese. Busy for many years bringing up her three children, Mary became more and more concerned about family life and the fact that mothers received no particular support from the Church. In 1876 she rather hesitantly began holding meetings of mothers in the parish, to offer mutual support. Her plan was quite radical in its day as it involved calling women of all social classes to support one another and to see motherhood as a profession as important as those of men, if not more so. The first meeting was held in the Rectory, but Mary was so overcome by nervousness that her husband had to speak for her and invite the women to return next week. At that second meeting she had gathered enough courage to lead the meeting.
Nine years later, in 1885, she was part of the audience in the Portsmouth Church Congress, some 20 miles from her home. The first Bishop of Newcastle, Ernest Wilberforce, had been asked to address the women churchgoers. He felt he had very little to say to women and invited Mary to speak in his stead. Although nervous once again, she gave a passionate address about national morality and the importance of women’s vocation as mothers to change the nation for the better. A number of the women present went back to their parishes to found mothers’ meetings on Mary Sumner’s pattern. Edward Browne, then Bishop of Winchester, made the Mothers’ Union a diocesan organisation.
The Mothers’ Union concept spread rapidly across the dioceses throughout the United Kingdom. Within 15 years, at the turn of the century, it had 169,000 members. When the Mothers’ Union Central Council was formed, Mary Sumner was unanimously elected president; a post she held into her nineties. During the Diamond Jubilee, in 1897, Queen Victoria became patron of the Mothers’ Union, so giving it an unprecedented stamp of approval. The Mothers’ Union set up branches throughout the British Empire, beginning in New Zealand, then Canada and India, and later in Africa.
Mary Sumner died on the 11th August 1921 at the age of 92, and was buried with her husband, who had died 12 years before, in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral.
Today, the Mothers’ Union, which grew from an organization in one parish to a world-wide society has some four million members – the majority of them in India and Africa. And, it has to be said, in the United Kingdom there were 222,000 members in 1993, but the number has now reduced to about 93,000.
On its website The Mothers’ Union describes:
Its vision is of a World where God’s love is shown through loving, respectful, and flourishing relationships.
Its Aim and purpose are:
To demonstrate the Christian faith in action by the transformation of communities worldwide through the nurture of the family in its many forms.
And the website appeals:
Join our four-million strong movement to:
Strengthen communities all over the world
Help the most disadvantaged at home
Shape how we advocate for the rights of families
Build supportive, loving relationships
Develop your own relationship with God
So, as we give thanks for Mary Sumner, we may gratefully reflect upon the way God takes small beginnings and one rather nervous servant to provide another channel of His love to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sources: Saints on Earth (2004); Wikipedia; MU website.