I’ll be honest, Mothering Sunday has never been an easy one for me. I don’t think that I am alone in saying that my relationship with my mother is complicated. Thankfully, there have been others in my life who have nurtured me and provided the kind of selfless love that we think a good mother provides.
But this day is also complex for the Church in a number of ways. For Protestants, it is one of the very few days when we focus on the place of women in the faith. For many people who no longer attend, the Church in Britain has become the ‘Institute of Victorian family values’. Whatever we actually say about family or relationships, our image still projects a version of family than does as much to exclude as include.
And it hard to rewrite that image. So when I tell people that I am a gay parent as well as an ordained minister, the first question from those outside the Church is usually: is that allowed?
So, whilst it would be easy to ignore Mothering Sunday and use the other lectionary readings, it is important to use this day reflect on something that goes to the heart of who we are as human beings, let alone Christians: relationships and family.
And we begin with the Mother of God, St Mary. Sadly, there is an Irish Protestant tendency to throw the mother out with the bathwater when it come to the Mother of our Lord. I grew up with a fierce suspicion of Our Lady and it became a tradition in my home town to set a statue of Mary on fire in the grounds of the local Catholic Church during every Orange marching season. But what does she show us except that love doesn’t always get it right! That she was passionately concerned to protect her son. That motherhood was a bed of sorrows for her as she watched her young son hanging from a cross at the age of 33.
Yet she is also the first disciple. Whatever else you think of the theology of the carol, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, there is that glorious image: ‘But his mother only, in her maiden bliss, Worshipped the Beloved with a kiss.’ She is also the first minister of Christ - her embracing a difficult vocation give the world its Saviour.
She is also a reminder of the faithfulness of women in the Gospels. They provided the means of support, and often provided shelter for Jesus and his male disciples. Martha looks to have been the chief steward of Jesus’ household. And, most importantly, they were the first witnesses of the resurrection and the first heralds of the good news.
So why has the history of the church confined the role of women to child-bearing? With few exceptions, women have been saved through their wombs – either giving birth or by denying access to their wombs through celibacy. The Church simply could not cope with the radical new equality of the Gospel – patriarchy was too strong.
The #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns reveal the inequalities still too real in our world and the tenacious grip of patriarchy in all societies. Violence against women and girls is still rampant. The gender pay gap still exists.
And when it comes to maternity in the modern world, some key facts are:
Every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
BUT Between 1990 and 2015, maternal mortality worldwide dropped by about 44%.
One of the key questions for today is – what Christian role models do we want to offer young girls growing up today? What work do we still need to do to detox out tradition from patriarchy? What heroines of the faith have been airbrushed from our history who now need to be recovered and celebrated, especially for the Churches like Methodism and the URC?
Then there is the MOTHERHOOD OF GOD. The Christian tradition has always asserted that God beyond gender. If Genesis is right and male and female is equally a part of the imago Dei, the image of God in which humanity is created, why is the image of a male God still so dominant? The idea that certain roles are assigned to male and female by nature (and therefore God) still needs to be challenged today. The recognition of the presence of transgender and intersex people blows the notion of a binary understanding of gender out of the water. And Christians are confronted with a new understanding of the Genesis stories that says we are all created male and female, each one of us, in the sense that those attributes we have wrongly assigned in a binary way, are our common inheritance. So assertiveness and strength, gentleness and nurture, compassion and protectiveness, become human attributes and a common vocation to which we are all called.
Of course, Mothering Sunday is therefore partly a day to celebrate those who have mothered us. That has been done by women - and some men. We celebrate those who have nurtured us, mentored us, looked after our needs and given us the confidence to meet new challenges. That is being made in the image of a God who mothers us, nurtures us into realising our full potential. How many have worked with students to bring a thesis to birth? How many have felt the pain when one we have looked after has gone wrong or been hurt by violence or failure?
Protestant Churches need to set aside more than one day in the calendar to celebrate the faith and ministries of women - those who are mothers and those who are not. We need to look again at our histories and recover the stories of those countless women of faith who ministered in the name of Christ and were then erased from the official accounts. And we are challenged - every one of us - to embrace the mothering that lies within to offer the nurture, love and support to others that they may find the gift of fullness of life.