As someone who moves in churchy circles, this year, as every year, my Facebook feed was filled with clergy and others agonising over Mothering Sunday. The notion of this innocuous and charming celebration as any more contentious than, well, motherhood and apple pie is not one that seems to have penetrated the secular world, so let me explain.
The first (and perhaps less unreasonable) objection is that Mothering Sunday, as we know it as an occasion for the celebration of mothers, is an innovation, and not really what the Fourth Sunday in Lent is supposed to be about. Well, OK – up to a point. It is true that the only mention of ‘mothering’ in the Book of Common Prayer on this particular Sunday is a reference, in the Epistle, to Jerusalem as ‘the mother of us all’. Before the Reformation, this was a time when people would visit their ‘mother church’ or cathedral, inevitably leading to family reunions; later, it became the time when servant girls working away from home would have a day off to visit their own mothers. Many of the customs associated with the day fell into abeyance over time, and Mothering Sunday was revived approximately 100 years ago by one Constance Smith, now with a particular focus on the honouring of mothers. Leaving aside the question of whether a century-old tradition can still be considered new-fangled, it is therefore true that a day in the Church’s calendar which originally had a connection with allegorical motherhood now embraces the celebration of literal motherhood.
Is such a celebration appropriate? According to many, the answer would appear to be ‘no’. Why? Because it ‘excludes’ people: those who don’t have children, and, increasingly, those from ‘non-traditional’ families. Of course in any congregation there will be people for whom the honouring of mothers evokes painful emotions: those who have lost a child; those who mourn the children they never had; those whose relationships with their own mothers were difficult; those who have lost their mothers and those who never knew them. But here’s the thing: everyone has, or at one time had, a mother. Because of the large size of our brain and consequently our head, we humans are born hopelessly underdeveloped compared with many other mammals, still utterly dependent on our mothers. The particular self-sacrificial devotion of human motherhood is part of God’s wonderful design, without which mankind could not exist.
Every one of life’s joys can be an occasion of sorrow to those who lack it. How did we get to the stage where never upsetting anyone overrides all other considerations, to the extent that we are nervous of a public celebration of motherhood? It is a manifestation of the same culture that tiptoes around language in the name of political correctness, and puts ‘trigger warnings’ on textbooks lest students react adversely to their contents.
Miss Smith, the early twentieth-century promoter of Mothering Sunday, was a spinster who never became a mother herself. The aftermath of the Great War, in which very many mothers had lost their sons, served to encourage the popularity of the day: here was a generation which, collectively, knew grief and loss on a scale unimaginable to us. They saw that the absence of motherhood underlined its importance, not only to individuals but to society as a whole.
So please, end the brow-beating and soul-searching about Mothering Sunday. Let’s be unashamed to celebrate it for what it is: an opportunity to honour all mothers, and to give thanks for God’s wonderful design for family life.