The Mothers

I was exhorted today to encourage the starting of a Mothers’ Union branch. I won’t be offering any such encouragement. Like some other clergy I know, I’ve no great enthusiasm for the MU.

The odd thing is that one never gets asked why.

I know the reasons that I’m not really into the MU, but don’t know whether they are commonly held.

It isn’t just past experiences of MU folk which put me off, though I’m only human and that is inevitably a factor, as I think it might be for others too.

No, it is two quite specific things that the MU brand has come to mean to me, and both are issues which the wider church has struggled with, to its own detriment.

The first of these issues is divorce – it is still within living memory that if someone got divorced they got put out of the MU. The fact that an organisation committed to family life would abandon people at a time when they most needed fellowship and support caused untold hurt. I know that may not be the case now, but it lingers in the air and I’ve never been convinced that this has really been aired and dealt with.

The second is to do with the way the MU changed from being an organization which was really good at offering support to families where a gay child was coming out to being an organization which offered nothing.  They used to offer a  video which parents could watch if their child turned up at home saying that they thought they were gay. It was good, excellent family ministry. The video was withdrawn some years ago.  At the time of the Jeffrey John/Oxford incident, I was told that the MU had changed its policy and could no longer offer such support to such families. Indeed, I was told that this had changed in order to keep the MU links between members in this country and Africa which would otherwise fail.

I thought at the time that this was disgraceful and once again, families who were most in need of help were being abandoned.

The MU come to the Cathedral several times a year for their festival services and they are most welcome to do so. On at least one occasion, I’ve joined in their worship. They do lots of good work, including that in prisons, contact centres and with folk who have recently lost a child. Notwithstanding all that goodness, whilst I associate the Mothers’ Union brand with those two issues above, I’m afraid it is difficult to muster any enthusiasm for encouraging things to start up locally.

It is one of those organizations which one would really like to be proved wrong about sometime.


  1. Well done for speaking out on that Kelvin. I agree completely about the ugly subtext to so much self-described mother or “family” values Christian organisations.

  2. Amen, sister. I’m with you. I have seen first-hand dreadful and cruel things threatened to a gay couple by the MU. I will never forget the hurt it caused.

  3. Isn’t all of that to do with the paramilitary wing of the Mother’s Union?

    On a slightly related topic, I was at a wedding reception last night, and in the company of people I had only just met. The conversation turned, as it does at weddings, to that of divorce, and I was asked what the SEC’s stance on divorcees marrying in church was. I confessed that I didn’t know, although I do remember in the past two friends of mine at St Mary’s being married in a registry office and having a blessing straight afterwards in the Cathedral, on the basis that it was his second marriage. That was mid 1980’s I guess.

    Kelvin, are divorced people allowed to marry in St Mary’s? Is this the same in every SEC/Anglican church, or is it a matter of clergy conscience?

    Sorry to go off topic slightly.

  4. Have to say that every parish I’ve been in with an active MU group has been a positive experience for me. I used to be a bit “iffy” about them, but was converted in Glenrothes.

    In my living memory, I was shocked when my recently divorced sister was refused Holy Communion by the then Bishop of G & G, and Primus. We’ve all moved on from these days, and the hard core MU folk have done so too, I believe.

  5. Thanks for all comments – I’ll give a more details answer to Layclark later in a seperate post, but fundamentally, the answer is that I have quite often married people in church where for one or other of the couple they are doing it second time around.

  6. Andrew says

    When I was young, the MU was criticised for really being a wives union. They admitted married but childless women, but not unmarried mothers!

    Has this changed?

  7. Andrew says

    You really can put HTML punctuation into your comments!

  8. Yes, Andrew. They even accept men as members these days, I understand!

  9. Trish Heywood says

    Hello Kelvin,
    I am sorry to read your recent comments on the Mothers’ Union. I really thought better of you.
    The rules regarding divorced women in MU were changed in the early 70’s before much of the Anglican Communion changed their rules of membership. My own mother-in-law had left after her divorce in 1950 at the same time she was refused communion at the Lords table in her C of E Church. Praise God she was reunited with both the Church and the MU and continued to support and to receive support from both through out the rest of her life.
    As to our opinions on the sexuality issues around the communion: I thought I had made my personal opinions clear when I was the leader of the MU in Scotland even though I know, as in any group/family, there are differing views around the Province. It was more difficult to advertise my rather liberal attitude when I became the World President. You are quite right in supposing that the three and a half million members in seventy eight different countries do have varying views.
    Perhaps you should speak to those in your cathedral who are asking for a group there. See what they think.
    In the meantime I send love to you and to my other friends in Glasgow and Galloway Diocese from my new home in Guildford Diocese!! Trish xx

  10. Thanks for the comment Trish.

    I’m pleased to hear that the rules about divorce changed in the MU in the 1970s. I’ve been ordained 10 years and have very clear memories of the shame that had been brought to bear on people by the lingering MU attitude to divorce. I should not, of course, confuse local things done in the name of the MU with the rules of the wider organization.

    As to the sexuality issue Trish, I think you’ve just confirmed my accusation. The time of the Jeffrey John debacle was a time when those with private liberal views needed to make them public.

    In the choices that the MU leadership made, gay clergy were regarded as dispensable and families with gay kids were let down.

    Stigma associated with sexuality is one of the highest causes of teenage suicide. The MU let such families down by abandoning their support which had once been freely given. The choice was a clear one – families in need or preserving the unity of the MU.

    I regret very much the choice that was made and still think it to have been an immoral one.

    By the way, the exhortation to form an MU branch came from the Diocesan MU rather than anyone in the Cathedral.

  11. Sheila Redwood says

    We thank you for your honesty in describing your experience of Mothers’ Union. Firstly, let me apologise for any personal hurt or bad experience you may have received from individual members of Mothers’ Union in the past. One of the difficulties of being a people-based organisation, as with the Church, is that the voice of one or two individual members may not reflect the collective character of the whole. We hope you can forgive any hurt caused in the past.

    Mothers’ Union believes passionately in offering Christian care for families. Our membership seek to help families in all times, particularly at times when family relationships are hurt or damaged. And, forming part of human society, our membership includes those who have experienced emotionally painful or damaged relationships who find comfort and support through Mothers’ Union.

    You raise specifically two aspects of central policy which we would, however, like to address. We hope that the following comments can provide you with a more positive vision of what we are currently trying to achieve.

    We would agree that until the 1970s divorce was a real problem for Mothers’ Union because it was loyally trying to follow the constraints of the wider church’s teachings at that time. However, following debate within the membership, during the 1970s we changed our Constitution, and have ever since allowed divorced people to join without any problem whatsoever. The only criteria for joining the Mothers’ Union are that you are baptised in the name of the Trinity and that you agree with our aim and objectives. As a result we now enjoy a diverse membership. This means that people of both sexes whether single, gay, divorced, married, cohabiting, widowed or separated are welcome.

    Because we enjoy a diverse membership with a broad spectrum of views, we certainly do not hold one set viewpoint on human relationships. Despite differences of theological opinion our membership remain united by a shared faith in Christ. Within that “broad spectrum of views”, all of our members are committed to helping families, particularly those whose family lives have met with adversity. As such, it would be entirely contrary to our beliefs both at a central and grassroots level to refuse to support families whose children are in the process of coming out. While videos may come and go in order to keep our resources up to date, our fundamental policy on supporting families at all times remains unchanged.

    Mothers’ Union is actively engaged in equipping members and non-members to continue in their journey in faith and explore the issues which the whole church is debating (such as sexuality) in safe, non judgmental ways. For example, rather than opposing the Civil Partnerships Bill of 2005, Mothers’ Union looked to offer a response in our consultation with the Government that sought to recognize basic human rights for all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. The result is a new Discussion Booklet entitled: We are Created by God: exploring our identity and relationships, which seeks to equip our members to discuss four issues: marriage and cohabitation; divorce and further marriage; being single or widowed lesbian and gay sexuality. In this booklet you will find that we offer prayers, statistics, Biblical material and case studies on these issues that allow our members to reach their own conclusions about the nature of their relationships. But the key thread throughout is that of pastoral care for all people in whatever relationships or situations they choose to live. Canon Phil Groves, the Anglican Communion Facilitator for the Listening process, has co-written the lesbian and gay section of this Booklet and he would not have collaborated if he had thought that the Mothers’ Union wasn’t able to adapt its thinking from thirty years ago. This new booklet and indeed our accredited Parenting Facilitators’ courses both clearly demonstrate that our organization (along with the wider church) has moved on.

    Finally, we would not deny for one minute the hurt that our past regulations caused our members and those wishing to join, and are very grateful that our Constitution was changed to prevent further hurt. Where this hurt still exists today in the Mothers’ Union, we are always keen to offer a more considered and sensitive response. We hope you will accept that the past has to be forgiven if we are to become the organisation that both you and we would value – open, inclusive, non-discriminatory and pastorally sensitive to the needs of others. This is what we strive to achieve now, and therefore, value your comments for enabling us to reflect this to you.

  12. Trish Heywood says

    Well done Sheila. I knew there was a reason why I joined.
    Trish x

  13. Trish Heywood says

    Just thought of something else. If there is anyone in St Mary’s congregation who would like to join the MU you can do so either as a Diocesan Member in Glasgow (I think) or as a Provincial Member in Scotland or as a Central Member through the International headquarters in London. Log on to our Website.
    Trish x

  14. But I can clearly remember being told that the MU had changed their policy about supporting gay and lesbian people because of the huge increase in African membership. What surprised me at the time was that when I spoke of it to members I knew, nobody was prepared to stand up and fight it publicly.

    If that is not the case now, then that is good news. But an apology would clearly go a long way towards healing past hurts.

  15. Sheila – I’m very grateful for that long and thoughtful response.

    With regards to the divorce question, I’m happy to admit that I should have checked that policy out more fully before commenting. Mind you, I did say in my original post that I thought the rules had changed. If things are as you say, I’m pleased to stand corrected.

    With regards to the sexuality questions, my original post concerned something quite specific which I don’t think you have addressed.

    You say, “While videos may come and go in order to keep our resources up to date, our fundamental policy on supporting families at all times remains unchanged.” However, that just does not fit with my memory of events.

    My specific point is that I was told some years ago that the video in question had been withdrawn because the MU had changed its policy. The reason for that policy change was that it was to keep the strong links between MU members in this country and those in Africa intact.

    I remember the source for that information being Trish Heywood.

    Trish – was that or was it not so? If that were not so, then I’ve maligned the MU most unfairly. I clearly remember you coming to me at a synod or some such event and saying how sorry you were that it had happened and that you were more supportive than you felt you could make clear in public. Did that conversation between you and I not happen?

    If my accusation is false, how did the MU change from its formerly inclusive stance to where it is now?

    Sheila – I’ll be interested to read the new booklet that you refer to. I think I would be much more impressed if you could tell me that a lesbian or a gay man had been involved in its production than Phil Groves. You can read what I thought of the recent book which he edited here: Book Review

    Thank you once again for your comments. I’m eager to hear any further responses to these points above.

    Finally, I’d be very happy to meet with Diocesan or Provincial MU council or any MU branch to talk about these issues.

  16. Sheila Redwood says

    I will send you a copy of We are Created by God and will be interested in your review.

    Sheila Redwood
    Mothers’ Union Scottish Provincial President

  17. Thanks Sheila – I look forward to reading it.

    It is clear from John Penman’s comment on another post that I am not the only person to have observed the MU moving away from its previous inclusive stance.

  18. Trish Heywood says

    Although I do not actively remember that conversation with you Kelvin you are right in that I did feel unhappy that we were not able to be more supportive of gay and lesbian friends and their families as an organisation. However, as I travelled around the world in my job as MU President I met others with differing views. This didn’t change my mind but it did help me to understand why, for instance, MU members in the north of Nigeria living in a mainly Muslim culture thought differently. Trish x

  19. Kelvin says

    Trish, thank you for your further comment. It makes me sad though.

    I just don’t accept that there is any reason why a family with a gay child in Scotland should have less support from the MU because of how difficult things are for anyone in Nigeria.

    I can’t imagine that the MU would lessen its stance on trafficking of women or its campaigning to end violence against women because of anything said or done by anyone in Nigeria.

    However, when it is vulnerable gay kids or parents without a clue how to support them, the MU seems to have taken the the view that it was OK to walk on the other side of the road.

    I don’t think that is right, I don’t think that is ethical and although it has become clearer to me as the day has gone on that the MU doesn’t like that being brought out into the open, I think that it needs to be pointed out and clearly named.

    What was once a more inclusive institution on LGBT issues is no longer so. I regret that greatly and have no regrets in saying so publicly.

  20. Kelvin, my only regret is that your principles may deprive you of the chance of ever having to lead a local MU through their old beloved prayer. It was a very surreal moment when I was asked to lead off with it a few years back (though it seems to be less popular on the web than in local branches).

    The Mothers’ Union Prayer 1974

    Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who gave marriage to be a source of blessing to mankind, we thank you for the joys of family life. Pour out upon us your Holy Spirit, that we may truly love and serve you. Bless all who are married and every parent and child. May we know your presence and peace in our homes; fill them with your love and use them for your glory. Bless the members of the Mothers’ Union throughout the world; unite us in prayer and worship, in love and service, that, strengthened by your grace, we may seek to do your will; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

  21. Thank you Kimberly. I think you know well enough that I could no more pray such a prayer as fly.

    In fairness, I think it is worth posting a prayer written by the founder of the MU, Mary Sumner which is worth praying:

    All this day, O Lord,
    let me touch as many lives as possible for thee;
    and every life I touch, do thou by thy spirit quicken,
    whether through the word I speak,
    the prayer I breathe,
    or the life I live.


    The local Mothers’ Union has produced an excellent book of prayers which I saw on Saturday for the first time.

  22. Ann G says

    I am a member of an MU branch. Like most of the institutions I belong to I don’t support 100% of what the MU stands for. However, as it encourages members to walk along besides, families where is violence, abuse or separation and to be with women in the developing world during pregnancy and childbirth, I’ll support the MU. In the absence of the MU video can those with expertise pull together to produce one for every church with or without an MU branch. Families with children who want to come out deserve all our support.

  23. Thanks Ann G for your comment.

    I’m minded to put up some suggestions of resources for such families in the next few days. I’ve no doubt that the video in question would be out of date now anyway, so it is not just about restoring that particular video.

    I think it is worth remembering at this point that my original point was about why clergy might not feel any enthusiasm for an MU branch in their congregation.

    I take your point that lots of people belong to organizations that they don’t 100% agree with.

    However, I wouldn’t join or remain a member of an organization which was openly racist. For me homophobia is just as unacceptable. Whether church folk like it or not, that is becoming a prevailing view in society.

    I’ve a feeling that anyone advocating the international MU policy on human sexuality (which is based on Lambeth 1.10 which has never been accepted in Scotland) would have a high risk of being deemed unsuitable to adopt or foster a child by a local authority these days.

    That is a pretty serious situation for any organization dedicated to family life to get itself into.

    Whether or not the MU in Scotland takes the same policy or not is unclear to me. If it does it is a scandal and the MU here has not only abandonned families with gay kids but also any presumption to occupy the moral high ground. If it does not and choses to follow our own bishops in Scotland, the MU deserves praise for standing up and doing the right thing at the right time.

    I wonder whether anyone feels like telling me whether the MU follows the Scottish Episopal Churh’s bishops’ policy on sexuality (ie the one from March 2005) or the MU Worldwide policy based on Lambeth 1.10.

    I can’t see how one could hold to both views.

  24. Ann G says

    As a member of the MU, I too would welcome clarification.
    Thanks for raising the issue.


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