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St George's News

Waterlooville's Parish Magazine

Mary Sumner

- an emancipated woman!

Several years before women's suffrage exploded in a man's world, women, rather like children were expected to be seen (decorative, domestic and demure) and seldom heard in any volume (except perhaps when in their own company). Mary Sumner was a delightful exception. Married in her 'teens she was adored by her husband George, who fell in love with her when he first set eyes on her in Italy. Their early married life was spent near Farnham, while George was chaplain to his Uncle the Suffragan Bishop of Guildford, whose residence was Farnham Castle. They could not have known then that George would end his days as Bishop of Guildford, or that Mary would be the President of a movement which would spread world-wide.

It is thought the seeds of Mary's concern for family life were sown when she first became a mother, (she had three children), but if that was the case, she did not put those concerns into practice until she was a middle-aged grandmother and a rector's wife at Old Alresford, with more time on her hands and an eagerness to support George in his ministry and mission.

The age of dutiful church going Sunday by Sunday was being eroded by the mores of a more permissive society. Improved transport through the railways, the increase in industry providing work for the rural unemployed in the major cities, the opportunity for people to seek employment away from their birth environment, meant that families were becoming more scattered and parental control less rigid. With large families being the norm it was often down to the mother alone to keep up standards and hold the family together. Mary was aware of all this and felt she must do something to help her husband support his parishioners in their family lives.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when she summoned the women (and ladies) of the small country town of Old Alresford, to meet in the beautiful rectory for they knew not what! Imagine them sitting together, women who never sat that close to each other, sipping their tea, waiting for the rector's wife, and then Mary got cold feet! We've all experienced it at some time. It seemed a good idea at the time, but now the moment had arrived she couldn't face them, so she sent George all 6ft plus of him to talk to them! Husband and wife must have had a good talk after that and I can imagine him telling her that if she thought it was worthwhile she must take courage next time! That was the start of nine years of meetings in her parlour at the rectory. Visiting clergy wives saw how successful these meetings were and very soon there was a network of similar meetings all around the Winchester area and beyond.

By 1876 it had grown so much that the decision was made to form the Mothers' Union. Why that name, because it was the time when unions were forged by groups of people with a cause to promote and principles to protect. The Mothers' Union was concerned with Christian marriage and family life at a time when the standards of late Victorian society were becoming eroded. Mary Sumner was swept along in a wave of enthusiasm, she wasn't a born leader, she was shy, small in stature, but large in her faith and her convictions. When she first spoke publicly at a large assembly of clergy she shook, but such was her commitment to her cause to uphold marriage and Christian family life it became a crusade, and she spoke with passion and sincerity. Who could resist her!

Soon it became apparent that the M.U. was growing so fast that the space they had in an office at Church House Westminster could not meet the demands of the new membership. Mary settled for a house in Deans Yard but insisted that it didn't become too much of an office, but had a place where her members could relax with a parlour, as at old Alresford, and a chapel. This sufficed until the early 1920's, when Mary was an old lady, and the decision was made to build Mary Sumner House, it was finished after Mary's death and her subsequent burial at Winchester. True to her wishes it incorporated a special sitting room for her beloved members and a chapel for their spiritual needs.

I began by suggesting that Mary Sumner was an emancipated woman, because her mission was to promote the value of Christian marriages, stable family life and the importance of the role of the mother within the family, and by doing so she enabled women, who up until then had little status in their own right, other than their married status, to feel valued and worthy. She spoke openly about the future wellbeing of society depending on the quality of nurture within the home, the same declarations that we hear 128 years later! Suddenly ordinary wives and mothers were being heralded as the backbone of the nation, they began to have a life outside the home, which had only been the right of the privileged. The Banners that decorate our churches and are carried at our festivals are indicative of people who (like all other unions) needed to be seen to be heard. Those who met her, in an age that was governed by class and status, would feel the warmth of her concern, whatever their position in life, they were her members. Until the time of her death she continued to write letters of encouragement for those who carried on her great work. The cause she embraced was underpinned by her great faith. The concerns she had in the 1880's of the effect of society on family life have never been more relevant than they are today, indeed they are evergreen.

The reason I joined the Mothers' Union in 1974 was to find the fellowship and support from other women, to grow spiritually and to bring up my child in the faith of Christ. The branch I joined could have been a replica of the one that met in the parlour at Old Alresford, a mixture of ages and stages in family life, a bottomless well of practical support and love. The Mothers' Union is rooted in one small woman's compassion, it is not just a charity, it is a movement of care and concern, summed up by the words of Mary Sumner's personal prayer:

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 by the word I speak, or the prayer I breathe or the life I live. Amen.

Serena Hutchinson
Guildford Diocese

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