Mum’s the word … thoughts for Church and World on Mother’s Day

The flower-and-chocolate trade has been in full spate as Mother’s Day is used to plug the nasty retail gap between St Valentine and Easter. All over the country, stereotypically inept husbands and small children wrestle with toasters as they aim for the perfect breakfast-in-bed for the woman of their lives. Motherhood is honoured, as in millions of kindly acts we say thank you to those who have borne us, and quite probably done most of the nurturing, too.

The English Church has historically taken a wider view of this day, seeing ‘Mothering Sunday’ as an opportunity to focus not only on our own mothers, but also on our ‘mother’ the Church, and on Mother Mary. Biologically the Lord’s mother, Mary is by pious adoption the mother of all humanity, the lowly one whom all generations will call ‘blessed’ (Luke 1.48).

But such mother-talk is at best ambiguous, at worst obsolete, at least in the New Testament. Unlike John, who happily depicts the disciple sharing a home with Mary after the crucifixion (John 19.27), the synoptics are less willing to accord her any unequivocal position of honour (‘My mother, brother, sister are those who do the will of my Father,’ says Jesus a little huffily —Mark 3.35; Matthew 12.49; Luke 8.21). Perhaps this is the voice of the far-flung Apostolic Church reminding his blood relatives (notably in Jerusalem?) that belonging to Christ is not through blood but baptism — a lesson the Church of England, with its dainty devotion to ‘family life’, still tries hard to forget. It was with good reason that the mediaeval Church emphasised the role not of parents but of godparents, not simply officers of nature but signals and witnesses of divine adoption and new life.

As for ‘Mother Church’, the notion of a maidenly global gaggle, even one protected by the Spirit’s outstretched wings, is one that might easily grate. ‘Reveal her unity’? Guard her faith’ (Prayer G)? Surely, for better or worse, ‘we’ are the church, and we had better say so. Not driven sheep or sheltered chicks: just people, baptised. Perhaps when we’ve had a thousand years of leadership from people who aren’t straight white men, we may be able to revisit the idea of Church as Bride and Mother, but for now these metaphors represent (and maybe even cloak) such an unjust reality for half the world’s population that their use requires vast numbers of footnotes and riders, and might for now be best abandoned.

Secular Mother’s Day is also far from uncontroversial. In addition to those who find the day difficult because of various sorts of maternal experience given, received or denied, there are many social matters to address. Who best provides children with the love they need, and what sort of domestic arrangements best secure it? Solving that question brings the left and the right in their boxing gloves striding towards the ring. For some, the one thing needful is the love and security children require to grow and prosper. Who gives it (and in what combinations of committed carers — two mums, a dad and a grandma, whatever) is inconsequential. For others, only a man and wife spliced together in holy wedlock can be entrusted with the task, and no number of child cruelty stories begin to shake that fundamental view.

So should Mother’s Day be shelved until we have greater consensus? By no means. We have all been carried by a mother and, no matter how that child-bearing was experienced, we should be grateful to her or to any others who have shown us a mother’s love. It is something to celebrate, without reinforcing gender stereotypes or claiming to identify spurious complementarities between the sexes.

Some mothers will have inspired the admiration of their children by a gentle constancy at home, always ready to feed, bandage or celebrate as appropriate. Others will have been remarkable for resilience and determination in the professional sphere, by labour and ability resourcing their family’s life, freeing husbands or partners to stay at home with the sewing and the school run. Still others will not have been mothers at all. Yet, by accepting (like Mary) an unlooked-for role, they have come to be loved like a mother by their unintended children. Relations and friends, old and young, men and women: they have all with indefatigable love assumed as a willing responsibility of care that which was first known as a biological need to suckle. And now love calls out to love in the ungovernable joy of gratitude.

Some people inevitably paint any social change in colours of deep perturbation. But, more cheerily, I find this particular move away from sexual and gender-governed expectation to be wonderfully liberating. It seems to be evidence of humanity at our best, when we receive what evolution bequeaths us, and evolve it further in response to our needs and legitimate desires. Although motherhood has been for centuries a prime opportunity for malign collusion between biology and culture (learning to mistreat women because we could: the loathsome ‘barefoot in winter, pregnant in summer’ trope), we are finding surely better ways of providing for the perpetuation of our species and recognising the delightful diversity of human love and the scope it gives for permanent, faithful and stable relationships. Alas, we are still scoring negligibly on the violence and ecology papers (so ‘perpetuating the species’ suddenly looks a more questionable act), and we must aim to do urgently and significantly better.

If hardship and sorrow are ever present, we need the guidance, affirmation and support of mothers of either sex, those who know us well, and are committed to us for the long haul. There are relationships that can afford to be virtual, trivial, temporary. But this isn’t one of them. It has to be right. And where nature has failed to provide, inventive humanity must make good the lack.

‘Man hands on misery to man,’ says Philip Larkin. ‘It deepens like a coastal shelf.’ With his analysis we might be content to agree, but his solution is grim and wayward. ‘Get out,’ he says, ‘as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.’

The way to make global progress is not by abstaining from living in committed relationship, but by being boldly involved. For most of us, love will not be particularly heroic or newsworthy, but will be made up of small daily kindnesses, like breakfast on a tray. But even these most basic acts are mother­-and-father to new beginnings: they warm hearts till stone turns to flesh. Any kindness communicates the stuff of God, and that’s why Mother’s Day matters. I pray you’ll have a good one, whatever your circumstances.

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Broadening the Vision

In his typically extensive account of the so-called Cleansing of the Temple (John 2.13-22 and synoptic parallels), Professor NT Wright (in Jesus and the Victory of God, 406-428) invites us to think of the Jerusalem Temple as an enormous cross between Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, the seat not simply of pious religious practice but of the nation’s life as a whole.

In fact, says Wright, it was not a cleansing at all: the rot had gone too deep for mere reform; though, to be sure, the Pharisees were recognising that a religious system so heavily reliant on liturgical barbecues would more than probably benefit from a greater emphasis on study of the word. Yet despite this hint of proto-Protestantism, this is no preview of Luther with hammer and nails. We see rather the one who will be crucified performing an ‘enacted parable’ of the Temple’s destruction, a piece of street theatre with the uncompromisingly potent political message that the end was in sight for the phony high priesthood of Herod’s cronies.

And how could he be so sure? Leaving aside the cunning expedient of postponing the writing down of the Gospels until after the Temple had been destroyed (Discuss), there were indications both outside and in that its days were numbered. From without, the Romans, like many empires before them, were keen to bring to heel this irritatingly monotheistic province that would worship neither the classical pantheon nor, even more expediently, the divine emperor. From within, financially-driven corruption gnawed at the integrity of the whole institution, reducing its ethos and purpose to a determination to squeeze yet more income from a sacrificial system no longer affordable to the poorest, so that this ‘House of Prayer for all nations’ became instead a den of thieves.

Only it wasn’t a den of ‘thieves’ in the sense of cheerful burglars and honest swindlers hustling pennies out of old ladies’ handbags. As Professor Wright points out, the word used is lestes or brigands, meaning people like Barabbas, zealots who knifed Roman squaddies by night and kept themselves scarce by day beneath the stalls of the pigeon sellers. Or something like that. Jesus certainly seems to be insisting that anyone who claims loyalty to the Temple and its cult must raise their eyes and broaden their vision far beyond the narrow national interests that did not begin to reflect his conception of the Kingdom of God, which, if it is to be truly that, must make room even for those hostile individuals whom the zealots oppose.

This manifesto commitment is unlikely to impress anyone keen on a career in the anti-terrorist squad. But it nevertheless provides an opportunity to consider the vexed subject of belonging, and to ask ourselves whom we regard (in Mrs Thatcher’s phrase) as ‘one of us’, and whom we relegate far beyond the pale of any dignified membership of our various human communities.

In a world that is so perplexing and sometimes terrifying, it is quite understandable if our default is to keep the shutters of our vision fairly tightly closed. If we cannot see what worries us, or all the people we neither understand nor feel inclined to like, we may just feel calmer and sleep more easily.

But this is not a strategy worthy of any who regard themselves as children of God, or who belong to any of the several constituencies for whom any closed-mindedness should be anathema. And it will not be enough simply to buy sandwiches for beggars or to try to look less disapproving next time we meet someone who writes violin concertos for a living, or who has multiple piercings or purple hair. Or perhaps both.

The distinguishing mark of those whose breadth of vision takes them significantly beyond themselves is surely an ability to see the connection between their own concerns and priorities with the rest of the world, locally and globally. I am, for example, always impressed and delighted when our pupils recognise that, although academic success is important, it only makes complete sense when seen as part of a greater whole. After school, the nurturing and development of a person in university should lead into a productive working life, with continuing attention to a generous hinterland of all the ties and interests that accompany the narrowly professional. Together this wealth of disposition and experience might one day enable them to contribute to an engagement with people with a very different human experience, relating to them in such a way as to reach new levels of mutual understanding and launch virtuous cycles of peaceful abundance.

Now, regaining Paradise is never without cost and danger. It is not surprising that within a short time of staging his protest, Jesus of Nazareth had been tried and crucified. But a vision so narrow as to include only ourselves and those easily mistaken for us will equally obstruct and constrict our lives until, like the Temple itself, we corrode and perish from within. It is clear which of these roads will lead to life. All we need now is the grace to pursue it.

This is a version of a homily preached on 7 March 2018 in Magdalen College School, Oxford

No Tweeting? Now maybe I’m not quite so sure …

I once had a parishioner who loved to tell the old joke that every morning he would read the obituaries in the local paper. If he didn’t find his own name among them, he concluded that he hadn’t died in the night, and so he got up and began the day.

For many, such active checking back in with the world after an eight-hour off-line sleep takes the form of logging into Twitter as soon as the alarm has sounded, before casting even half an eye on messages, mails, news and weather. First, we need to see whether our American followers have paid due attention overnight to our final Tweets of the day before, re-Tweeting us into more phones and homes and giving us the sort of attention we undoubtedly deserve.

So far, so commonplace. Most of us recognise the part of our insecure selves that craves the unchallenging affirmation of public agreement or smiling approval. And we acknowledge that Twitter is one of the better one-stop shops for finding it. So it seems obviously wise to abstain from the whole experience now and again, to try to wean ourselves off this need for constant positive attention, and to silence the endlessly chuntering, jesting or clamouring voice within that is determined to have its say, no matter how ill-informed the opinions or asinine their expression.

Now, very few of us are sufficiently rich, underemployed and self-obsessed to be in a position to transmit our views continuously all day long but it’s still sensible to know our Twitter limits and to stick to them. In this respect Tweets are a little like cigarettes: more than 20 a day and you’re probably in trouble.

There are also practical benefits to a Twitterfast, not least an increase in available time to devote to other improving literature, owing to a significant reduction in the printed matter that clogs our brain each day, including much of the posing and posturing, the flirting and flouncing that drains of disapproval even those with permanently-pursed lips, and is intolerably hard on even the most understanding nerves.

And yet, despite these benefits, I find myself missing the little blue bird during my own Lenten Twitterfast. This, as the rigorous will point out, is precisely why I should give (and offer) it up. But I miss the company of so many good people that it seems that I have ended up renouncing a blameless ‘them’ rather than a questionable ‘it’. I miss, for example, people I know in real life whom I also find online. They are the guardians of some of my memories, so to some degree they constitute who I am. Yet without Twitter I would probably hear from them only once a year (and they from me) in the printed news and scribbled half-promises of the Christmas card.

Then there are those I do not know well, but have come to recognise and rely on for all that they bring to the common table of the Twitterfeast: something quirky, amusing, challenging, informative; anything from the condition of traffic on the Oxford Road to the latest thinking on whole-class feedback. Or maybe they just have certain little things they like to say, which others are kind enough to listen to; just as in the olden days we’d have listened to each other’s pet hates and hobbyhorses as we loitered in the corner-shop or queued for the bus.

And that’s exactly what Twitter’s like a lot of the time. These aren’t bonds of family or close friendship (not hoops of steel); but they could become such, and for all their lightness of touch the relationships we form with people who are even only tangentially part of our electronic landscape do matter: their words may be only typed on a screen and their faces reduced to an icon or logo. But we know the power of icons and logos and should not too readily abandon them here.

In the past I’ve written in favour of a Twitter detox (Here, 6 January 2016), but I begin to think now that I was wrong. Of course, now that I’ve set my hand to the plough, I’ll have to keep going, but perhaps rather than simply withdrawing into an e-free wilderness, the best means of avoiding any unhelpful dependency on Twitter and all its works is to engage more carefully and reflectively on this characterful pursuit, maybe even in conversation with friends, followers and other social media users.

Now, I may be mightily deceiving myself, like the boozer who thinks they can pop in for just the social half-pint now and then. Time will tell. But despite my no doubt flawed reasons for entering the Tweetzone, I do grow more certain that sharing in a genuinely common life is the only way to cure people and nations of all that ails us. That will surely include the common life of the web. And for that to flourish, perhaps we need to gird ourselves with true wisdom and genuine discipline and, having remembered our password, boldly log on once more.