In the village of Old Alresford in the south of England a young Vicar’s wife, Mary Sumner, looked at her first born child. Amazed at the enormous responsibility of nurturing a human life, and conscious of her own inadequacies, she dreamed of a union of mothers coming together regularly for encouragement, support and education. It was not until 1876 that she was able to gather together a group of mothers to discuss her ideas of meeting together to help one another, and realise more fully their responsibilities as wives and mothers. The women were also helped to understand the significance of the sacrament of baptism and the teaching of the faith to their children.
In 1885 at the invitation of the Bishop, Mary spoke to a large gathering in Portsmouth and from this Mothers’ Union grew to be a diocesan organisation within the Diocese of Winchester. The society quickly spread throughout England and as women migrated it was established overseas. By 1892 Mothers’ Union had reached Australia, the first branch being formed by Ismay L’Oste, the wife of the Rector of Cullenswood in Tasmania.
This growth led to the formation of a council and the adoption of a constitution. These measures bound the dioceses closer together. In 1896 the Central Constitution was drawn up and the Central Council was formed with Mary Sumner as its Central President. In 1925 a central headquarters was established in London – in Tufton Street, Westminster – and known as The Mary Sumner House. This building has remained the focal point of this worldwide organisation.
In those early days the Mothers’ Union had two objects:
- To awaken in all mothers a sense of their great responsibility in the training of their boys and girls – the fathers and mothers of the future.
- To organise in every place a band of mothers who will unite in prayer and seek by their example to lead their families in purity and holiness of life.
The integrity and social responsibility of the Mothers’ Union has always been highly regarded and was publicly acclaimed in 1926 (the year of its 50th jubilee) by the granting of a Royal Charter by His Majesty, King George V – the first time such a charter had been granted to a religious and a women’s organisation.
One of the hallmarks of the Mothers’ Union over the years has been its ability to acknowledge and effect change. This was most obvious in the 1960s when bishops and clergy within the Anglican Communion were being faced with problems concerning marriage breakdown and changing marriage laws. The Mothers’ Union was asked to think seriously about its first object concerning the sanctity of marriage, as it was being rigid and arbitrary in excluding all divorced women from membership. The ideal of marriage as a lifelong relationship was not being questioned, but the pastoral concerns for the needs of those women who had experienced breakdown in their marriage were.
At a worldwide conference in 1968, the society acknowledged its need to rethink and clarify its objects. A commission was set up and its report – New Dimensions – was received in 1972. The following year at a meeting of Central Council, attended by representatives from around the world, it was agreed to petition for a new supplemental Royal Charter in which the aim, purpose, and objects of the society were reworded to those which are in use today, and to grant autonomy to those provinces and dioceses overseas which requested it. The Royal Charter was granted in 1974 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II through her Privy Council. Australia was the first overseas Province to be granted autonomy on November 27th, 1974.
Reprinted from the MU Australia Handbook 2002