The Bishop of Ely explains Mothering Sunday

Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway

Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway - Credit: Archant

As Mothering Sunday approaches (it is next Sunday March 6) The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Rev Stephen Conway, writes:

Bishop of Ely at Ely Cathedral for launch of diocescan strategy

Bishop of Ely at Ely Cathedral for launch of diocescan strategy - Credit: Archant

As a child, I benefited greatly from the hospitality, wit and wisdom of my great-aunts. As young women, they had all been in domestic service.

They particularly looked forward to Mothering Sunday because it was always treated as a day off, when servants were able to travel home to worship with their mothers and other family members at their ‘mother church’, that is, the parish church where they had previously worshipped and attended Sunday school.

My aunts enjoyed the day in all its aspects. It was a long-standing tradition to collect spring flowers along the way to church and for young people like my aunts to give them to their mother.

This 19th/20th century development in the UK derived from the custom of the 16th century onwards that on the fourth Sunday of Lent everyone was encouraged to attend the mother church of the diocese, the cathedral. This Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday, from the introit anthem, ‘Be joyful, O Jerusalem’.


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It is still the Sunday when we traditionally relax the rigours of Lent slightly.

The original purpose of Mothering Sunday was largely lost by the early part of the 20th century in the UK and Europe. This changed from the 1920s when the Mothering Sunday movement developed in the UK, led by a vicar’s daughter, C Penswick Smith, who sought to reinterpret Mothering Sunday to accommodate the development of Mother’s Day in North America.

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A celebration of mother church became a day on which to celebrate our mothers and the joys of motherhood. The pattern of services and the sending of cards which we now enjoy largely took off during and after the Second World War here and in Ireland.

We owe this to American and Canadian servicemen who were used to celebrating their mums in church on a special Sunday.

I am really thankful for Mothering Sunday as an opportunity to celebrate the gift of my mother. It is also a joy to thank God for all the mothering that any of us receive through our lives.

What we must not forget is the ‘mothering’ love of God. In her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic, refers to God as mother.

In Common Worship (the Church of England’s modern-language Prayer Book) you will find a canticle of St Anselm which develops Jesus’s own allusion to himself as the mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings.

All Anselm’s hope is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus bears all the birth-pains of our rebirth into eternal life.

Mothering Sunday enables us to celebrate our mothers – living and departed. The festival allows us to rejoice that the church enables us to receive and share an all-embracing motherly love that builds communion and fellowship.

Most of all, we give thanks for the insight of our forbears in faith that God loves as a mother and father and reaches out to us in mercy as well as judgment.

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