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Home Who's who Bishops The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam. Sermons, articles, and speeches Sermon at the Mothers' Union Celebration, June 2019

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Sermon at the Mothers' Union Celebration, June 2019

by Michael Ford last modified 11 Jun, 2019 09:43 AM

The Bishop preached at the Mothers' Union Celebration and Commissioning of the Diocesan President, Chaplain and Trustees, in Salisbury Cathedral on 1 June 2019.


Welcome to this celebration in which we will give thanks for you and all your life and work, commission Rosie Stiven as President, Jacqui Clark as chaplain and the Board of Trustees for the coming three years.

Welcome to the Mayor of Salisbury John Walsh and Mrs Cari Walsh who was admitted to the Mother’s Union last year.

Welcome to Nicky, and John Sweatman. Nicky is the Provincial President and lives in Devizes.

The MU is the largest membership organisation in the diocese of Salisbury: 1300 members, 67 groups and 16 projects.

There is much to celebrate. Welcome to all of you.

Reading: Exodus 1.15-2.10

What a fabulous Bible story. Two Hebrew midwives feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. So they played on Pharoh’s fears of inadequacy, and on his lack of knowledge about women, and they told him that the Hebrew women were stronger than the Egyptians. Their babies were born before the midwives got to there so the Hebrew boys were preserved and the Hebrews in slavery continued to have families.

By beautiful twist of fate, or divine Providence, the baby Moses was preserved in the basket in the bulrushes of the River Nile and Pharaoh’s own daughter arranged his care. The rest, as they say, is history.

There is a Biblical pattern of God working through good people who aren’t themselves signed up to the project, of using nations other than Israel and people who might otherwise be seen as outsiders.

We also see that the biblical patterns of family life are diverse. Not mum, dad and 2.4 children in idyllic material comfort but strong, loving relationships in varied circumstances, often very testing and poor, in which the community has a part in the upbringing of youngsters. As Africans say, it takes a village to raise a child. Children are all our concerns not just the responsibility of their biological parents.

You are an amazing organisation. I am proud of the MU in this diocese. I know you sometimes worry you are more of a grandmother’s union and wonder how you will continue without new and younger people, but I think it was always so. Mary Sumner and the women she gathered in Old Arlesford in 1876 were mothers concerned for their daughters as they were having children. She founded what was really a grandmother’s union to support young mothers and their family life. The mothers meeting in Old Arlesford remained local until 1885 when Mary Sumner was invited to speak at a church congress in Portsmouth. The bishop who was supposed to preach didn’t think he had much to say to women and invited Mary Sumner to speak. She gave a passionate address about national morality and the importance of women's vocation as mothers to change the nation for the better. A number of the women present went back to their parishes to found mothers' meetings like that at Old Arlesford. The Bishop of Winchester made the Mothers' Union a diocesan organisation which was the start of your becoming national and international.

Nicky Sweatman is going on from this service to Kigali in Rwanda for the worldwide Mother’s Union Conference.

We feel in some ways as though family life is under pressure as never before.

Almost half the children born in this country are to single parents or those who have not married.

For those who do marry, and of course some get married after having children, the divorce rate in this country, at 42%, is extraordinarily high. But it’s not very helpful to say that family life if broken. For most, family life remains strong and many different models of family are emerging. Remember the ways God uses diversity and the variety of patterns of family life in the Bible. Mary and Joseph were not exactly conventional. What matters most is stable, loving, lasting relationships.

It’s the poorest for whom life is toughest. It has always been so. 4.1 million children in the UK live in poverty as defined by government, 30% of our children. How extraordinary that in this country children are considerably more likely to live in poverty than adults. Growing up in poverty can blight children’s well-being and their future life chances. Children living in poverty are more likely to have poor physical and mental health and less likely to achieve their potential at school and in employment.

That is why the MU is so important in providing support to people who in other ways fall through safety nets. The holidays are a really good example of giving to people who gain much more than a break in the days they have away together; and knitting blankets for children born in the Salisbury District Hospital; and the mother and baby project in schools; and the Court café; and your adoption of the Clewer Initiative to tackle modern day slavery; and, and, and.

One of the images of Salisbury that I most like is from the series of paintings that John Constable did of this Cathedral. In 1816 he and Maria married in the church where I used to be the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. They came on honeymoon to Salisbury and stayed with the Archdeacon, John Fisher, in Leadenhall. Repeat visits and the patronage of the Archdeacon’s uncle, the Bishop, are the reasons why he produced so many great paintings of Salisbury which are now world famous. In one painted in the months after his wife’s death in 1830 the dark clouds above the Cathedral reflect his own grief and the difficulties that England was facing in the post Napoleonic war years of poverty and of political reform when there was as much uncertainty and anxiety as we now feel about Brexit. Light breaks through the clouds as sunshine falls on the west front of the Cathedral and the spire. Constable later added a rainbow, ending in what was the Archdeacon’s garden representing God’s covenant with all creation.

There are always dark clouds. Life in church and society has its difficulties. There are always difficult issues for us to deal with. The question is how we live with them and how we survive them. Constable’s painting suggests that Church, God, Christ, the Spirit are the deep resources that shine through give hope in an uncertain world. There is a faithfulness in God’s overarching rainbow covenant with all creation.

Isn’t it also what this Cathedral, any church, any Christian organisation represents, not just to its own members but to the wider world. Hope is not optimism that the glass is half full but something more deeply founded. We meet in the season between Ascension and Pentecost when the disciples were sent back to the city to pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. At Ascension God’s work on earth is done. Between Ascension and Pentecost we pray, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”. At Pentecost we receive the gift of God’s spirit to enable and empower us to live as citizens of heaven in the here and now.

That is the Christian hope, the certain basis of our faith. That is what drives, empowers, enlivens the work of the MU and all Christians to the glory of God our maker, redeemer, sustainer. Amen

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