When an hon. Member mentioned the Mothers’ Union there was at once great guffaws of laughter, until another hon. Member pointed out that there were many thousands of members in the Mothers’ Union all of whom had votes. Then the laughter turned into sympathetic cheers, the sincerity of which was probably in inverse proportion to their volume.[1]

So said the Member for Cleveland, as amendments to the Marriage Bill were being debated in the UK parliament—amendments that would establish desertion as a grounds for divorce. The Mothers Union (MU) was opposed and had been petitioning Members of Parliament.

The MU was seeking to protect the sanctity of marriage. But by this point in its history its objections were based “primarily on a utilitarian rather than a theological view of marriage.”[2] In a world where fewer women with children worked and of those who did earned extremely low wages, the MU feared these amendments would lead to more women and their children being reduced to poverty.

And herein lies the duality in the MU’s 140-year history. Jane Tooher’s recent TGCA article gives us a wonderful panoramic view of that history. My intention for this article isn’t for it to be a “yes, but …”, but a “yes, and …”. Because intertwined in this history, are less-than-glorious moments and fantastically superb moments.

Divorce and Exclusion

In 1876, MU founder Mary Sumner’s purpose centred on equipping women for motherhood. It wasn’t until 1892 that the purpose was expanded to include the upholding of the sanctity of marriage. In 1912 membership explicitly excluded divorcées and in 1918 the membership of those who passed through the divorce courts was revoked.[3] In Australia, before 1920 a divorced woman could be admitted to the MU, but only if proved to have been the innocent party.[4] However, that year, after initially voting to include divorcées, at the behest of the Archbishop, the MU Sydney voted to exclude divorcées in line with their UK parent body.[5]

By 1935 the exclusivity of membership had become more entrenched. One article argued that tolerance would mean a “lessening of the moral responsibility which all Christians should feel about entering into marriage.”[6] Repentance and redemption were beyond reach in the MU at that time.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, described the MU as “the Church’s commando unit” in 1952, the Reverend Edward Ashford responded that it had “left a trail of wounded and broken spirits in its wake.”[7] This included divorced women who were expunged from the MU, losing their community and support network; it also included those who were barred from that community and support altogether, at a time in their lives when most needed by themselves and their children. This exclusivity fed the ideal that the members of the MU were models of motherhood that God had “raised it up as a special body of women.”[8] This is theologically eyebrow-raising and pastorally un-Christlike.

This ideal eventually led the MU to diverge from its own church. In 1938 the Church of England re-admitted remarried divorcées under some circumstances. “In so doing”, writes Cordelia Moyse, “the church showed that remarried divorcées were not beyond its pastoral reach and could be full members”.[9] The MU did not budge.

Political Activism and MU Membership Dissent

The MU became more active politically. Its membership was required to both witness to the sanctity of marriage and to protest changes to marriage law.[10] This presented some problems for members. In 1931, Lady Maxse of the Army Division of the MU stated that it was right to condemn divorce, but individual members should be able to make up their own mind about how it was applied outside of the church.[11]

In 1936, Sir Francis Acland (Member for Cornwall North) noted during the second reading of the Marriage Bill

My wife, with whom I enjoyed 28 years of most perfect married life, was unable to have her name put on the panel of speakers for the Mothers’ Union in the county in which we lived because she could not genuinely promise not to advocate divorce law reform, not on the Union’s platforms but on any other platform in the county.[12]

The MU’s official stance was not unanimously approved of by its members.

There were other MU causes for which we can have more sympathy. The MU advocated for the removal of harmful publications from the reach of children (1963),[13] provided training and resources to young parents to reduce neglect (1949)[14] and lobbied to remove legal inequity between the sexes in the Street Offences Bill (1969).[15] The fact that the MU is regularly mentioned in the UK Hansard[16] (guffaws of laughter or no) shows that it was a force to be reckoned with. Its members used their tenacity and passion to make the voice of the church (and women) heard.

Re-evaluation of Exclusive Membership and Formal Apology

By the 1960s, internal divisions and external pressure led to a re-evaluation of the membership exclusivity issue. Lady Patricia Loane (wife of the Rt. Rev. Sir Marcus Loane, Archbishop of Sydney) lobbied for changes in the membership rules at the 1968 World Wide Council in London. She then pushed for the MU in Sydney and then Australia to become autonomous so it might change its own rules about divorced members. She was unsuccessful. In 1969, the New Zealand MU formed the Association of Anglican Women to amend their own membership rules while Australia remained within the MU.

The MU in the UK set up a commission to look into marriage and the reasons for marriage breakdown, considering both duties and emotional needs. The majority of the committee concluded that

refusing relief to broken marriages or insisting that the empty form is a living reality does nothing to strengthen the marriage but can, indeed, bring the institution into general disrepute.[17]

By 1974, exclusionary membership was done away with in the UK with the changes rolling out through the MU globally thereafter.

In November 2019, the Anglican Mothers Union Australia (AMUA) minuted a formal apology to divorced women: “AMUA expresses deep sorrow for the hurt caused to many women by the restrictions in place for Mothers Union membership prior to 1976.” This shows  that the MU is humble and self-reflective, able to learn and grow and so better follow the example of Christ.

The Mothers Union Today

With the MU releasing itself from the burden of policing membership, it returned to its primary focus on supporting families through practical training and support. Prayer is a significant part of the AMUA ministry as is the annual sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence. AMUA financially supports overseas projects and work in Northern Australia. The MU’s work includes parenting courses, Bible studies, written resources, small groups, online communities and annual seminars.[18] The MU is aware of the pressing issues facing families today. It is grappling with them, to equip mothers and grandmothers in a rapidly changing and complex world.

And there are also jams, cakes and crocheted blankets! The MU Sydney funds three church women’s and children’s workers every year. While the MU receives bequests, it is largely funded by memberships and sales from its shop in Town Hall in Sydney. A significant impact is made by a group of women all doing small things. No gift from God is too trivial to be used for his glory.

The MU now is a global network with four million members in eighty-four countries. Through 140 years of drama, endurance, pain, trial and tribulation, the MU has emerged into the present as a sleeping giant. I say sleeping because there is not that much written about it, especially in the popular media, outside of the Anglican Church or the MU itself. An extensive Google search makes for a very boring exercise with very limited results! And yet the goals of the MU and the work it is doing are utterly relevant. As long as there are mothers, support is necessary and the MU is reaching more mothers with a sense of urgency that is admirable. Its approach to women is pastoral, grace-filled and humble; it is filled with a passion to equip women and their families for the challenges they face today.

It would be wise of us to take the MU’s example and ask ourselves, How are we reaching women who might be marginalised in our communities? Would our church benefit from beginning an MU group, or accessing the MU’s free resources to help equip mothers and grandmothers in our churches? The MU is not an old-fashioned mothball ministry; the MU is a platform to reach and equip those who need love and support; the MU is vibrant and hope-filled and necessary and relevant.

[1] HC Deb 28 May 1937 vol 324 cc571-647 accessed on 8 March 2023 at CLAUSE 13.—(Short title, construction and application.) (Hansard, 28 May 1937) (parliament.uk)

[2] Cordelia Moyse, ‘Idolatry and Pragmatism: The Sanctity of Marriage and the Mothers’ Union 1876-1976 in Celebrating Christian Marriage (Adrian Thatcher, Ed.), 443.

[3] Ibid, 444.

[4] At this point divorce was only legally granted on the grounds of adultery.

[5] Anne O’Brien, “Militant Mothers: faith, power and identity in the mothers’ union in Sydney, 1896-1950”, Women’s History Review, 9:1, 35-53, 43.

[6] Ibid, 44.

[7] Moyse, 448.

[8] Mothers in Australia and New Zealand, 1935, quoted in O’Brien, 44.

[9] Cordelia Moyse, 447.

[10] Caitriona Beaumont, “Moral Dilemmas and Women’s Rights: the attitude of the Mothers’ Union and Catholic Women’s League to divorce, birth control and abortion in England, 1928-11939”, Women’s History Review, 16:4, 463-485, 467.

[11] Ibid, 467.

[12] HC Deb 20 November 1936 vol 317 cc2079-131 accessed on 8 March 2023 at MARRIAGE BILL. (Hansard, 20 November 1936) (parliament.uk)

[13] HC Deb 03 December 1963 vol 685 cc1105-16 OBSCENE PUBLICATIONS (Hansard, 3 December 1963) (parliament.uk).

[14] HC Deb 12 December 1949 vol 470 cc2431-80 CRUELTY TO CHILDREN (Hansard, 12 December 1949) (parliament.uk)< CRUELTY TO CHILDREN (Hansard, 12 December 1949) (parliament.uk)

[15] HL Deb 04 March 1969 vol 300 cc8-33 STREET OFFENCES BILL [H.L.] (Hansard, 4 March 1969) (parliament.uk)< STREET OFFENCES BILL [H.L.] (Hansard, 4 March 1969) (parliament.uk)

[16] Hansard is the official report of all parliamentary debates.

[17] Joint Report of the Northern and Southern Marriage Groups, April 1972, quoted in Moyes, 451-2.

[18] This year I was asked, a divorced single mum, to speak on balancing Christian parenting and paid employment.