Mothering Sunday


It is time to get back to blogging. I have not written anything new here for several years, because my attention was elsewhere; specifically I was in discernment and going through the selection process for training for ordination in the Church of England. I attended a BAP last May and was recommended for training (more of all that later). I deferred beginning training for a year, and will start this September. Since last May I have been focused on moving back to the UK from Japan, and finally, two weeks ago, I arrived back in the UK. No more life in Japan for me, although I’m sure I will visit.

Mothering Sunday (March 31st) was my first Sunday back in the UK, and I have to say, I have always struggled with Mothering Sunday. This year was especially hard, and I felt rather triggered. I didn’t grow up in a family that made a big deal of Mothering Sunday, and I have always felt perplexed at the focus on mothers and grandmothers, the appearance of people who are not usually in church on a Sunday morning, and all the bits and pieces that go along with it.

That morning, wanting to attend a Eucharist but also wanting to get lost in a crowd, I decided to go to a service at Sheffield Cathedral instead of at the parish church I usually attend. Since I don’t usually go there on a Sunday morning I can’t say whether the congregation was its regular size or bigger than usual. The hymns had been chosen in part to reflect that fact that it was Mothering Sunday, which raised more thoughts for me, specifically about the theology of hymns. I have been thinking recently about what we sing and how much we think about what we are singing. More of that later too.

There was an acknowledgement at the beginning of the sermon that Mothering Sunday can be a difficult day for many. At the end of the service baskets of daffodils were blessed and offered to people as they left; I declined. I met a friend for lunch and vented about all the things that had bothered me. I came home and started this blog post and again went through all the things that had bothered me, then realised that I was winding myself up more. I saved the draft, and left it for a while.

Coming back to it today I deleted all the ranty stuff about what had upset me, and I decided instead to write about my thoughts and what I would have found helpful. After all, it may be helpful for me in the future and I know I’m not the only person who finds the day difficult.

First, I was glad that it was acknowledged that the day is not all rainbows and fluffy bunnies for everyone. At the same time, I know a lot of people do love it, who would miss it if the church did not acknowledge the day, and it is a wonderful opportunity to welcome people into the church who maybe don’t come very often. How can everyone’s sensitivities be taken into account?

Poking around online, I wanted to find out more about the origins of Mothering Sunday, and I found there were two main points. Apparently in a previous age Mothering Sunday was the day when young women in service were given the day off to return home to visit their mothers. It was also the Sunday when people were supposed to attend the ‘mother church’ of the diocese, that is, the cathedral, not their parish church. It seems the former may have grown out of the latter, since everyone would get together to make their way to the cathedral. Of course, there is also a lot of commercialism surrounding Mothering Sunday and these days it’s very easy to know what the secular expectations are; cards, flowers, chocolates, breakfast in bed, lunch out . . .

My mother always asked me and my brother to not bother with Mothering Sunday, because she felt she had got trapped into doing things for her own mother and didn’t want us to feel the same. Her mother, my grandmother’s preferred gifts were daffodils (she was Welsh so this was expected on St. David’s Day too), knitting wool, Thornton’s toffee and cigarettes. In later years I dodged my mother’s request by giving her things she enjoyed and saying that I thought the prohibition on Mother’s Day gifts covered only wool and cigarettes.

My mother died at the end of September last year, and it is still hard. I miss her a lot, though the pain is nowhere near as awful as it was in those first few days and weeks (something else to write about later). The grief comes and goes, but I miss her every day. On top of this (much less of an issue but still, part of the day for me), I was adopted when I was a baby and so Mothering Sunday for me is about two mothers. Also, I am single, and do not have children.

There is plenty in the idea of Mothering Sunday that I can enter into, appreciate, give thanks for. I love the idea of going back to the ‘mother church’, of everyone coming together as one family through Christ. I am reminded that Julian of Norwich wrote about ‘Christ our mother’ and how we are nurtured. Of course, we can also think about Mary, the mother of God, and our relationship with her.

But the usual focus is narrower than that. Why? Because that is what people expect? I suppose so. If people come to church on Mothering Sunday expecting to hear about how wonderful mothers are, and, if they are mothers and grandmothers themselves to feel praised, celebrated, and they don’t get that, might we as a church fail them in some way? Might we lose them and the opportunity to invite them in? Probably.

Then, what can the church do for people like me, for whom, as Connie Schultz, an American journalist writes of difficult days, ‘the day does not land gently’? If I wish the church could do things differently, what do I think that could look like? Hmmm.

First of all, I think about two festivals in Japan, Girls’ Day (or the Doll Festival) on March 3rd, and Boys’ Day on May 5th. Only the latter is a national holiday, and so although a lot of the imagery and decorations that are associated with the day are the ones for boys, the national holiday is called Children’s Day. Maybe Mothering Sunday could also expand to think of all the ways we can help each other to grow. I am mindful that there is no ‘Fathering Sunday’. And before anyone feels a need to remind me that every other Sunday is a reinforcement of the patriarchy, I know that the language we use is very male, but we don’t expand that to appreciate our own fathers on any particular Sunday.

There are many people for whom, surely, the imagery and language of Mothering Sunday are difficult. People who, like me, have lost their mother, either through bereavement or estrangement. Women who have longed to be a mother, but for some reason have not been. Mothers who have lost a child or who dearly longed to be a mother to a child but could not be. At best, Mothering Sunday might leave some people cold. At worst, it has the potential to open wounds and to trigger painful feelings.

Maybe it is too much to do everything in one Mothering Sunday service. Then how about two? The traditional, expected service, with the celebration of mothers, with daffodils for  all women. But also another service, a quiet time for people for whom it is not a day to feel celebrated, a day instead to think about difficult feelings, of failure, of disappointment and loss.

As I went through discernment and the selection process I thought a lot about how the church can reach out to everyone, and to meet people where they find themselves. This time next year I’ll be an ordinand. I wonder what Mothering Sunday will look like then.



Open Church Week

St. Andrew's, Trowse

This week I was staying with my godmother in Norwich for a few days, and so on Wednesday ended up spending the day with her at the church she attends, St. Andrew’s in Trowse, as part of the Open Church Week in the deanery. The idea is very simple, that churches in the area were open during the week, so people could drop in, look around and chat to someone from the church if they wanted to. Since a lot of parish churches are locked during the week this is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is interested to have a look round, but it also means quite a lot of work for parishioners willing to spend time at the church, making tea and coffee, welcoming visitors and chatting to them.

I had already arranged to visit my godmother and booked my train ticket, when she re-checked her schedule and realised that she was busy after all. Since I have been thinking (and blogging) a lot about the welcome visitors receive at church I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to be on the other side of things, and anyway, I find people endlessly fascinating and can usually find something to talk about with anyone I meet.

We arrived at 10am and left at 4pm. I discovered that my capacity to chat to anyone I meet is not, in fact, endless, but rather I hit a kind of wall at 3pm and felt quite drained. Before I felt completely talked-out, however, I had some lovely conversations with people who visited the church.

For most of the day there were just three of us there; my godmother, the assistant priest and me. The visitors seemed to fall into three categories; people who knew it was Open Church Week and had come from outside the parish; people who lived nearby and didn’t attend the church but were curious to come and see it, and finally other members of the congregation who popped in to say hello and have a chat.

The first visitors of the day were a couple who had driven from another county to visit several local churches in the hope of finding the graves of two great uncles who had fought in the First World War. Not only did they manage to find the graves in the graveyard at St. Andrew’s, but they also found photographs and other information about their ancestors in the small exhibition commemorating the start of the war inside the church. They stayed for a while and before they left took photos of the graves as a reminder of the connection they had made.

The next visitors were a retired couple with their daughter, accompanied by a friend who was a member of the church. While the wife, daughter and friend looked around the church I made the husband a cup of coffee, plied him with chocolate biscuits and chatted to him about a lot of things; his experiences working in Kenya, Julian of Norwich, prayer . . .

We had a couple of visitors who were already members of the church but who wanted to pop in to say hello, and then we decided it was time for lunch. Just as we were finishing a woman walked in and since my godmother and the assistant priest were in the middle of a conversation I got up to welcome her. She lived very near St. Andrew’s, but had attended only once, just before Christmas last year. She had so many questions about the church, about faith, about issues of gender and sexual orientation. We talked about the early church, I mentioned Julian of Norwich again, and then felt that as a lay person and not even a member of St. Andrew’s it would be wise to ask the assistant priest to join the conversation. I felt so impressed that this visitor had thought about so many issues, and so glad that Open Church Week had given her an opportunity to come in to church and discuss those questions.

Later, a young father with two young children came in. They were on their way to the park but had seen that the church was open and decided to come in and take a look. They spent some time exploring the church, looking at statues, carvings and different parts of the church.

While I was happy to see the visitors from further afield, I really felt that this woman, and this father with his children, were the ones to really benefit from the church being open and may feel more inclined to attend a service now that they have had the time to express their concerns, speak to one of the priests and have a look round. Maybe it demystifies it a little, maybe they feel they know a bit more about the church before they try it on a Sunday morning.

Towards the end of the afternoon more parishioners dropped in. I had a conversation with an elderly gentleman, but by then was really feeling quite talked out. After he left I sat quietly on the other side of the church to the small group sitting and chatting, and then went outside for some sunshine and fresh air.

It was lovely to be part of Open Church Week, and to try to be the welcome I would like to receive myself. I feel very strongly that the welcome a church extends to visitors, and the support that is given to anyone not accustomed to the service is so important. Spending the day welcoming and talking has given me a lot to think about.

St. Nicholas of Myra, Brighton

St. Nicholas, Brighton

This morning I attended a service at St. Nicholas of Myra. It was my second visit here; I attended one service last summer, so I already knew most of what to expect. I have come to realise that when I visit a church I am curious about a few things; the welcome, the worship, the sermon, and the support or help offered.

So, first of all I received a lovely welcome from Angela. As she handed me the booklet for this morning’s service, I asked her if that was all I needed. She realised as I asked that I was a visitor, and explained that everything was indeed in the booklet, and also gave me a leaflet introducing the church, inviting me to look around afterwards.

I sat down and looked through the booklet to see if there was anything unusual, but it all seemed familiar. It was a fairly lengthy booklet, running to twenty-four pages, including information about an upcoming festival of music, other announcements, and contact information for the parish. Pages two, three and four were information to prepare for the service; mobile phones off, facilities in the church etc. I particularly liked the information on page four, on how to sit, be still and pray before the service started.

The worship itself: as well as the vicar there was also an assistant priest, several servers and acolytes, and a choir of about twenty people. Quite a lot of the responses were sung, but the music was not provided for them or the hymns. I kept up but would have been able to do so far more easily if I had the music to sing from instead of the words only. There was incense, but not huge billowing clouds of the stuff, and the sermon was interesting enough. Thinking back to Evensong at St. Michael’s last week, I enjoyed the priest’s quiet, heartfelt reflections made without reference to notes more than this morning’s kind of standard sermon. But having said that, the priest this morning was preaching to a much bigger group of people and that clearly changes the dynamics.

After the sermon and the Creed the booklet directed us to ‘sit or kneel’ for the prayers of intercession, and the congregation sat. I noticed that there were hardly any kneelers, but nevertheless, being accustomed to kneeling I knelt anyway. It was a little uncomfortable kneeling without a cushion but sitting doesn’t feel right to me. The Peace should follow directly after, but instead there followed ‘the presentation of chorister awards’ to some of the teenage members of the choir, which took about ten minutes.

Following on from that, the Peace, and the two men behind me introduced themselves, ‘Kevin & Kevin’ and asked for my name. When I told them I was visiting but had attended a service last summer also they remarked,’You’re a regular, then!’ On to the offertory hymn, preceded in the booklet by a slightly stern reminder to use the gift aid envelopes so the church could claim back taxes and so increase the money given. This information had been included at the beginning of the booklet so I found it a little jarring to see it repeated in the middle of the service. Anyway, I’m not a UK taxpayer so I ignored  it.

The Eucharistic Prayer, and then we received communion. The choir went first, then went to the back of the church to sing while the rest of the congregation went up to the altar rail. The anthem they sang first was beautiful. The hymn they sang next, (“Oft in danger, oft in woe”) was not. Sung in four parts, the sopranos lost the melody line and the whole thing fell apart, I suppose without the melody the other parts couldn’t really hear where they were going. Anyway, a number of the choir members, particularly the younger ones, seemed to find this quite funny, and the choirmaster looked rather rueful. I can only imagine that it had been a bit hit-and-miss in rehearsal but they had decided to do it anyway and hope for the best, but it really was a bit dreadful.

We stood for the prayer and then sat for announcements, particularly on the subject of the festival of music. After that, back on our feet for the blessing, and we prepared to sing the final hymn, when there was a kind of beeping noise, which gradually got louder. The vicar said it was the fire alarm and we all had to leave the church. As people started to stroll towards the main door, they found their way blocked by an elderly gentleman holding a large piece of paper on which someone had written FIRE in large red letters. We turned and strolled out of the back entrance instead, as we did passing a woman alternately telling us, ‘Assemble on the grass at the bottom of the hill,’ and ‘You can come back for coffee.’ We wandered outside, then stood about for a few minutes. I talked to Kevin & Kevin a little, then we all wandered back. Apparently the service had ended. I was a little disappointed, because the last hymn was to be ‘Great is thy faithfulness’, but there was neither that nor the organ voluntary.

On my way out I picked up a copy of the parish news and noticed that there is a Julian Group meeting on the first Thursday of every month, which made me happy. Angela was still by the door and invited me to come again next year. I think I will, and if I lived in Brighton I would consider making St. Nicholas’ my regular church. It’s a friendly and welcoming place, and I enjoyed the service.

However, I am left with two questions that I think need to be the subject of separate blog posts, because they are things which concern me. One is music: how much it enhances worship, and how much is ego. The other is about the accessibility of worship. I know my way around most services, so even if I am not familiar with the particular form of words or the musical setting I can find my way through it. However, neither this Sunday nor last did anyone check if I could do that, and I wonder how someone would feel if they were a complete newbie. How do we support someone who is completely new to the liturgy? How do we make worship more accessible?