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.



Sheffield Cathedral, 8th Sunday after Trinity

Sheffield Cathedral

Over twenty years ago I used to work in the centre of Sheffield, and because the only bus I could catch which got me to work in time actually had me in the city centre much earlier than I needed, I often attended the morning Eucharist at the cathedral. There were never many people there, but it was a lovely way to start the day. In the years since I have often popped in to the cathedral for a few minutes of prayer or just to sit quietly, and once went to a carol service, but it had been a long time since I attended a Eucharist.

Yesterday morning started a foul, rainy, windy day, as the weather forecasts had been threatening. Hurricane Bertha had become Tropical Storm Bertha and then, apparently ex-Bertha, but still brought plenty of unpleasant weather to Sheffield. So I was doing my best impression of a drowned rat as I scuttled into the cathedral at about 10am. In fact, my first challenge was actually managing to find my way into the building, because where the entrance had previously been there was now the front of the cathedral shop and only a window. The entrance was a little further round, and waiting inside were two greeters or sidespeople.

One of the things I have been thinking about a lot is how a church welcomes visitors, and so, as a Sheffield girl I am happy to report that I received a lovely welcome. As well as the service book (with everything printed inside) there was a gift aid envelope (for donating money if you’re a UK taxpayer) and the weekly bulletin or newsletter, plus sheet music for the responses. I was very happy to receive the music, since most churches don’t provide it, and it’s a surefire way to make a visitor feel completely left out of the service. The two people greeting everyone were very helpful, and answered all my questions. There was also information inside the booklet about receiving communion etc. which I thought was useful.

There was still about twenty minutes before the service began, so I went on a wander for old times’ sake, taking a few photos as I went. Even though there was plenty of activity as people got ready for the service, there were still several side chapels where I could sit quietly and not be disturbed by all the bustle.

Just before the service began, the Canon who was the main celebrant made some announcements, mainly about clergy who were not there, including one, announced with great glee, who was away with the diocesan camping trip. (Remember, there was torrential rain at the time.) Having established that there were very few clergy in attendance, there was a short time of silence before the service began. The cathedral seemed relatively empty, I suppose because of summer holidays and inclement weather. I’d like to go again when more people are there.

At the confession, the booklet stated, ‘we sit or kneel’ but following the renovations to the cathedral the old, dark wood pews had been removed, and new, lighter wood pews, minus kneelers, had replaced them. So for the confession everyone sat, and so did I, but after a few seconds I decided I just couldn’t, so knelt directly on the cold stone floor. Uncomfortable, but better than sitting.

As I have already mentioned, I had been given some sheet music when I arrived, and I had assumed that this would include all the arrangements used in the service, but I quickly discovered this wasn’t the case. Sigh. We sang the Gloria, to some arrangement I hadn’t heard before. I caught on eventually, but was already thinking, what is the point of giving me only some of the music? The service continued; the directions were clear, so I knew what I was supposed to be doing and when.

The sermon was reasonably interesting, based on the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 14, but about thirty-six hours later I can’t remember more than the general points. After the Creed came the intercessions, and I wasn’t hugely thrilled, for two reasons. The first is one of my ongoing objections to the Church of England, specifically that it is the established church, which in the twenty-first century seems absurd to me. Any prayers for ‘Elizabeth our queen’ have me opening my eyes and staring around beadily in an irritated manner. Of course, no one else does the same, so I quickly simmer down and close my eyes again. The second thing that surprised me about the intercessions was the editorialising that was going on, the kind of bush telegraph feeling, the extra information the intercessor was adding. I felt it was unnecessary, it seemed more for the benefit of the people present than anything the Almighty needed to know.

And so on to the Eucharistic Prayer and the receiving of communion, which didn’t take very long, partly because the congregation seemed quite thin on the ground, and also because there was an efficient system for moving people up to the altar and back to the pews.

The service was over and the organist played the voluntary. The booklet stated, ‘we warmly invite you to sit for the playing of the Organ Voluntary, or to leave at this point without disturbing those who wish to listen’ and so I sat to listen and noticed that a lot of the regulars around me were already having a good chat to their friends, hmmm. The voluntary finished, and there was the usual round of applause for the organist. Why do people do this? I particularly dislike it, we seem to end the service to the glory of the organist and it seems inappropriate to me. I wish people wouldn’t do it.

As people were leaving I looked around the cathedral a bit more, particularly at the altar and the angels in the roof above it. They have always been there, but following the renovations they are well-lit and beautiful. (You can see them in the photograph at the top of this post.) I decided all altars should have angels over them.

As I left a different person was on duty in the entrance. I returned the music sheet and she asked if I wanted to sign up for any of the activities they had coming up. I was impressed with the way information was available, even though it wasn’t applicable to me. I think newcomers would feel able to join in but not pressured to do so.

So, Sheffield Cathedral. It was lovely to be back, and following the renovations the interior is stunning. It is a lovely, airy space, with plenty of places for quiet, private prayer. I felt I didn’t see the service at its full-on best, and would like to go again when the congregation is bigger. I would like them to provide all the music, not just some of it, and kneelers for people who don’t wish to sit for the confession and intercessions. I was happy to feel so welcomed, and look forward to visiting again at Christmas.