A sermon by The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
Queen Victoria became Empress of India; and Prime Minister in Benjamin Disraeli became the Earl of Beaconsfield.
The Settle to Carlisle railway was opened; and the grey squirrel was introduced to England.
In the United States Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone; and in the Black Hills of South Dakota Calamity Jane met 'Wild Bill' Hickok
In the Church of England, Father Arthur Tooth was tried for ritualism, for using incense, vestments and altar candles; and Mary Sumner founded the Mothers Union.
Look around and we worry about the age of members. People say it might be better if we were called the Grandmothers Union. But it was always so. Remember that wonderful photograph of Mary Sumner and that extraordinary group of formidable women in black at Old Arlesford. When her daughter, Margaret, had her first child Mary Sumner, a clergy wife, founded a Society for the support of women in their role as mothers. She wanted a circle of prayer upholding family life. From that, the Mothers’ Union has grown into a worldwide organisation of 4 million people in 83 countries. In this diocese you are the largest membership organisation.
1876 was a very different world and in lots of ways a very similar one. The MU is still the same and it has adapted and changed in its 140 years.
The aims and objects are to:
Promote and support married life.
Encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of the children.
Maintain a worldwide Fellowship of Christians united in prayer, worship and service.
Promote conditions in society favourable to stable family life and the protection of children.
Help those whose family life has met with adversity.
For Christian women and men, in a world that knows the joy of human love and family relationships but finds them difficult to sustain, it is hard to think of a more important and relevant agenda.
We are nurtured and learn to love in our families. Our experiences are mixed but for all of us this is core purpose and gives meaning to our lives. We pray at marriage services for stability and love, for hospitality and good relationships within the home and with the wider community. All of us need help from others. The wider and extended family are important supports. A circle of prayer upholding family life is an important witness and effective help.
We know for some things go badly wrong.
Almost a third of those married in 1997 had ended in divorce by their 15th wedding anniversary.
There over 50,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK.
The NSPCC estimate that for every child identified as needing protection from abuse, another 8 are suffering abuse.
They need our help but the mistake is to think they are different in kind to the rest of us. All of us know marriages and families can be strained. That’s why the Pope’s recent letter on The Joy of Love is so important. He recognises life as it is really lived. The story of our Archbishop’s parents is testimony to that. Life is often less than ideal, sometimes wrong, always redeemable.
The Pope said we should be merciful with one another, not to be judgemental, so that all may find themselves included in the community who celebrate and live in the light of the good news of Jesus Christ. He wrote:
At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel.
I encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors...
I also encourage the Church’s pastors to listen to them with sensitivity and serenity, with a sincere desire to understand their plight and their point of view, in order to help them live better lives and to recognize their proper place in the Church.
He could have been listening to the Mothers’ Union. You are engaged in issues and campaigns in which you make a clear stand for the love of God about real and difficult human issues in which the needs of people are at the heart of what you do. You take on some of the really tough issues. Around the world Mothers’ Union members are working to end gender-based violence and supporting women sexually abused as a result of civil conflict. This is increasingly significant because of the scale of conflicts and movement of people and it has had a particular impact in the current crises of the South Sudan with whom we are linked.
In this Diocese I am really impressed with the circle of prayer you make around family life; by your work with youngsters teaching them about the realities of parenting; with Women’s Refuges, with the families of prisoners; with holidays for people in need; with the cafe at Salisbury Law Courts; and with the support you are giving with the Wiltshire Community Foundation to provide for those relatively small numbers of Syrian refugees who have begun to be settled here; and so on. You are evidence that our willingness to help in response to the greatest movement of refugees for decades is much greater than our politicians realise.
The reading we heard from the Gospel of John is an Easter Day resurrection story. Something new was going on. A series of momentary encounters with the risen Lord were sufficient for people to base their life on.
Because she was the first to find the empty tomb and told the disciples about the resurrection, Mary Magdalene came to be known as ‘the apostle to the apostles’. As with the men, stories were told about her to show she was not perfect. Luke identified Mary Magdalene with the woman who had seven demons cast out of her, and later traditions identified her as ‘the woman of the city who was a sinner’.
The stories collected about Mary Magdalene might be to make her like the disciples who are like us: people who have tried to follow Jesus and people who have failed; people who are not here because we are perfect but because God loves us.
Thank you for being the Mothers’ Union, for continuing to make that circle of prayer that upholds family life and for being alert to the issues of the day. Thank you for being merciful and not judgemental. And thank you for being such a significant part of the life of the Diocese of Salisbury. There is much to celebrate and much to do. I am not commissioning you to membership of a club, but to continue the circle of prayer enfolding family life, to care for one another and be cared for by one another and those in need.
As a Diocese we are about Renewing Hope – through Pray, Serve Grow. You know about that from your commitment to pray and uphold families with a circle of prayer; through service of others; which is how we grow in the way of Jesus Christ to whom be glory now and forever. Amen
 Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales, 2012 published 6 February 2014
 Child protection register and plan statistics for all UK nations for 2014.
 NSPCC, 2013
 Pope Francis Amoris Laetitia, 2016, 311.
 Pope Francis Amoris Laetitia, 2016, 312.
 Luke 7.36-50.