When I first arrived at Wycliffe College, I received an invitation from the head of the Niagara Mothers’ Union. The phone invitation went like this: “It is our anniversary and we would like a Sumner to speak, and you were all we could find!” With that ringing endorsement, I said ‘OK.’ You see, Mothers’ Union was founded in the mid -19th Century by the wife of an English bishop named Mary Sumner. I was no stranger to its ministry. It is of course central to the life of the African Church where I was ordained, though she was known in Swahili as ‘Mama Samna.’ My assignment to preach required that I research what one might expect to be a dowdy and archaic figure.
What I found was very different. The Victorian Church loved to form societies, special groups for specific needs. And in the case of Mary Sumner, one of those needs was that of girls who found their way to places like London, and in great poverty, also found their way into prostitution. Those Victorian Anglican women were, in turns out, some of the first advocates for women in the face of sex trafficking and slavery. They ruffled not a few political feathers by making leaders of the time look at the more brutal aspects of their economy and social life.
Now most of the association of the Mothers’ Union is with the evangelical branch of the Anglican tradition, and in particular the Church Missionary Society. Their great growth was in the CMS areas of Africa, and the Union was one of the great instruments of that growth. But this was inseparable from interest in the status of women. In east Africa by the mid-20th century the Revival, whose roots are similar to the Union, challenged and transformed relations between husbands and wives. Even the opposition to drinking was rooted in part in the degradation of women in the customs around pombe, the brewing of homemade beer.
My points are simple ones: sometimes new causes aren’t so new after all. And movements we thought we understood, such as evangelicalism, were more multi-dimensional than we gave them credit. And, in the missionary movement’s history at least, the most powerful changes and contributions were often made by women who were obviously, at that time, lay people. Though her husband was a bishop, it was Mama Samna, rightly, who had a more lasting legacy.
What resulted was a ministry of the Church, but not one in the usual ‘matrix’ of the diocese, parish, and clergy. It was a voluntary society, lay-operated, with a specific mission. We have around us many fruits of such efforts - Daughters of the King, Brotherhood of St. Andrew, Cursillo, etc. They are the woof to the warp of Church structure. They are often the catalyst to renewal in Church history. They make up, together, what we call ‘Church.’ They need and deserve our attention and effort, adapted to our own time and circumstance.