Thursday, 9 August 2012

Celebrating Mary Sumner

When I was in Wales, earlier this summer, I picked up a little book of short stories called All Shall Be Well. It's edited by Stephanie Tillotson and Penny Anne Thomas and published by a Welsh company - Honno, Dinas Powys - this year. To my surprise, the second story in the book was by Jan Fortune, one of the first women to be ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994. In fact the title of the compendium is taken from her story. A priest who had four children in the first 10 years of her training and ministry. Interesting, I thought.

The story which unfolded was one of sheer inability on the part of senior members of the church and PCCs to accommodate the fact that young women need arrangements that will allow them time to bear and care for their children as well as to work. On one occasion it was suggested that she return to ministry ten days after having a Ceasarian.  Her husband and also the husband of another woman mentioned in the story gave up their jobs at one point to care for the children yet PCCs, archdeacons and bishops acted together to force one of these women into a situation where she was only allowed to work part time (40 hours!) and only paid £5,000 pa so that the family had very little income. The story gets you inside just how this feels when you are young parents trying to hold together your home and family and cope with pregnancy in a parsonage. Sadly, Jan concludes, in the story, that she can no longer go on bringing her children up in the midst of these pressures. 'I walked into my youngest child's room and held him tightly. I remembered the pristine promise of each baby, the immensity of love and hope that came with each birth. 'This is life in all its fulness,' I said aloud to the half-asleep child. 'You, not them.' She feels she can no longer go on 'chasing parishes that seemed only to be afraid of mothers and resentful of children' . She is forced to choose. 'And I knew that all would be well.' She has since returned to parish ministry for a time and is the author of novels, poetry and several books about education.

All this happened a decade ago. Although the church does now have a maternity policy I still hear, on a regular basis, from women ordinands and priests who find the inability of the institution to see pregnancy as more than an inconvenience hard to square with the glorious rhetoric of support for family life and mothers that is heard on a regular basis in prayers and sermons, especially on Mothering Sunday and at festivals of Mary the Mother of Christ. I spoke to someone last year who was thrown out of a cathedral for breast feeding her baby near a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus.  I heard recently from a young parish priest whose child had accute appendicitis; she had a funeral to take that morning and it took many phone calls before she could find cover and get into the waiting ambulance to go to hospital with her child. Yet I'm constantly told that we either can't or don't need to arrange for someone in every diocese to carry a bleep and be on call for such emergencies. I've heard so many sermons about bringing up children and supporting parents being the responsibility of the whole church, yet when it comes down to it we have (probably today) women in vicarages who just can't get hold of the help they need when a family crisis coincides with a serious ministerial need.    

I wish I had £5 for every bishop who has asked me 'why don't more young women come forward for ministry?' Well, I'm going to point them to Jan's hearbreaking story in future.

Today is the day the church remembers Mary Sumner, the founder of the Mothers' Union. It was complete chance that I stumbled across Jan's story last night, but it did give me pause for thought as I presided at the Eucharist in the cathedral this morning. 'O Lord, bless all families...' What are we doing to support the real, lived, messy lives of mothers who are actually bearing children at this moment in time? Will the Mothers' Union campaign for proper treatment of women employed by the church and women clergy who are pregnant? We can't influence or inspire wider society when our own house is in disarray. Wouldn't it be good if churches could be communities that offer all mothers and fathers the kind of support and understanding they need to cope with the uncertainties that are a normal part of parenthood, recognising that this is a phase of life which requires flexibility and creativity in shaping life's routines. 

The Revd Dr Jan Fortune-Wood has been a parish priest at various times. She and her husband home educated their children and she has written two books about non-coercive parenting and autonomous education, Doing it Their Way and Without Boundaries, published by Educational Heretics Press. You can find her educaton website at You can also read an interview with her about her current work as an author on AmeriCymru at  

A little post script about Honno, the publishing company, too. It has quite an inspiring story itself.

''Twenty-five years ago Honno began a revelatory publishing history that has become an essential facet of the whole culture of Wales. From classics, forgotten or neglected, to contemporary work across the creative and critical divides, it is Honno which has placed writing by and about women where it should always have been, at the centre of our past understanding and our future sensibility.'' --Dai Smith, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales

''Honno's story is one of heroic and necessary endurance; for a quarter of a century its workers have committed themselves to discovering new and innovative voices and to resurrecting unjustly neglected ones. A wonderful and incredible achievement that proves the colossal value of the written word.'' --Niall Griffiths



1 comment:

  1. Taken aback at breast feeding in the cathedral I recognise that attitudes from youth ( 60 years ago ) still live in me. Reservations about homosexuality, hanging, abortion and gender are alive & well. The possibility of change was illuminated at my conversion 30 years ago so I pray still for inner holiness.