The Mother Church. A phrase many of us will have heard before; a phrase that might describe a number of different aspects of the church, or a church.
The Mother Church is often applied to the Christian Cathedral in the centre of a diocese. All the parish churches within the area are known as ‘daughter’ churches, all are related and look up to the Mother Church, often in the largest nearby city.
It can also refer to a new church in an area, one that intends to, or has already, led to several new related-churches appearing nearby. The conduit through which the word of God is spread across the neighbourhood, the village, the town, the county, the country, the world.
An obvious reference here is of course Mary, mother of Jesus. In orthodox Christian theology, Mary is chosen by God as the one to bring God’s word, Jesus, into the world. But whether one believes in the special sacredness of Mary or not, it remains the case that Mary was the mother of Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus, who was most likely a product of nurture as well as nature, spread a message of love to the world. Jesus, the son of Mary, chose apostles, disciples, to continue that message long after he had been killed by crucifixion. Whilst Mary could not, of course, have done all this alone, she was an integral part of the story of the man Jesus. From that one point, the Mother, all the good news was spread. There was, it is reasonable to assume, a little bit of Mary and Mary’s thinking and attitude that went with Jesus and onward with his message.
And is this not an example of what must surely happen in all of us. There is a strong biological element of our natural mothers deep within us. Some of us can look like our mothers at times – and we can certainly have very similar features. But there is also a piece of that nurturing love in our attitudes and natures. And that comes from the person, or persons, that bring us up in the most motherly way. Not always your biological mother, but someone who nurtures, loves, encourages and passes on those some of those features and values to you.
But is motherhood, and the concept of motherly love perhaps greater than the individuals we might identify as ‘mother’? Many religious movements, Unitarianism included, have sought to reclaim the notion of God from those that demand a patriarchal approach. To move away from ‘Our Father’, as the prayer goes.
The Fatherly figure of God has come to us primarily through Judaism. From the fearsome warrior figure of early Hebrew Scripture, through to the Father figure itself or, in Hebrew, Abba, as called by the Jewish man Jesus, according to the writers of the Gospels.
But even the Bible, that wonderful record of people trying to understand their world and the purpose of their lives is not completely clear on this. The earliest part, that story of Creation in 6 days, refers simply to God. No Father, no Mother, just God. And at Genesis 1:26, the nameless author of those early words suggested that God was plural “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. And man and woman were created. A beautiful literary image, not factual scientific paper, but an early theologian summarising that the great transcendent reality, the Creator, must in some way be a reflection of us, or vice versa. And the ambiguity of the wording can certainly suggest a God that is both male and female.
And that is the God many are reclaiming today. Why? Well, perhaps because we are seeing the sacred values of love, nurture, safety, trust and compassion as virtues that must, surely, be strongly female, if not obviously motherly.
Mother, Father, Creator of all.
Contrary to popular belief therefore, the mother church, the mother Creator, and mother nature are all at the forefront of much religious and spiritual discussion. And for Unitarians, the strong and necessary acceptance of equality in all things is one of our strengths.
However, I wonder whether there is more to this than simply recognising the importance, and valuing the existence, of motherhood in the world around us. Perhaps there is more. Perhaps we all need to ensure we are acting as a mother would act, at all times and in all situations.
We have all had mothers – biological mothers, and those we might view as our emotional mothers – sometimes the same person, sometimes not. And it is from them that we might learn and relearn our approach to the world and to our neighbours. And that includes our approach to our closest friends and colleagues.
In a traditional Christian sense, Unitarians don’t have a Mother Church. We are an organisation consisting of autonomous congregations, each accountable to itself. For administrative and identity purposes, we are members of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. But we are not accountable to the GA, and the GA cannot direct our actions or our activities.
We are therefore our own mother church, we are perhaps both mother and daughter churches. Here in Bessels Green is the beating heart of the mother. And in our own hearts, as we leave here, we take a little bit of that with us; we are all sons and daughters to this, our own mother church.
Yet this is, of course, just a building. A very nice building, but four walls and some windows nonetheless. But to create the church here needs more. It needs people; it needs people that care for the church, and care for each other. It needs us. The building brings us together, but it is the people that are the life force within. We are the creators and the created of this church. We are the continuing creators and carers. We are there to both give and to receive.
But a mother does not nurture, love and raise her child in expectation of personal reward and gain. The reward is seeing the development of another person, in seeing someone else achieving things. That is a reward of motherhood. And it is by no means immediate. A selfless giving.
And is this not the true giving nature of the transcendent? Of God, if that is the name you wish to use? Is Mother a better way than, say, Father.
To refer to God as Mother implies that, no matter how bad we’ve been, God is always there for us. God gives selflessly, and God provides the nourishment we need to sustain us. Yet we must surely remember our own commitment and responsibilities to our mothers; to our parents. They cannot give ceaselessly without a little help. And to learn from our parents, and to ensure we re-enact those moments of love and compassion is a necessary return for us to give.
And that is what I hope this, our mother church, might give and receive from all of us.
Motherhood can be a physical reality for only some. Yet we can all try to celebrate the importance of motherhood and motherly values by taking them on as a state of mind.
We are the happy children of this church and its history, and we are the loving parents of this church and its future.
We have only been able to learn of these values of motherhood from the observation of mothers, our own and those who are not related to us. Only from these can we apply that second half of the ‘God’ figure of both Mother and Father. IF we are to live in God, to live in love, we are surely dependent and thankful for these great exemplars.
Let us celebrate the values and skills of motherhood we must always try to emulate, although perhaps never seem to equal.
Let us give thanks for motherhood.
Click on the MP3 Link above to hear this sermon in full.
Click on the MP3 Link above to hear this sermon in full.