A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Mothering Sunday That Got Mugged
March 6, 2005
Lent 4 Mothering Sunday Eph 5:8-14 John 9:1-41
One of my favourite Bible stories is "Once upon a time on the way to the Temple…" Jesus, the teenager, went AWOL. Mary and Joseph were beside themselves with worry - as parents do. Finally they caught up with the lad in the Temple where he's been having a nice esoteric chat with the elders. The amusing part is his total lack of repentance. Like most teenagers he has little sympathy for his parents' plight. You could imagine him saying, "Mum, Dad, get a life!"
Interestingly, and importantly, this is one of those anti-family stories that pepper the gospels. It portrays Jesus deliberately flouting the cultural norms by prioritising the life of faith ahead of the life of the family. In a patriarchal culture elder sons are responsible, obedient, and caring for their parents and siblings. Elder sons do not wander off and later tell their parents to get a life.
Actually it was worse than that. Remember the line, "Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's House?" Jesus was declaring his choice about houses and fathers and authority. His accountability was to God, not to the family patriarch. The family system would as the gospel progressed come in for a lot of criticism. Jesus would challenge his followers: 'Choose family or choose God'. Not a reading one would expect on Mothering Sunday!
Actually, somewhere along time's byways Mothering Sunday got mugged. It was a nice little liturgical reminder of the provincial churches ties with the Mother Church in Jerusalem, until suddenly out of right paddock it got pounced on. The thought police tied it up and buried it. They then, like in an Alexander Dumas novel, switched mothers. Rather than being a day to remember Mother Jerusalem it became a day to remember one's own mother and what she had to endure. Rather than being a day to contemplate and celebrate the divergence of people and theologies from the starting place of Christianity, it became a day to contemplate and celebrate motherhood and the joys thereof. Only the Simnel cake with its 12 apostolic marzipan balls remains to remind us of the Mothering Sunday tied up and buried in the paddock.
Let's go digging. Imagine a time probably after the Roman-Jewish War and destruction of the Temple in 70 CE when the Church in Jerusalem was in decline. This was the first Church, the Church of the Apostles, the Church from which missionaries were sent out into the Mediterranean world and beyond. Now that Church was suffering, financially and spiritually, as the new churches in the Gentile world - particularly in Asia Minor - were flourishing. The call went out: "Remember from whence you came."
It was, however, church being church, a bit more political than that. The churches in the Roman Provinces tended to be more tolerant of Gentile ways and less receptive to the requirements of the Torah. The Mother Church, nestled in the bosom of Judaism, tried to be true to their understanding of Jesus and the Law. There was tension between the Mother and her offspring. The offspring were adapting to their environment and beginning to make independent decisions. One needs to read St. Paul in this light.
Remembering where we've come from and the traditions of the past I suspect was an important part of the original Mothering Sunday. Yet celebrating theological exploration, both in Jerusalem and abroad, might have been a part of it too. Spiritual health requires dependence and independence, restraint and freedom, conservatism and innovation. It is tempting to think of these couplets as opposing forces, whereas they needn't be.
There is a certain skill required of both mothers and Mother Churches: how to let go. How to not be in control! The teenager in the Temple story is about Jesus stepping away from parental control. Mother had to cope and adapt. Maybe his independence and challenge to the patriarchal system gladdened her heart?
The Mother Church in Jerusalem had to learn to live with her progeny in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and elsewhere without controlling everything they did. The churches in the Provinces were discovering that their message and lifestyles had to adapt to the circumstances in which they found themselves. There was some discomfort for the Mother Church in this. But maybe it also gladdened her heart?
The relationship between centre and periphery is currently at a very interesting juncture in global Anglicanism. Anglicanism is made up of independent Provinces each of which determines their own life, creatively adapting to the cultures of which they are a part. Yet these Provinces are also connected with each other through four instruments of unity. Two of these, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, are part of Mother England. Their power is as much as any Province wishes it to be - accepting or rejecting their counsel. The third instrument of unity is the Primates conference. For some Provinces the Primate is like the High Chief, for others like us it is a representative role that an individual takes on for a short time. Again a decision by a group of Primates has as much power as a Province wants to give it.
Each of these three instruments is made up exclusively of bishops, and almost exclusively of men. It is very patriarchal. The fourth instrument, however, is quite different. The Anglican Consultative Council is made up of representatives, bishops, clergy, laity, men and women.
The interesting juncture is that the Primates meeting last week, still trying to cope with differences regarding homosexuality, has strongly suggested that the American and Canadian Churches don't send representatives to the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council. Now, does the Consultative Council take orders from the Primates? Surely it should determine on its own who sits round its table? Given that the Council is financially dependent on the American Church, is there an agenda here by some Primates that the Anglican Consultative Council goes out of existence? Watch this space. Our bishop of course is the chairperson of the Consultative Council. Pray for John. He will need considerable intestinal fortitude in the next week.
Some would say this geo-political situation is all about theology and sexuality. I would say it's as much about control and living with difference. Mother issues.
I'm intrigued how Christianity gets associated with the pro-family brigade, writ large downtown yesterday. The very early Christian communities were rather freethinking, egalitarian associations, often led by rich widows, and critical of society's boundaries between rich and poor, men and women, slave and free. The Patriarchal family system was the opposite. It maintained a hierarchy of power. In time it reasserted its dominance in the Church. It seems to me that the so-called pro-family lobby of the Christian right has likewise a clear hierarchy of power, and a clear understanding of where women should or shouldn't be.
The Mothering Sunday that honours mothers, at it's best, acknowledges the strength, courage, and feistiness of the women who raised us. At it's worst Mothering Sunday promotes the myth that women need to marry [in Patriarchal speak that means be under the control of a man] and produce progeny.
This Mothering Sunday let us remember the festival that's been mugged and buried in the paddock. Let's remember the Simnel Cake, representing the Mother Church in Jerusalem, and all the tension and possibility that comes from being an international association. Let's remember all those who are working for a vision of the Church were women and men, rich and poor, gay and straight, have equal access to power and privilege, and show a generosity towards those who differ from them.