It’s Mothering Sunday today. Curiously, along with Christmas, Easter, and Remembrance Sunday, Mothering Sunday stands as one of the four days of the year when Church of England churches are likely to be full. There’s something primal and visceral about going back to see one’s mother on Mothering Sunday, and somehow this manifests itself in a larger number of people than usual heading down to church with, or to remember, their mother.
Its significance was even sharper two years ago. We may have blotted it from our collective memories, but Mothering Sunday 2020 fell on that fateful weekend just as we began to realise the full horror of the Covid pandemic. Although formal social distancing legislation was not brought in until the following day, most people resolved not to make their annual pilgrimages that Sunday, choosing to protect those we loved in the most counter-intuitive manner possible.
Not that Mothering Sunday is ever uncomplicated. People who have lost their mothers, have abusive mothers, have never had the chance to be a mother, or are mothers who have lost their children can find both the religious and secular iterations of this day incredibly difficult to celebrate.
Which is why Mothering Sunday highlights a lot of the tensions in modern society: tensions of place, of dislocation and isolation, of human relationships and how they so often fail to map neatly onto the ideal. A bit like Christmas, Mothering Sunday lives on because the dream of our familial relationships is worth honouring, even if most of the time we honour them more in the breach.
There is perhaps something similar in our relationship to the parish church. Most people do not go to church. Belief in Christianity is below the 50 per cent mark in this country, but try to close a church and it’ll be the community that rallies round in protest (especially, though not exclusively, in rural areas). We saw that too in the reaction to the closure of churches during Covid, which was one of the most interesting sociological features of the pandemic. Atheists and fuzzy agnostics united with hard-working churchwardens in lamenting that they could go into the off-licence to buy sherry but not into a church to pray, reflect or allow the peace to wash over them.
What is it that gives communities such a relationship with a building that they are unlikely to visit for an act of worship? The first thing you notice when visiting almost any parish church is how it’s a hodgepodge of styles and artistic works and practical compromises left over from generations gone past. Eighteenth-century parish chests store teddy bears for 21st-century babies, while medieval rood screens vie against bright plasma screens in their quest for relevance. Eighteenth-century pews with graffiti from generations of bored choirboys are augmented by early 19th-century wood and wicker chairs with space for top hats. There are memorials to war heroes, drowned wives, aged relatives, babies, murderers and their victims. Generations of inhabitants of that parish have left their mark and, in a century’s time, the people of the early 21st century who think they own it now will find their legacy only in the odd graffito and some piece of furniture stashed in a cupboard.
If the church is still there, that is. That is the question of our generation – and it is one which should be asked well beyond the coffee hours in frosty church halls. Forty-five per cent of grade one listed buildings are Anglican churches. What happens to them is of historical significance to the whole nation.
This should be a sentiment the Church of England seizes. The relationship between people and the local church, which is breaking down in so many places in so many ways, is still one of our great strengths. But, as Jesus says, where your treasure is there will your heart be also, and the national church is moving its treasure away from supporting local parishes to funding exciting new projects in the hope of “encouraging growth”. They killed the Darlow formula, which pumped over £100m (in each three-year funding period) into poorer dioceses for parish ministry, and spent it instead on a Strategic Development Fund which has now spent over £170m.
We can see the results. The poorer diocese of Chelmsford is cutting 60 priests’ positions. Leicester is planning to merge all its parishes into a few super-parishes, slash the number of priests, and farm them out like GPs in a modern surgery. As for the vastly expensive new set-ups – have they worked? No. A report that came out earlier this year shows that there have been a measly 12,704 “new disciples witnessed”. That’s about £13,000 per new believer. This is a waste of money on an epic scale – and, worst of all, it comes at the expense of boring snoring local ministry and boring snoring community churches.
So as Mothering Sunday dawns, I hope we can see ourselves to valuing all of the relationships that build up our lives and our communities. Even if we don’t celebrate them every week, we can make sure that they’re loved enough to enjoy the celebrations when they come round.