Mother’s ruin

So, gin, sometimes called “Mother’s Ruin”, has made a really significant comeback into fashion.  The news last week was that sales have doubled over recent years and that there has been a “ginaissance”, with more bottles of the drink being sold than ever before.  “Mother’s Ruin”, as the tipple was previously known, has proved so popular that a record 73 million bottles of the drink were sold in 2018. The effect has been so huge that even Blackburn Cathedral has come up with it’s own brand in the last year.  It’s called ‘Cathedra’ and the Dean hasn’t yet shared any with me – but when he has I’ll let you know what it is like and just what aromatics it contains!

But I have been noticing all those flavoured gins that are around – lemon drizzle, rhubarb, strawberries and cream, even, I have discovered in my extensive research for this blog, Parma Violets flavoured gin!  Now I can’t quite get my head around that one.  As a bit of a purist I prefer my gin plain, with a good tonic and maybe a slice of cucumber or the old classic, lemon and, of course, ice.

A few years ago  the only place you were guaranteed to find a bottle of Gordon’s was in a vicarage.  For some reason Gin and Tonic was the favoured drink of the clergy and especially High Church clergy.  So a dinner party in some clergy house would always begin with some knee tremblingly strong G&T.  The new series of ‘Fleabag’ continues this tradition though but in modern style – to add to his allure, the priest in the series keeps cans of ready-mixed gin and tonic in the sacristy!

But gin, though so favoured and flavoured now, was the drink of the masses and not least in London in the mid-eighteenth century when it was drunk in huge quantities and became a social ill.  Men became impotent, women became infertile.  Hogarth depicts the scene so powerfully in his picture ‘Gin Lane’.  There at the centre a mother, so out of it, drops the baby that has been at her breast, unaware of what is happening.  The child falls, arms spread out whilst the mother is oblivious, gin-soaked as she is.

Gin Lane

‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth

Today is Mothering Sunday. To be honest I find it a hard day now, personally, since mum died two years ago.  I pass by the cards in the shops knowing that I have no one to buy one for (I always persisted in finding one that actually said it correctly ‘Mothering Sunday’ none of that Mother’s Day nonsense) and I have no one to buy over priced flowers for.  But I still enjoy the day when we can give thanks for those who mother us.  And that for me is the point, those who mother us, not just our mothers and not just mothers in general. To call it Mother’s Day places limits on the day itself that we might not want.  Mothering opens up all the possibilities of celebrating the care we have for each other and that deep ‘mothering’ that lies at the very heart of God.

This year, however, I will be thinking particularly about those mothers who in recent months have been ruined by the pain of losing a child, however young or old that child was, as a victim of knife crime.  It seems that there is an epidemic and all the statistics  back this up.  Knife crime is on a terrible upward trajectory. Is this what Hogarth, if he were wandering the streets of London today, would be chronicling, children torn from their mothers through violent crime? It is the ruin of motherhood for those who must receive the news that their child is no more.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, stands with us in all of this.  As people place flowers and light candles at icons and statues of her in our churches this weekend we will be doing so with the words of Simeon ringing in our ears as they must have rung in hers.  In the gloom of the Temple, as the parents of Jesus bring their child into this brutal space, to save his life from the sacrificial knife that hovered over Issac, by presenting their own offering, the old man takes the young life into his hands and says

‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.35)

Her son was spared the knife but the blade struck into the mother’s heart and it would do so again as she stood at the foot of the cross and saw what they did to her child.  Jesus spoke to her from the cross

‘He said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ (John 19.26)

Those words were in the context of the forming of that new relationship between his bereft mother and his bereft friend.  He made them into a new family.  But as Jesus said these words from the cross did he also mean that Mary should see her son, him, in this painful reality? Mary stands and looks and stands and looks with those who have mothered today and whose motherhood has been ruined.


Tender mother

One of the many scandals of the Brexit process is that the energy of government for three years has gone into this, so far, failed venture.  Meanwhile, so much has been going on that needs the imaginative and committed attention of politicians and community leaders, things like this surge in knife crime.  There are reasons for it that I don’t begin to understand, but others will understand and some of those others will be the mothers who weep.

The American writer and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for her book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, wrote a poem called ‘Mary at the Cross’.  It contains these stanzas

Now by that cross thou tak’st thy final station,
And shar’st the last dark trial of thy Son;
Not with weak tears or woman’s lamentation,
But with high, silent anguish, like his own.

Hail! highly favoured, even in this deep passion;
Hail! in this bitter anguish thou art blest,-
Blest in the holy power with Him to suffer
Those deep death-pangs that lead to higher rest.

So my prayer is for those who mother and who share ‘the last dark trial’ of their children and who must, somehow, survive the mother’s ruin. May they be held by our Mother Mary.

Mary, God-bearer, pain-bearer,
stand by those who mother
and, like you, must stand by
and watch their children die.


Celebrating mums

It’s Mothering Sunday – yes, that is what it is called, not Mothers’ Day – we keep it on a Sunday because we are giving thanks to God for our mums and it’s about ‘mothering’ not just about how lovely our mums are.  Anyway, whatever we call it around the country people will have emerged from morning services clutching some straggly daffodils, perhaps tied with a bit of ribbon, that have either been handed over in church by child (of any age) to mother or will be if they survive the battering journey home.  We have a wonderful Flower Guild at Southwark Cathedral and Pat (Gold at Chelsea) has the task with some others of getting our bunches of daffs ready.  She kept calling me during the week.  ‘The snow has done dreadful things to the daffodils; I might not be able to get any; I’m just warning you.’ What a nightmare! Mothering Sunday without daffodils!


Worry not.  I went into one of the ancillary rooms on Friday and there was Pat with two other members of the Guild putting the bunches together.  Phew! Pulled back from the jaws of disaster. That would have been a real cloud hanging over us (unlike our Lent art installation) if we’d had no flowers.

I was back at Mirfield during the week, staying at the Community and College of the Resurrection.  It’s my yearly visit, three days in that wonderful atmosphere sharing again the common life that is such a feature of the place and made it, for me, the most wonderful environment to be formed for priesthood.  I go at this time of the year as I have a task to do that I need a bit of space to achieve.  On Easter Day my Annual Report is made available.  It has to be written – and that was the task, and a few other bits of writing, like the five ‘thoughts’ I had to prepare which are to be broadcast on Premier Radio each day during Holy Week.  Anyway, I got all of that done.

But on the Wednesday it was the Feast of Ss Perpetua, Felicity and their companions.  The priest who was presiding at the Mass, in her homily, told me something about these early Christian martyrs of which I was previously unaware.

I knew that the account of this martyrdom which took place in Carthage in around 203 AD was remarkable in lots of ways.  It was remarkable in that the detailed and rather gory account of what happened to them spread through the Christian world with a speed which would challenge our modern communications.  The document that recorded it was one of the most powerful and influential of the time.


St Perpetua and St Felicity


But what was also incredible was the story it told of how Christians lived which was counter-cultural.  Vibia Perpetua was a married noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death; Felicity was her slave imprisoned with her. Her companions were another slave named Revocatus, two free men Saturninus and Secundulus, and a man named Saturus, who voluntarily went before the magistrate and proclaimed himself a Christian. They were catechumens and so were preparing for baptism but proudly called themselves Christians and spoke fearlessly in the name of Jesus.  The account of their martyrdom made it clear that they were, in effect, baptised in their own blood. But what this mixed bunch of people reveals to us is that Christians were ignoring the current social conventions of only mixing with people of their own class.  Here a noblewoman and free men stand alongside slaves and share the same fate.  Christians worshipped in truly inclusive communities that were startling to others.

What I didn’t know was that at the time of their martyrdom Perpetua was nursing an infant and Felicity was pregnant.  These were two young mothers who stood in the arena and despite the demands of motherhood did what they believed to be right.

The mums we celebrate today have perhaps not had to do anything like Perpetua and Felicity but too many mums around the world do have to make stark choices and sacrificial decisions.  The images on our screens of a mother trying to feed her child from breasts that hold no milk, searching for a scrap of food that her child, not she, will eat, struggling to keep the fruit of her womb alive, are distressing and moving.  Whether on the outskirts of Damascus or in the Yemen it is women, it is mothers who bear so much of the pain.

In a couple of weeks time we will be with Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary going through her own martyrdom, a sword piercing her heart in fulfilment of old Simeon’s prophecy as she watched the fruit of her womb die.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.34-35)

Mary, Perpetua, Felicity, the unnamed mothers on our screens, and our own mothers also, all to be celebrated on such a day as this which calls not for an excess of sentimentality but healthy honesty and realism about just what it does mean to be a mother – and a father.

God, mother, father, of us all
bless those who are our mothers
and strengthen those whose mothering
leads them into suffering.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark