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22nd March 2020 The Reverend Andrew Allen, Exeter College Chaplain

Reflections from the Chaplain: Mothering Sunday

During the COVID-19 crisis Exeter College is providing Chapel services online, led by the Reverend Andrew Allen and with music from the College Choir.

Thinking about how I might provide the Exeter College community with spiritual support, in my role as chaplain, has proven difficult at this unusual and challenging time. I propose to offer some reflections along with a piece of music from our choir. Here is my second piece, along with a recording, which you can listen to by clicking on the play icon below. If you would like to receive more reflections by email please let me know by emailing me at


Mothering Sunday

One of the peculiarities of being a College Chaplain is that the festivals celebrated in the Chapel are dictated by the rhythm of the academic year, and not a liturgical calendar. One silver lining of these strange days is the opportunity to reflect on some of the commemorations that fall out of term time. Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, celebrated as Mothering Sunday in many countries around the world.  Since 1914 Mother’s Day has been celebrated on the second Sunday in May. The then president, Woodrow Wilson, proclaimed a day set apart, ‘as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country’. Inspired by these sentiments, there were suggestions that Mother’s Day be adopted in the UK, which it was, although on a different date, and with a slightly different focus. These discrepancies are primarily the work of Constance Adelaide Smith, the spirited daughter of an Anglican vicar, who worked as a medicine dispenser in Nottingham. Smith was inspired by the idea of honouring motherhood, but, as she wasn’t a mother, she wanted to celebrate all forms of motherhood, and not just biological. High Church Anglicanism was a huge influence in her life, and she sought to unite the contemporary idea of expressing gratitude to mothers with forgotten traditions of the church.

Under the pseudonym of C. Penswick Smith in 1921 she published a book, ‘The Revival of Mothering Sunday’. This surveyed different facets of mothering in the Middle Ages, and included chapters entitled, ‘The Church – Our Mother’; ‘Mothers of Earthly Homes’; ‘The Mother of Jesus’; and ‘Gifts of Mother Earth’. This was augmented by recording different customs and traditions – such as younger servants being allowed off work to visit parents; people making mini-pilgrimages to their mother church (either the cathedral, or the church where they were baptised); or baking a Simnel cake. Many of these activities were highly spirited: Robert Grosseteste, (c 1170 – 1253) was bishop of Lincoln, and arguably one of the earliest scholars and teachers of this University (until the Reformation Oxford was in the diocese of Lincoln). He warned, in a pastoral letter, “in each and every church you should strictly prohibit one parish from fighting with another over whose banners should come first in processions at the time of the annual visitation and veneration of the mother church” [1].

Fighting for whose banner had the favoured spot, or whether children-servants saw their parents all focused on this Sunday because of liturgical reasons. There have been three Sundays since the start of Lent – the period of self-reflection, of fasting, discipline, and abstaining from fun, and there are three more Sundays until Easter – the period of great joy and fun, of feasting, and rejoicing. This Sunday served as a break from the austerity of Lent, a day of mini rejoicing, an idea taken from the first word of the Introit, that is, the first words sung or said in the mass:

Laetare Hierusalem et conuentum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis uestrae.

            Rejoice, O Jeruslaem, and gather together all you who love her. Rejoice with gladness who have been in sorrow; be exulted and strengthened with the solace flowing from her motherly bosom.

Today, for many of us, is Mothering Sunday. I’ve always struggled with what to think about today: not all relations between parents and children are smooth or happy; not everyone can be a mother or father. So I like Constance Smith’s expansion of motherhood to mothering, because this is something we can all do for each other. But, at this time, it is not so easy knowing how we can help each other: physical contact is restricted, many of us are scattered across the world, and coming together – one of the most human of activities –  is just not possible. This virus doesn’t just attack our bodies; it attacks what makes us human. It strikes at the very essence of what it is to be human. It forces us to curb that which makes us kind and good people. Many of us care deeply for each other, many of us should be going to see mothers today, giving flowers, sharing a meal, laughing and crying together. But we can’t. And, equally, we can’t mother those we love as we usually would: friends with recently broken-up relationships that might be given solace by cooking dinner and binging on Netflix, or a break from revising by going to G&Ds cafe. None of this is possible at the moment. But life goes on. We need to think of ways – in these surreal and uncertain circumstances – of being human, of extending the love, compassion, fun, support that makes us who we are. The last few days have been a fast learning curve for many of us on how to use Microsoft Teams – it’s part of the Outlook package if you don’t know about it. Through it, we can have virtual meetings, share files, and try and get on with life. I’m conscious that I’ve often lamented how much social media intrudes into our lives, but Teams, Facebook Messenger etc have become an important way of staying in touch, of showing compassion, and of feeling human.

Mothering Sunday has been linked to this Sunday for the reasons I mentioned above, but also, the gospel reading for today takes us to the crucifixion. Chapter 19 of St John’s gospel sets the scene: Jesus has been nailed to the cross, and is in the final few hours of his life. Gathered at the foot of the cross are his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary Magdalene, and another Mary. Also there is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, a figure who occurs only in John’s gospel, and who may have been the disciple whose memories formed the core of John’s gospel. Regardless of the identity, this beloved disciple played a key role in Christ’s life. Crucifixion was a slow and painful death: the pain, not only of having nails driven through limbs, but also a slow suffocation made it particularly gruesome. Yet in the midst of all this pain and suffering, where drawing breath took huge efforts, there is the most touching and moving scene. Jesus, looking down from the cross sees his mother and the disciple, and says to Mary his mother, ‘behold thy son!’ and to the disciple, ‘behold thy mother’. An act of great compassion and kindness in an inhumane situation.

Today, when we might be thinking of Mothering Sunday, when we certainly are thinking of COVID-19, perhaps we might want to think about how we can be human, how we can be humane and kind in these difficult circumstances. Today’s music (towards the top of this web page) is a live recording from the 2018 Advent Procession. It is a setting by Herbert Howells (1892 – 1983) of an anonymous C15th poem about the purity of Mary. But it also talks about life blooming out of incongruous and uncertain circumstances:

“its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter
And in the dark midnight.”

and serves as a reminder that even in the most changeable and distressing situations hope, and compassion, and love can spring forth.

You can read John’s Passion here: in the King James Version (1611), or in the New Revised Standard Version (1989) here:

Andrew Allen


[1] Letters of Robert Grosseteste, trans. by Manello and Goering, Toronto University Press, 2010, p 107ff.


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