When Christian women pray together and work for the good of others, God works through them mightily. The names ‘Mothers’ Union’ and ‘Australian Church Women’ are not perhaps the names most people think of when considering influential Christian organisations, but they have both made substantial contributions to the church in Australia.
Mothers’ Union had a humble beginning in the rectory of Old Alresford, Hampshire, when the minister’s wife Mary Sumner faced the challenges of caring for young children. When her children were older, she decided to create a support network for young mothers, and invited local mothers to meet in her home for weekly classes. Mary was already involved with the Girls’ Friendly Society, an organisation formed in 1874 to protect young working-class women from vice and prostitution. She saw a need for married women and mothers to have their own organization, promoting family values and encouraging Christian morality. In 1885, Mary addressed the Portsmouth Church Congress – “as wives and mothers we have a great work to do for our husbands, our children, our homes and our country”. Mothers’ Union became an official Anglican organisation, and it did not take long until the movement had spread to Australia.
The first MU meeting in Australia was held in Tasmania in 1892, and a Sydney branch formed in 1896 with Lady Hampden, wife of the Governor, as President. Mrs Hey Sharp, wife of the Warden of St Paul’s College, was Secretary. Since then, Mothers’ Union activities have grown to include hospital visiting, serving teas at the Children’s Court, devotional and prayer groups, and courses on speaking and presenting. Young mothers were encouraged to join through the Young Members’ Department, and although divorced women were barred from membership in 1920, they were permitted to join in 1974. MU Australia has had representatives on the UN Consultative Council, the Australian Women’s Coalition, the National Council for Women and Australian Church Women.
Australian Church Women
In 1938, a group of women from the Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian and Church of Christ denominations met at St Stephen’s Church, Sydney, to form the Women’s Inter-Church Council. Their aim was to promote co-operation between the churches, and provide a forum in which to serve the church together in unity. Baptist and Salvation Army representatives joined in the 1950s, and in 1958 Archbishop Mowll authorised formal representation for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The Catholic Church joined in 1973, and the Society of Friends (Quakers) also had representatives. They set up affiliations with other related organisations: the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Girls’ Brigade and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In 1952, a hostel for young women was opened in Burwood, which operated until 1966. Inter-Church Councils were running in various capital cities, until the early 1960s when the Australian Council of Churches was invited by the Asian Church Women’s Conference to send a delegate. This highlighted the lack of a national ecumenical women’s organisation, resulting in the formation of Australian Church Women in 1965. ACW maintains an ongoing close relationship with the Asian Church Women’s Conference. ACW’s ongoing projects include the Fellowship of the Least Coin prayer network, the Winifred Kiek Scholarship, and participation in the World Day of Prayer.
Women praying together
One standout feature of both these organisations is their strong emphasis on prayer. MU’s ‘Wave of Prayer’ events were started informally during World War 1, and became an official MU activity in England in 1921. Every diocese represented in the Mothers’ Union is prayed for on 3 consecutive days each year. MU Australia’s Prayer and Spirituality department produces regular prayer diaries and leaflets. Prayer groups are also maintained at the parish level.
ACW maintains close involvement with Fellowship of the Least Coin – an international ecumenical prayer movement with headquarters in the Philippines. Participants join together in prayer, and donate the smallest coin of their currency towards various mission and justice projects. This movement was started in 1956 by Shanti Solomon, an Indian woman who travelled around Asia and witnessed the effects of war. The ‘least coin’ concept was designed to allow even the poorest women to contribute, in the spirit of the ‘widow’s mite’ in Mark 12:41-44.
Women supporting the vulnerable
The Mothers’ Union has had an association with the legal system for decades. The Church of England Men’s Society, who were providing support services to men required to attend court, noticed that there was no such service for women and children. Mrs Taylor, wife of the Rector of St Stephen’s Newtown, and Deaconess Mary Schleicher, had been visiting the children’s court on a semi-regular basis. In 1920, CEMS contacted Mothers’ Union and suggested they take on this work. MU began to pay the stipend of a deaconess to work at the court on behalf of the Anglican Home Mission Society (now Anglicare). The famous MU morning teas began in 1972 at the instigation of MU member Joyce Hayman. This proposal not only received the permission of the Department of Justice, but the supply of hot water urns and other equipment. When the Family Courts in Parramatta were being built, MU Sydney was asked, at the magistrates’ request, to have their requirements included in the design.
MU is also known for their hospital visiting. This work began in 1940 at the Crown Street Women’s Hospital, and spread to all the major maternity hospitals. Members deploy their craft skills to make garments for newborns, babies with special needs and stillborn babies.
ACW raises awareness of issues of concern to women in Australia, and lobbies the relevant government departments. They have addressed problems as diverse as gambling, abortion, trafficking of women and children, alcohol and drugs, the Iraq War, breast cancer awareness, mental health, and domestic violence. In 1991 they joined forces with MU on the Media Awareness Project Australia.
Researching Christian women’s groups
The MU Sydney collection includes reports, photographs, extensive subject files, guidelines for public speaking and Bible study booklets. The collection can be searched on the archives catalogue.
On September 14, Jane Tooher will be presenting at the free Library Showcase event on ‘The Mothers’ Union and the ministry of lay women’. Click here for more information and to book.
The ACW (NSW unit) collection was donated in 2022 after the closure of the state unit. It includes correspondence, reports, biographical profiles of members, documents relating to the Wybalena Hostel and the Winifred Kiek Scholarship. This collection, plus further material from the national ACW body, has been fully digitized and is available on the Ark Repository.