Ad Clerum on Mothers

Letter to the Clergy from Bishop Minns

“For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”(Luke 22:27)

It may surprise you to know that I don’t like the British historical television series Downton Abbey, and to the chagrin of my family I won’t even watch it with them. It’s not that I don’t admire the gifted writing of Julian Fellowes, or the beautiful sets and the costumes that adorn the talented actors. It is just that I find that upstairs/downstairs world of the Crawley family deeply troubling. It is a world where, by accident of birth, a privileged few are destined to rule, while the rest of society are consigned to perpetual servitude. During my growing up years I had little interaction with such upstairs people...except for an occasional visit to one of their stately homes. When, after college, I was first employed as a mathematician with Imperial Chemical Industries, I did work alongside Lord Kitchener, who seemed inoffensive enough. (The first Earl Kitchener was famous for his scorched-earth policy during the Boer Wars in South Africa.)

My other brief encounter with titled nobility was through my mother, Hannah. She was born on New Year’s Day, 1918, as the First World War drew to an agonizing close. Her family were farm laborers and there were four other children in the family – all boys – and they were poor. So much so, that when they moved to a farm in Nottinghamshire, my mother was passed along to a nearby cousin to be raised by her family. Mother did get to see her birth family every summer, but this separation had a lasting impact on her. As was the custom in that era, her formal education didn’t last long, and she left school the year of her 13th birthday. She was, however, passionate about learning and would often visit the local library where she read voraciously.

Mother married Dad at the beginning of the Second World War and he went off to serve in the British Army. Meanwhile, she was employed as a bus conductor for Nottingham City Transport until I came along in 1943. After that, she did whatever she could to make ends meet. She was a dedicated gardener, growing vegetables and flowers, and also raised chickens and rabbits to provide eggs and meat for the family. Like most mothers of that era, she also made clothes for me and my sisters with her trusty Singer sewing machine.

When it came time for me to graduate from the local elementary school, Mother fought for me to be able to go on the academic track to a regional grammar school and then on to university. I was not only the first in my family to go to college but also the first in my immediate community. It was due, in large part, to my mother’s determination that, unlike her, I would have the very best possible education. She didn’t forget my spiritual formation, either, and made sure that my sister and I were regulars in worship and study at the local community Baptist church. It was there where I became a Christian and enjoyed studying the scriptures and competing in the Bible “sword drills.” I can still almost hear my mother singing my favorite Baptist hymns. During her later years, Mother continued to serve the community as a volunteer at the local hospital, and she was so effective that she became the overall coordinator for the entire program.

Mother was actually in the hospital herself for minor surgery when I flew over to visit. She described in great detail all of her daily activities and then paused and said, “You will never guess who came to see me yesterday...Lady Muckety-muck!” I have forgotten the lady’s actual name but she was a member of the local nobility who served as honorary chairwoman of the volunteers.

I replied, somewhat less impressed with her ladyship, “I’m not surprised, since you do all the work and she takes all the credit.”

My mother was aghast. “But you don’t understand – she is a titled lady and she came to see me, and I am nothing.”

It was my turn to be horrified. “Of course, you’re not ‘nothing’ are very gifted and you work hard. ”But my mother was adamant – no matter what I said, she really believed that she was nothing compared to this other woman. Sadly, that’s just the way it was for her. She was caught in a culture that she helped me escape.

I recognize that this personal story is a very minor example,but those attitudes are still very present in British culture...take a look at the magazine at the checkout counter of your grocery store and you will see how many people are still enamored by this upstairs/downstairs world...especially the upstairs characters! But what troubles me much more is that much of that mindset is present in the church...especially the Anglican Church. We still have too much fascination with titles and positions when we are all called to serve. There is too often a wide gulf between the pulpit and the pew – when in truth we are called to be ministers of the Gospel. We also get caught up in the celebrity worship that infects our contemporary culture.

A few years ago I was invited to a conference on marriage at the Vatican,and while there I met a Roman Catholic priest who had served as an assistant to Mother Teresa. I asked him how she had avoided getting caught up in all of the celebrity worship that seemed to swirl around her. He told me that it was a great concern for her and the focus of much prayer by her and her community of sisters. Whenever she returned from one of her many speaking tours, she always made a practice of cleaning all of the toilets in the convent where she lived.

Who is greater? Upstairs or downstairs?

But [Jesus said,] “I am among you as one who serves.”

Your brother in Christ,