By George Sumner
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV).
Some years ago I was invited to give a talk at an Anglican Church organization for women called the Mothers’ Union, which has declined in the West, but remains a bulwark of the Gospel in the Global South.
I was invited for the simple reason that my name is Sumner, and the founder of the organization, a century and a half ago, was named Mary Sumner. I had to do some research pronto about my namesake for the purpose of the talk.
I must admit I went in thinking the history would be as dry as a tea biscuit and as antiquated as a hoop skirt. I was wrong.
Those Victorian evangelical women were way ahead of their time. Their homes for the redemption of wayward girls were really refuges against the brutality of human trafficking in their day. And for all their propriety, they turned out to be quite confrontational and tough in denouncing the system of exploitation that men had devised.
Mary Sumner was what social advocacy on behalf of the marginal looked like in the Dickensian world. Their fight against an evil like child labour was the genesis of the laws by which we now oppose such a practice.
The unexpectedly trans-cultural lessons are clear: the power of women’s leadership in the Church, the importance of grassroots advocacy in the congregation, the need to use the access and angles God gives us to speak truth, the courage then to describe openly and uncomfortably the evils of exploitation.
I am proud of my distant cousin, a worthy inheritor of the tradition of Amos and Micah and James. May her spiritual granddaughters find their voices in our day.