Today, Thursday 12th October, the Church of England remembers two extraordinary Christian women, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell. Both committed their life’s work to serving God by caring for those damaged and broken by the inhumanity of human beings.
Elizabeth Fry is best known for her campaigning for prison reform. She inspected prisons, developed post-release reintegration programmes and advised governments in England, Scotland and Europe. Perhaps less well-known is her work to address homelessness and to improve mental health care. It must have taken much courage, patience, diplomacy and prayer to carry forward this mission in the face of opposition from people in power and ignorant indifference of those used to the system as it was.
Edith Cavell was a nurse and a trainer of nurses. While she was working in Belgium, the First World War started and she became part of the Brussels Red Cross Hospital. There, she cared for both Allied and German soldiers equally, without discrimination, until German occupation put an end to this. She also helped many British soldiers escape out of Belgium, until she was captured and executed. Talking with the chaplain who visited her in prison before her death, she said “Standing, as I do, in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.”
These words really struck me as I was reading widely differing posts on a Christian site in response to the crisis happening in Israel and Palestine. Such violence and hatred is rarely a simple matter but rooted in a history of tension and conflict affected by internal and external influences. Whatever the political rights and wrongs, it is the lives of ordinary, everyday, people which suffer: innocent children, civilian casualties, men and women drafted into fighting on one side and the other. Cavell’s call to lay aside hatred and bitterness, whatever one’s personal political affiliation, is reflected also in the public statement and prayer of both Archbishops Welby and Cottrell on Saturday for restraint on all sides of this conflict and effort towards a just peace for all.
Such tension and conflict are not limited to the national stages of the world.Nor is the Church exempt, as we see from the ‘witness’ of Russia and Ukraine, or the deep pain around the discussions of Living in Love and Faith. For those who have no Christian faith who look at the Church in the news and social media, what is the witness to good news, hope and peace that they see? What is the role for each of us in challenging and changing negative perceptions?
Paul hints at this challenge to the Church’s life and witness in his letter to the Philippians from which we read this Sunday (Philippians 4: 1-9). He asks for unity between Euodia and Syntyche, two of the local church’s key agents of mission and ministry. Perhaps there has been a difference of opinion in how to carry out this work; perhaps there is a personality clash here. Whatever is going on, Paul recognises and affirms that both women are offering valuable service to God and to the Church. He encourages the local church to help the women. He invites the Philippians and all who read this letter to grow in faithful witness and unity by prayer and by holding onto what is honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. (v8)
Faced with conflict, prayer surely must always be a response. We pray for God to be present in Israel and Palestine, in Russia and Ukraine, in every such situation, to soften hearts of stone and transform hatred into reconciliation, bringing an end to the terrible damage to life and soul. We pray that the Holy Spirit leads us through tensions within Church debates, whether around major issues of belief or practical parish concerns, with courage and compassion. And when we pray as Jesus himself taught us, and ask forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, perhaps we need to pray also for honesty to recognise our weaknesses here and courage to acknowledge the position of those with whom we do not agree.
Information on Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell taken from JH Darch & SK Burns Saints on earth: a biographical companion to Common Worship. Quoted in the Church of England Lectionary App
Archbishops’ joint statement. 7 October 2023 https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/
image from Unsplash, by Sunguk Kim