Today, in addition to remembering Wilfrid, bishop and missionary of the early Northumbrian Church, we are asked to remember two remarkable women, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell.
Elizabeth Fry was born in Norwich in 1780, the daughter of John Gurney, a member of a prominent Quaker family. She married Joseph Fry, also a Quaker and a London merchant. Elizabeth had a strong Christian faith, combined with a large measure of social concern, and from a young woman, felt called to ministry. This was eventually recognised by the Society of Friends and she became a preacher and minister.
However, it was her passion for social reform for which she is better known. Soon after her marriage she founded a school for girls in East London, before turning her attention to the appalling conditions suffered by women and children in prison. She made daily visits to women prisoners in Newgate, reading the Bible to them and teaching them to sew. She campaigned for basic rights for female prisoners, including segregation of the sexes, female supervision and provision of education. After she gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee she saw many of her proposed reforms carried out.
She then turned her attention to the problems of homelessness and begging in London, establishing a Nightly Shelter for the Homeless, the first of many in later years. She also founded a society for the care and rehabilitation of released prisoners. It was said that for twenty years she personally inspected every ship containing female prisoners before it sailed.
What is even more remarkable is that, in addition to her efforts on behalf of the less fortunate, she brought up a family of fourteen children!
The daughter of an Anglican vicar, Edith Cavell was also born in Norfolk almost a hundred years later. Initially she worked as a governess before training as a nurse at the London Hospital. She was subsequently invited to become matron of a large training centre for nurses in Brussels, where she worked for seven years before the outbreak of the First World War. When Belgian neutrality was violated by the German armies the school became a Red Cross hospital. Edith Cavell refused the opportunity of returning to England, remaining to nurse wounded soldiers from both German and Allied armies. She also assisted in the process of smuggling British soldiers across the border into the Netherlands, enabling some two hundred men to escape.
Ultimately she was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for several weeks, before being executed by a German firing squad, despite appeals made by American and Spanish ministers. The night before she died she was visited by the Anglican Chaplain, who subsequently reported her words to him:
Standing as I do, in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.
Two powerful and influential women, each living in a male-dominated society, yet able to make their mark by their determination and devotion to the cause each espoused. Notably, each had a strong faith which dominated their lives and enabled them to do what appeared to be impossible in service to God and to humanity. They are shining examples to us all.