Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Wilfred, Elizabeth and Edith...

Today, the church marks the death of three prominent Christians, Wilfred of Ripon, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell.  As you know, I quite like using these Thursday sermons to learn something about those who have believed before us.  So with three famous names in our view, let’s hear their stories.

Wilfrid, or Wilfrith, was born in Northumbria in about the year 633. He was educated at the monastery of Lindisfarne, but disapproved of what he judged to be their Celtic insularity. Remember that at this time, the Celtic church had been thriving in the years since Rome retreated from the British Aisles.  But from 597, when Augustine of Canterbury was sent on a mission from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great, Rome had been steadily re-asserting its influence.

Wilfred’s sympathies lay with Rome.  He believed that Rome was the mother church, even though she had left her daughter-church in the British Isles to it’s own devices for a couple of centuries.  Wilfred journeyed to Canterbury and then to Rome. He spent three years at Lyons where he was admitted as a monk. He then was appointed Abbot of Ripon and took with him the Roman monastic system and Benedictine Rule, which he immediately introduced. 

Wilfred played an influential role at the Synod of Whitby, in around 663.  The Synod was called, essentially to decide whether the Anglo-Saxon church of Northumbria would follow Celtic or Roman church traditions.  Wilfred’s dominance of the debate was largely responsible for the victory of the Roman party over the Celts.  Later, when he was elected Bishop of York, he went to Compi√®gne to be consecrated by twelve Frankish bishops rather than risk any doubt of schism by being ordained by Celtic bishops. 

There were upsets first with Chad and then with Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, but the Roman authorities took his side and he was eventually restored to his See. After further disputes, he resigned the See of York and became Bishop of Hexham, spending his remaining years at Ripon. His gift to the English church was to make it more clearly a part of the Church universal.  But it has to be said, his manner and methods were not such as to draw people close to him at a personal level. He died on this day in the year 709 and was buried in Ripon.

I find this period of British church history really interesting.  It shows that spark of independence from other nations which still dogs the British mindset today.  We are an island nation, and we don’t take kindly to being told what to do by other nations in Europe.  We never have done.  Henry the Eighth’s split with Rome was another example, and of course Brexit is the latest occasion when we have pulled up the drawbridge to Europe.

Wilfred also serves as a reminder that even the Church Universal, with its headquarters in Rome, has rarely managed to maintain a unified stance on anything.  The British Schism of the 600s, the Reformation, and the Great Schism with the Orthodox church at the turn of the first millennium – all these historical events remind us that unanimity on all matters theological and ecclesiological is a rare thing indeed.  The Catholic Cardinals are currently having another Synod, in Rome – and there are many issues up for debate there, too.

In the last week or so, the Bishops of the Church of England have voted to approve prayers which may be used at the blessing of same sex marriages.  This is a major shift in policy by the church, and it is warmly welcomed by so-called progressive and liberal clergy, like me.  On the other hand, those of a more conservative view are incensed by this move.  Many are calling the present House of Bishops a bunch of ungodly heretics!  The battle over same-sex blessings, and perhaps one day marriages, is but the latest ‘big issue’ to get in the way of Unity – and dire predictions of schism in the Church of England are rife once again.  In the past we’ve argued over where Authority lies, slavery, the rights of women, the ordination of women, and the authority of Scripture.  And no doubt we’ll find things to argue about in the future – just as Wilfred and others did in the past.  But through all these debates, the godly men and women of the past have continued to witness to God’s love in the world – whatever the theologians and bishops were arguing about!

I’m thinking, for example, of Elizabeth Fry. She was born at Earlham in Norfolk in 1780. At the age of twenty, she married Joseph Fry, a London merchant and a strict Quaker. She was admitted as a minister in the Society of Friends and became a noted preacher. The appalling state of the prisons came to her notice and she devoted much of her time to the welfare of female prisoners in Newgate. In 1820 she took part in the formation of a night shelter for the homeless in London. She travelled all over Europe in the cause of prison reform. She was a woman of a strong Christian and evangelistic impulse and this inspired all her work. She died on this day in 1845.

For another example of someone whose faith drove them on to great works, today we also remember Edith Cavell. was born into a clergy family at Swardeston, also in Norfolk, in 1865. After life as a governess, she trained as a nurse, ending up working with the Red Cross in Belgium in 1907. On the outbreak of the First World War, she became involved in caring for the wounded on both sides. She refused repatriation and then began smuggling British soldiers from Belgium into Holland. In 1915 she was arrested and brought to trial. Protecting those who worked with her, she was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad on this day in the year 1915. She went to her death calmly, forgiving her executioners, convinced she had been doing her duty as a Christian. 

A quick comparison of the lives of St Wilfred, Elizabeth Fry and Edith Cavell leads one to conclude that although Wifred is the only canonised Saint, of the three, he was perhaps the least ‘saintly’ of them.  By all accounts he was a miserable and argumentative so-and-so, who nobody really liked, and who spent most of his life arguing about which branch of the church was the most authentic.  In comparison, Fry and Cavell poured out their lives in the service of others – caring for the prisoner, the homeless and the sick.  I wonder which of these three each of us would rather emulate?  In the spirit of today’s Gospel reading, I wonder whose dogged persistence we would most like to copy?


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