Royal Hampshire County Hospital Nurses League Service

May 11, 2019

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Preached by the Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester, using Isaiah 35: 1 – 7 and Matthew 5: 1 – 10 at the annual Royal Hampshire County Hospital Nurses League Service at the University of Winchester Chapel on Saturday 11th 2019.

Thank you for your kind invitation.  It is a great delight to be with you, the Royal Hampshire County Hospital Nurses League in the 80th year of your foundation.  Winchester Cathedral has had a long association with the hospital and I welcome this opportunity to reflect on the vocation of nursing and to honour you as nurses, and give thanks for nurses and the inestimable benefits of nursing care.

And we meet on this Saturday nearest to the birthday of Florence Nightingale, acclaimed as the founder of modern nursing.  Going back to childhood memories of a Ladybird book on Florence Nightingale, with striking illustrations of the lady with the lamp, I’ve always been stirred by her story.  Since I also share my birthday, May 12, with Florence, there is a sense of affinity with her.  And now I live in Hampshire, the county of her family home until her death.

I’d like us to begin by thinking of Florence (1820 – 1910) and the times into which she was born.  Times of extraordinary and rapid change in technology, industry, culture and working life.  A time when there was little safety net for the poor and enormous disparity between rich and poor.  Child labour was exploited in factories, and in 1856 the law still permitted children over the age of 9 to work 60 hours a week, night or day. That was perfectly normal. It was a time of war.  The British army fought wars in Burma and Afghanistan, the Punjab, China and the Crimea (1853 – 6).  Wars fought abroad became less distant as telegraph technology fed newspapers and people here knew more about what was happening there. They learnt about the harsh conditions for ordinary British soldiers for the injured and dying.

Florence Nightingale is amongst the honourable roll call of Victorian reformers who saw the urgent need for change, along with people such as Lord Shaftesbury, Charles Dickens, Millicent Fawcett, John Stuart Mill, and Mary Sumner.

In this we see the growing awareness of the dignity of each person as the beloved child of God. The worth of people regardless of background.  This is a fundamental of Christian belief, the basis of our ethics and our treatment of one another.  As Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Our neighbour is the one who is in need, regardless of his or her background.

And healing is essential in this vision.  The prophet Isaiah sets out a vision of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  In that Kingdom the people share in joy and singing because they experience healing.  The eyes of the blind see, the ears of the deaf hear, the lame leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sings for joy.  People experience healing and so does the land itself, in the Kingdom of God, all of creation, is in good health. This has such contemporary resonance.  In Holy Scripture we see that the will of God for his people is wholeness and healing.  This is what heaven looks like.  So we can say that those who work to bring about healing and wholeness are anticipating heaven on earth.

Florence Nightingale fought to go to the Crimea, she braved personal hardship to bring medical care to those in desperately need, to organise field hospitals, to train nurses, to bring the light of hope to wounded and suffering men.

Of course she did more, for many years she kept statistics to change policy, and lobbied tirelessly to change opinion.  She shows us that care is not simply a feeling, but an activity. And, in her case, lifelong.

She shows us the difference an individual person can make.   She said, ‘the progressive world is necessarily divided into two class – those who take the best of what there is and enjoy it – those who wish for something better and try to create it.’

She also shows us that reformers, don’t meet with social approval.

I told you earlier about my affinity with Florence Nightingale that we share a birthday, we also may share something else.  Florence considered that she had a divine calling, heard in Embley Park, here in Hampshire.  She wrote a letter to Dean Stanley in 1852 and a section of the letter was used in a publicity leaflet by the Movement for the ordination of women: ‘I would have given (her) the Church my head, my hand, my heart.  She would not have them.  She did not know what to do with them.  She told me to go back and do crochet in my mother’s drawing-room; or if I were tired of that, to marry and look well at the head of my husband’s’ table….She gave me neither work to do for her, not education for it.’

So Florence had a vocation to serve.  In the Church it just 25 years ago this year that women were able to be ordained as priests.  I was privileged to part of that first group. Well, Florence directed her formidable energies and devoted her life to serving others through the nursing profession.

Like other Victorian women she faced enormous challenges, and social disapproval for her determination to change attitudes to the suffering of each individual, to establish the principles of medical care.

Jesus says in his teaching that we know as the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’ Florence had a hunger and thirst for righteous change.  Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.’  Florence had to fight so that the most vulnerable, wounded and forgotten, could receive mercy.  ‘Blessed are you when people revile you on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in haven.’ Florence knew opposition and criticism, but she kept on.

She shows us the determination and moral courage that it takes to champion a cause and challenge prejudice.  As we give thanks today for her, honour the nursing profession and the work of our hospital, be encouraged.  Each one of us, though our daily actions, can make a difference.  We are called to bring healing and care to Gods children, and to every part of his creation.  A great vision, and a great calling.