Padre who offered a light to servicemen

by
04 March 2009

Jonathan Gurling looks at Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, ‘Woodbine Willie’, on the 80th anniversary of his death, and considers his ministry after 1918

Scenes of public mourning: a scene from Studdert Kennedy’s funeral procession

Scenes of public mourning: a scene from Studdert Kennedy’s funeral procession

A FULL-PAGE report of a funeral in the Church Times would seem almost unthink­able today: for the unexpected death of a serving archbishop, possibly, or the funeral of a world-renowned Christian leader, perhaps. But for an ordinary priest?

But a fragile, sepia-edged page from the Church Times of 15 March 1929 records the extraordinary out­pouring of public grief at the death, at the age of 45, of the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy.

Studdert Kennedy was one of the best known of English churchmen. He was one of a small group of re­nowned figures such as Tubby Clay­ton, the founder of Toc H, Dick Sheppard, the charismatic Rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and William Temple, who was only a couple of months into his tenure as Archbishop of York, and 13 years from his trans­lation to Canterbury, when Studdert Kennedy died.

This group stood out among other clergy in their mission to make the Church of England a credible carrier of the gospel to the struggling masses in the years after the Great War and during the Depression. The 80th anniversary of Studdert Kennedy’s death, this Sunday, is an opportunity to re-explore this extraordinary — but largely forgotten — part of the Church’s early-20th-century history.

Studdert Kennedy may be better remembered as “Woodbine Willie”, a nickname given to him by soldiers in the First World War because of his practice of giving cigarettes as well as spiritual aid. It was a name given in love and comradeship, and yet it somehow detracted, in later years, from a serious appreciation of his theological significance.

So, who was this man? How, as an ordinary parish priest, did he achieve a huge national following? And why did the interest in him evaporate within a generation?

GEOFFREY Studdert Kennedy was born, in 1883, into a bustling clergy family in the rambling vicarage of St Mary’s, Quarry Hill, Leeds. The family was of Irish descent, and Geoffrey, who became one of the greatest orators of his generation, always had a distinc­tive Irish lilt.

GEOFFREY Studdert Kennedy was born, in 1883, into a bustling clergy family in the rambling vicarage of St Mary’s, Quarry Hill, Leeds. The family was of Irish descent, and Geoffrey, who became one of the greatest orators of his generation, always had a distinc­tive Irish lilt.

Born the 12th of 14 children, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, at the age of only 14. This was deferred, and he attended Leeds Grammar School for a time, finally graduating from Trinity in 1904.

Ordination was not very likely at this stage; indeed, he sat uneasily with the Church in the early Edwardian era. A number of his siblings became prominent in the Christian Science movement, and others would follow. Geoffrey could easily have been one of them.

Although clever, he was never academic. He eventually entered Ripon Clergy College in 1907, study­ing there for just nine months before his ordination in Worcester Cathedral in the summer of 1908. Worcester would become his spiritual and family home, but initially he served a curacy in Rugby.

It was in Rugby that his powerful ministry to the poorest in society was nurtured. His Rector, Albert Baillie, put him in charge of a mission to some of the worst slums in the town. The forgetfulness, eccentricities, and complete lack of self-awareness or self-importance that marked his whole life and ministry first became evident in Rugby.

There followed, from 1912, a short period as curate to his ageing and ailing father in Leeds. Shortly after his father’s death in 1914, he married a local girl, and accepted the slum parish of St Paul’s in the Blockhouse, Worcester. This desperately poor parish was to be his spiritual home for the rest of his life. Here his minis­try was woven together with his theological understanding of suf­fering humanity and a suffering God, which was to occupy him throughout his life.

STUDDERT KENNEDY arrived in Worcester two months before war was declared. At that time, he was a strong supporter of the war, and of the campaign to persuade able-bodied men to join up in the service of his country. “There ought to be no shirking on that duty,” he wrote in the parish magazine. Over time, his view was transformed into a trenchant rejection of war, and of the barbarity and waste of that particular conflict.

None the less, he yearned to serve, as he had urged others to do. Finally, late in 1915, he was allowed to leave the parish and make his way to France as an Army chaplain. It was a position in which, without any con­scious intention, Studdert Kennedy would be transformed from a vicar in one of the poorest parishes in the land to a figure recognised through­out the nation: one who could attract thou­sands to listen to his inspired words, and whose books of poetry sold out as soon as they were published.

Although he soon grew to hate the war, he never lost his belief in the quality of courage, amply displayed in his own experiences. He was awarded the Military Cross for acts of con­spicuous gallantry at the attack on Messines Ridge.

The war became the context in which his long-held concern about the problem of suffering took on a new significance. Like many other sensitive minds in that conflict, he chose poetry as a way of grappling with it all.

What really gripped the imagina­tion of the common soldiers, and their loved ones back home, were his dialect poems. In a style akin to Kipling, yet with a power and authen­ticity impossible to compare to anything else, Studdert Kennedy explored the problem of suffering through the simple yet profound thoughts of ordinary soldiers.

How could an omnipotent God stand by and watch the beloved creation tearing itself to shreds? If the explanation was that God, in some way, was suffering at the hands of human hatred, then how could God be said to be omnipotent?

How could an omnipotent God stand by and watch the beloved creation tearing itself to shreds? If the explanation was that God, in some way, was suffering at the hands of human hatred, then how could God be said to be omnipotent?

Theologians may have made this an interesting intellectual question, but Studdert Kennedy gave the simple soldier the dignity of straining and groping towards a recognition of God’s place in the midst of suffering.

It was powerful stuff, which got to the heart of what the gospel had to say at a time when the Church, along with other national institutions, was experiencing a crisis of credibility.

BY THE TIME the war ended, and Studdert Kennedy finally returned to Worcester, in March 1919, his volume of poetry Rough Rhymes had made him a national figure.

He also had an extraordinary personal charisma, which attracted large audiences and individuals alike. In the decade of life which remained to him after his return, he travelled the country, drawing huge crowds to hear him preach. He knew he had real power over people, and at times it frightened him.

The demands on his time and gifts became such that the parish of St Paul’s could not hold him for long. His heart remained there, but he finally left in 1921 to become Chief Missioner of the Industrial Christian Fellowship (ICF), and to serve for a few months on the staff of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

He was then appointed Rector of St Edmund’s, Lombard Street, in the City of London. The parish had only a tiny resident population, thus allowing him to exercise his exhaus­ting and demanding duties travelling the country for the ICF.

He also wrote more poetry and books exploring the Christian faith through the eyes and the experiences of ordinary people. It was simple, yet powerful, material. Some of it was not particularly good, but most is re­mark­ably relevant even now.

It is obvious, however, that his real impact was through the spoken word rather than through his writing. We see his significance in fleeting glimpses of personal testimony from those who heard him, or were for­tunate enough to partake of his ministry.

For example, Arthur Payne, from Worcester — reminiscing about a Christmas midnight mass at St Paul’s — was quoted in Michael Grundy’s biography as saying: “Even though I was still a boy, I remember vividly the passion of Woodbine Willie’s sermons on those occasions. He never used the pulpit, but would sit on a seat on the steps up to the altar and just talk to everybody. He pulled no punches and was very much a working-man’s priest. He used to hold his St Paul’s congregation spellbound.”

WE CANNOT truly know the captivating nature of his personality. No recordings exist of his speech. We only have his all too limited writings, which give a tantalising glimpse into the power of the man. He also left very few per­sonal papers. For the most part, those extraordinary words, and the un­fathomable character that held that generation in thrall, can be seen only through the medium of the written word, and the few flashes of reminiscence.

His years with the ICF undoubted­ly exhausted him. Friends feared for his well-being. Never a fit man, he would feel completely drained during missions, and never felt he had done justice to himself, his fellows, or God. He would often end up in hospital. Few doubted that his almost obsessive ministry would contribute to his demise, and it did — in a vicarage in Liverpool, while delivering a series of Lenten addresses.

The page in the Church Times describes how St Catherine’s, Liver­pool, was filled for a requiem just 24 hours after his death; and 2000 people visited the church during the day. His body was taken in a cortège on the long journey to Worcester, stopping for impromptu services requested mostly by working men.

In Worcester, his body lay in state in his beloved St Paul’s, where thou­sands came to pay homage and old soldiers kept vigil. Grainy photo­graphs show the streets of Worcester thronged as his coffin was taken from St Paul’s to the Cathedral, which was packed with the poor, the unem­ployed, and ex-servicemen proudly wearing their campaign medals, just as Studdert Kennedy had always proudly worn his MC.

It was not just the poor who mourned him. Many in the Church recognised him as someone “quite unlike anyone else they knew”, as Dr John Maud, then Bishop of Kensing­ton, said at a memorial service at St-Martin-in the-Fields. Even the King and Queen were represented, and sent a heartfelt note to Studdert Kennedy’s widow; for he had served for nine years as a Royal Chaplain.

Six months after his death, a col­lection of his friends, who had known him at different stages of his life, collaborated on a book of reflection and appreciation. It gives an insight into a Christian whose impact was deeper than the man himself ever really understood.

Six months after his death, a col­lection of his friends, who had known him at different stages of his life, collaborated on a book of reflection and appreciation. It gives an insight into a Christian whose impact was deeper than the man himself ever really understood.

To Archbishop William Temple, Studdert Kennedy was “One of God’s greatest gifts to our generation”, and, quite simply, “the finest priest I have ever known”. To his friend Dick Sheppard, he was “a saint — a real saint”. To the poor, the workers, the workless, and the old soldiers he was one of their own.

An exhibition to mark the 80th anniversary of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s death is being held at Worcester Cathedral until Sunday, when a thanksgiving service will be held at 6.30 p.m.

www.worcestercathedral.co.uk

www.icf-online.org

Jonathan Gurling is the author of Exploring the Faithful City: A year in the work of the faith leaders of Birmingham (Brewin, 2007). He is a freelance writer, and is researching a new biography of the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He would welcome any personal knowledge, reminiscences, or other materials that may aid his research. He can be contacted at classicjon@hotmail.com.

Jonathan Gurling is the author of Exploring the Faithful City: A year in the work of the faith leaders of Birmingham (Brewin, 2007). He is a freelance writer, and is researching a new biography of the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He would welcome any personal knowledge, reminiscences, or other materials that may aid his research. He can be contacted at classicjon@hotmail.com.

Faith

Faith

How do I know that God is good? I don’t.

How do I know that God is good? I don’t.

I gamble like a man. I bet my life

I gamble like a man. I bet my life

Upon one side in life’s great war. I must,

Upon one side in life’s great war. I must,

I can’t stand out. I must take sides. The man

I can’t stand out. I must take sides. The man

Who is a neutral in this fight is not

Who is a neutral in this fight is not

A man. He’s bulk and body without breath,

A man. He’s bulk and body without breath,

Cold leg of lamb without mint sauce. A fool.

Cold leg of lamb without mint sauce. A fool.

He makes me sick. Good Lord! Weak tea! Cold

He makes me sick. Good Lord! Weak tea! Cold

  slops!

  slops!

I want to live, live out, not wobble through

I want to live, live out, not wobble through

My life somehow, and then into the dark.

My life somehow, and then into the dark.

I must have God. This life’s too dull without. . .

I must have God. This life’s too dull without. . .

. . . So through the clouds of Calvary — there

. . . So through the clouds of Calvary — there

  shines

  shines

His face, and I believe that Evil dies,

His face, and I believe that Evil dies,

And Good lives on, loves on, and conquers all —

And Good lives on, loves on, and conquers all —

All War must end in Peace. These clouds are lies.

All War must end in Peace. These clouds are lies.

They cannot last. The blue sky is the Truth.

They cannot last. The blue sky is the Truth.

For God is Love. Such is my Faith, and such

For God is Love. Such is my Faith, and such

My reasons for it, and I find them strong

My reasons for it, and I find them strong

Enough. And you? You want to argue? Well,

Enough. And you? You want to argue? Well,

I can’t. It is a choice. I choose the Christ.

I can’t. It is a choice. I choose the Christ.

Collected in Rhymes, published in 1929 to mark Studdert Kennedy’s death

Collected in Rhymes, published in 1929 to mark Studdert Kennedy’s death

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