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Now it’s time for Woodbine Willie

01 March 2013

The world needs the vision of Studdert Kennedy more than ever, argues Bob Holman

Hero during the First World War and after: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

Hero during the First World War and after: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

THE Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy is an inspiration to me and many others for his determination to fight poverty: his vision of a more equal society is increasingly relevant to our situation today.

Born in 1883, he followed his father into the ministry of the Church of England, and chose to serve in the poorest parish in Worcester. Always giving priority to the poor, he and his wife, Emily, spent much time caring for them; once, for example, they carried their bed to a penniless woman who was dying on her floor.

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Studdert Kennedy enthusiastically enlisted as a chaplain. When troops advanced, he went with them, and his distribution of cigarettes to soldiers earned him the nickname of Woodbine Willie. In 1917, he ran through shells to bring back morphine, and was awarded the Military Cross.

Yet by the time he was demobbed, he was sickened by the needless slaughter. Ordinary soldiers were rarely listened to by their officers. Studdert Kennedy had taken them seriously, and began to convey that they most wanted jobs and homes. He wrote that he wished his own sons to be "bitter rebels against the cruelty and folly of war".

He campaigned against poverty, declaring: "I believe that hungry children make God mad." In 1921, the Industrial Christian Fellowship - which sought to combat social suffering - appointed him as its chief speaker. Soon, he was filling public halls all over Britain.

Studdert Kennedy's call for social reform led some to call him a Christian socialist, but this was inaccurate. He never joined a political party, and stated in 1920: "Something more radical has to change the thought of the country."

That "something" was the Church of England. His close friend William Temple, later to be Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote: "The Church came to represent for him the hope of the world." His reasoning was that, before politicians could be effective, a moral transformation of society was required, so that most people would desire a redistribution of income and wealth. 

AT THE age of 45, in 1929, Studdert Kennedy died suddenly. He had helped to make the Church more of a force for social change, and his message changed many individuals. One businessman, who was noted for his generous treatment of employees and charities, when asked what motivated him, referred to Studdert Kennedy as "that religious spellbinder", saying: "When he died, I resolved to dedicate myself to public service."

But Studdert Kennedy's larger hope of changing society morally was never fulfilled. And, as the historian A. J. P. Taylor notes, churchgoing declined during the 1920s.

The baton of fighting poverty passed in the Church to Temple, then Archbishop of York. He perceived "a Christian spark" within the Labour Party, and when, in 1942, he became Archbishop of Canterbury, he sided with its call for a welfare state. When Labour was elected to government in 1945, it enlarged and humanised state services, and reduced poverty.

But the Labour Party of today is different. In The End of the Party: The rise and fall of New Labour (Allen Lane, 2010), Andrew Rawnsley details how Tony Blair and his colleagues "helped to fashion an era in which the super-rich have increased in both their visibility and influence".

The present coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats promotes a Neo-Liberalism in which the free market is held supreme, greed is a virtue, state services are privatised, and growing numbers of poor people are blamed for their poverty. The Labour opposition fails to offer definite policies to redistribute income and wealth.

No large political party possesses the vision to abolish large-scale social injustice. We should consider whether Studdert Kennedy was right to urge the Church to take the lead. Christian bodies are certainly helping the poor, the unemployed, the hungry, destitute asylum-seekers and others in need; but a larger vision is needed.

IT IS not just in Britain. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in 2012 that "The most disturbing global trend of our time [is] the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless."

In his profound book Seeking a City with Foundation: Theology for an urban world (IVP, 2011), David Smith notes that Christianity is growing in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, particularly among the poor. In response, its leaders are producing a new urban theology, which challenges social injustice.

Four central elements of it are that:

1. Christ's teaching was of "the abolition of ethnic, racial, and class distinctions, so creating a new kind of human community".

2. The Bible teaches that "Christians should be in the vanguard of resistance to the dehumanising forces at work in our world."

3. The most dehumanising force is "a market system now unrestricted by ethics". It possesses a "god-like status", which ensures that a minority possess far too much, while many more have far too little.

4. The Churches, while proclaiming the gospel of a just society, must do more to call upon the rich - including rich Christians - to repent of the part they have played in tolerating the terrible misuse of God's resources. 

Such urban theologians have defined the message to be proclaimed by the Churches. The sort of transformation envisaged would be possible in Britain, if many of the millions who attend churches could back it wholeheartedly.

Studdert Kennedy's vision would be a good place to start. He rejected affluence. His books sold in their millions, but he gave away all the royalties. His closeness to the poor and refusal to tolerate inequality can be a pattern for us now.

Bob Holman is a former Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bath, and the author of a biography, Woodbine Willie, published this month by Lion Hudson.

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