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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.