WHATEVER else may be true about the Great War, it was surely a catastrophe. It shook up assumptions about faith, soldiering, class, and culture. Immediately after the War, for the Church of England, one figure especially carried the weight of these troubled assumptions: Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, aka “Woodbine Willie”, army chaplain extraordinaire.
This striking and unusual collection of essays takes Studdert Kennedy a leaping-off point for meditations on the First World War and poetry, the doctrine of God, mission, and preaching, among other topics. The subtitle uses the phrase “evoked by”: it is an appropriate choice, for one implication of “evoke” is “called out of”. Studdert Kennedy is the figure who — rather like Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth — is not always centre stage, but who exercises an abiding influence, and calls the writers to account.
The contributors, who include figures of the stature of Professor Michael Snape and Mark Chapman, range far and wide, but come back to Studdert Kennedy’s rare gifts: his capacity to channel the language of hope to encourage ordinary soldiers to serve with honour; his earthy humanity that so resonated with the common soldier; and his ultimate revulsion at the vileness of war, and his deep awareness of Christ’s suffering within it.
In a profound sense, this is an An-glican book. That is, it dares to make a series of theological and philosophical gestures towards complexity and nuance; it seeks to follow threads of Studdert Kennedy’s interests and commitments (his poetry, his preaching, and his ministry in Worcester, say) without being doctrinaire. If it has a position, it is the one that has emerged in the past 30 years in reaction to ’60s and ’70s obsessions that treated the Great War as mere waste, and which killed off popular belief in God.
Life After Tragedy, then, is pleasingly bold, curious, and original. There is a typically accomplished essay by John Inge on home and place, in which he suggests that “the First World War was, if nothing else, a conflict about place.” Peter Atkinson offers a fascinating study of Studdert Kennedy as a poet, holding his work up against that of a fellow poet of faith, Geoffrey Dearmer. Atkinson acknowledges Studdert Kennedy’s limitations as poet, but mounts a sterling defence against the notorious assaults made, in the middle of the past century, by I. A. Richards and Roy Fuller. I was also most impressed by Alvin Pettersen’s analysis of the differing cultures of memory represented by post-war memorials in Worcester and those in Magdeburg Cathedral.
One further pleasure — given Studdert Kennedy’s deep connection with the city — is how much this is a Worcester book. Its editors are both canons of the cathedral. Besides contributions from the diocesan Bishop, there are chapters from the Dean, and other canons, lay and ordained. If nothing else, it indicates that there is a lively theological and literary culture at the heart of that city, something especially cheering in a time when scholarly endeavour within the Church so often feels under threat.
If there are moments when it feels that a chapter is in danger of allowing Studdert Kennedy to slip too far from view, this book finds its grip — its habitus, as it were — in its sense of community with that remarkable army chaplain and priest. In her Afterword, Ilse Junkermann tells how Studdert Kennedy, encountering a dead soldier on the front line, said: “He looked like a tired child that has cried itself to sleep.” That vignette captures the presiding mood of this collection: grounded, human, and prepared, in the midst of tragedy, to search for the sensitive and kind.
Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
Life After Tragedy: Essays on faith and the First World War evoked by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy
Michael W. Brierley and Georgina A. Byrne, editors
Cascade Books £24
Church Times Bookshop £21.60