Armistice 1918. Theology from the trenches

09 November 2018

The highly regarded military chaplain G. A. Studdert Kennedy was a serious theologian, say Stuart Bell and Thomas O’Loughlin

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A wartime portrait of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, featured in a new biography by Linda Parker, A Seeker After Truths: The life and times of G.A. Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’) 1883-1929 (Casemate Publishers, £25). The book covers his life preaching in pre-war slums; the reasons for his popularity on the Western Front; his literary career as a poet; and his untimely death in 1929. It also considers his legacy

A wartime portrait of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, featured in a new biography by Linda Parker, A Seeker After Truths: The life and times of G.A. Studde...

IF THERE is one item of common knowledge about G. A. Studdert Kennedy, it is that he was an enormously popular chaplain during the First World War, who had even earned an affectionate nickname, “Woodbine Willie”. This name encapsulated his view of chaplaincy as having “a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart”.

Studdert Kennedy arrived at the Western Front at Christmas 1915. In his account of Studdert Kennedy’s time as a chaplain, Chaplain General D. F. Carey detailed three “comparatively short periods in the front line”: in June 1916; in 1917, when Studdert Kennedy was attached to a brigade involved in the attack on Messines Ridge; and in 1918, as part of the Allies’ final advance. In 1917, Studdert Kennedy was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” during that attack on Messines Ridge, searching out the wounded while under heavy fire and helping them to the dressing station.

Carey, who had met Studdert Kennedy soon after he received the Military Cross, recalled: “He told me he had seen things. . . Then he added: ‘You know, this business has made me much less cocksure of much of which I was cocksure before.’”

When I set out to write this piece, I could not find a single dictionary of theology or theologians that mentioned him.

Many who like the appealing figure of Woodbine Willie may baulk at the idea of him as a theologian. This may say more about the popular image of what a theologian is than about the life and work of Studdert Kennedy. The still-popular idea — and it was probably shared by Studdert Kennedy — is that a theologian is a professional academic, and that his or her theology is always produced in the stolid form of academic monographs, replete with an arcane jargon and copious footnotes.

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This is a caricature. Theology takes many shapes, and theologians can be found far from the classroom. At the core of Studdert Kennedy’s theology stands a particular way of understanding what Christians refer to as “the mystery of the incarnation”.

For him, the incarnation was not a puzzle of metaphysics for students trying to grasp the terminology and arguments of Christological conflicts of the fourth and fifth centuries: it was confronting the reality of God sharing the human lot in Jesus of Nazareth. This was facing the fact of the crucifix: the Word made flesh became the flesh suffering on the cross.

For Studdert Kennedy, the starting point is recognising that God is willing to share our human condition, and so must share in our suffering and pain. Studdert Kennedy thus arrives at his distinctive willingness to speak of divine suffering — “the divine passibility” — not as a result of an abstract deduction from cosmology, but as a consequence of his theology of the incarnation.

He believed that it was necessary to challenge the widely accepted view of God as “the passionless potentate”. So, for him, “God” is not primarily “omnipotence” writ infinitely large — an abstraction rooted in our human perceptions of power — but the creator who brings all into being, and who loves the creation as its finality. And at the centre of the process is located the suffering Word made flesh.

Studdert Kennedy places each chapter of The Hardest Part on, or very near, the battlefield, within the sound of the guns. This might seem little more than an author’s device to give a theology book some excitement or colour.

Studdert Kennedy bypasses the traditional tests of a theology in favour of existential categories: does this still make sense when men are dying around you, when you are in a trench or bunker, when you have to decide if you should go to help a wounded man just feet away from you, knowing that if you do it might be the last step you take?

The scenes, therefore, of The Hardest Part are an implicit statement: theology is too serious a matter to be left in the study, and its coherence needs to be tested in the furnace of living.

 

This is an edited extract from the introduction to Studdert Ken­nedy’s The Hardest Part: A centenary critical edition, edited by Thomas O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell, and published by SCM Press at £25 (CT Bookshop special offer price £20).

Thomas O’Laughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, and Stuart Bell is an Honorary Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham.

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