The life and theology of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

by Alex Taylor

‘How can it be that God can reign in glory, / Calmly content with what His Love had done, /

Reading unmoved the piteous shameful story, / All the vile deeds men do beneath the sun?

Are there no tears in the heart of the Eternal? / Is there no pain to pierce the soul of God? /

Then must He be a fiend of Hell infernal, / Beating the Earth to pieces with his rod.’

Extract from ‘The Suffering God’, in Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s ‘Rough Rhymes’ (1918)

Much has been written in the last three years to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Amongst those works which analyse the War from a theological standpoint is a collection of essays entitled ‘Life After Tragedy: Essays on Faith and the First World War’. Its contributors are a number of theologians, social historians and clergy who are all in some way associated with Worcester Cathedral. The importance of Worcester lies in one of its most famous adopted sons; the Church of England priest, poet and army chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ because of his habit of handing out Woodbine cigarettes to troops on the frontline in addition to providing spiritual guidance. The editors of ‘Life After Tragedy’ use the greatly influential figure of Studdert Kennedy as a paradigm through which the Great War can be viewed theologically. Not only did Kennedy demonstrate himself to be a committed and selfless pastor, both before, during, and after the War; his experiences as expressed in poetry and other writings led to him becoming one of the Anglican Church’s most radical theological voices. This brief analysis will offer an overview of Kennedy’s life, and show how his theology of God was shaped and changed by the horrors of the Great War.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was born in Leeds in 1883, the son of a Church of England priest and his second wife. Studdert Kennedy was educated at Trinity College, Dublin (his paternal family were from Ireland) before following his father and many of his older brothers into the Church. He trained for ordination at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and after a curacy was appointed to the parish of St Paul’s Church in Worcester in early 1914. Studdert Kennedy had long felt a call to minister to the poorest and most deprived communities in the country, and the relative poverty of St Paul’s parish was what initially attracted him. With the outbreak of the First World War later that year, Studdert Kennedy volunteered as a chaplain to the British troops on the frontline. He proved immensely popular as a preacher and pastor with the men, among whom he earned his now-famous nickname of ‘Woodbine Willie’. Although initially supportive of the British cause, his first-hand experiences of the horrors of the War caused the young priest to grow increasingly disillusioned with militarism. These views are apparent in his poetry, which proved very popular both across the front and in Britain, and turned Father Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy into a household name. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for fetching morphine for an injured soldier whilst under heavy fire at Messines Ridge. After the end of the War in 1918, Studdert Kennedy returned to his family and congregation at St Paul’s in Worcester, although he soon relocated to the parish of St Edmund, Lombard Street in London. He worked part-time for the Industrial Christian Fellowship and continued to write extensively, becoming a passionate advocate of pacifism and socialism. His tireless work ultimately drove him to an early grave, and he died in Liverpool on a speaking engagement in 1929, aged only 45. His funeral in Worcester attracted huge crowds, and he was mourned as one of the Church’s greatest priests taken too soon. However, his legacy lives on through his poetry and writings, and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy has come to be regarded as one of the greatest Anglican voices of the twentieth-century.

A part of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s appeal, as much today as it was a century ago, is his openness to challenging traditional theological doctrines in the light of personal and communal experience. Like many other chaplains on the frontline, Studdert Kennedy was greatly affected by the utter brutality and destruction that the First World War caused. He struggled with the ever-present problem of theodicy: how can a good God allow such evil to happen? This theme is present within many of Studdert Kennedy’s poems, in which he expresses anger and contempt at the concept of an all-powerful God who reigns inscrutably over the world. The extract from the poem ‘The Suffering God’ at the beginning of this article expresses something of Studdert Kennedy’s attitude towards a monarchical understanding of the Almighty. He believed that the only way forward was to fundamentally reinterpret what it meant to talk about an ‘almighty’ God. For Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the image of the all-powerful God must be replaced with the image of God in Jesus Christ; not a master but a servant, whose ‘almightiness’ was demonstrated through self-giving and vulnerable love. In his book ‘The Hardest Part’, Studdert Kennedy states that God in Christ:

‘finally tears the Almighty God armed with pestilence and disease from His throne, and reveals the patient, suffering God of love Who endures an agony unutterable in the labour of creation, but endures on still for love’s sake to the end.’ (The Hardest Part, p.69)

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy believed that it was only this God, the suffering servant who gave his life upon the Cross, who could mean anything in the light of the horrors of the War. A tendency to see God in rather than above all things – what might broadly be called an incarnational theology – was a prominent feature of Studdert Kennedy’s ministry, demonstrated in his preference for working among the poor in St Paul’s parish, as well as his ministry to ordinary soldiers and labourers during and after the War. The concept of the incarnational, suffering God became very important amidst the violence and bloodshed of the twentieth-century, and has featured prominently in the work of thinkers such as Jürgen Moltmann, who counts Studdert Kennedy amongst his greatest influences. The theological concepts that ‘Woodbine Willie’ expressed in his poetry and preaching have helped generations of people balance the overwhelming sense of evil in the world with a faith in a Christ-like God, who is almighty, not in power, but in a love which endures all things to the end.

The contributors to ‘Life After Tragedy’ use the life and work of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy as a basis for considering the religious, social and ethical impact of the First World War upon Britain and beyond. Few other people could inspire such an endeavour, as Studdert Kennedy stands out as one of the great minds and souls of the Great War, and indeed of the Anglican Church in the last century. His witness and work has inspired people beyond count, and his belief that ‘there ain’t no throne’ has helped to develop a form of incarnational theology that has had a significant impact on the Christian faith in the modern age.

Studdart Kennedy Funeral procession in High Street” was made available by ‘The Changing Face of Worcester‘ and is used here to for educational purposes.