Page 13, 21st November 2008

21st November 2008
Page 13
Page 13, 21st November 2008 — A padre with a heart worn out by anger

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A padre with a heart worn out by anger

Ninety years on from Armistice Day Andrew M Brown looks again at the work of impassioned First World War hero 'Woodbine Willie'

After War, Is Faith Possible? An Anthology by GA Studdert Kennedy, edited with an introduction by Kenry Waters, The Lutterworth Press £1750 6 G ood Lord, what's that? A dead Boche. I kicked him hard, poor . little devil. He looks like a tired child that has cried itself to sleep. He looks puzzled, as if he were asking, Why me? My God, my God, why me? What had he to do with it anyhow? Not much great blond beast about him. You can see all Europe asking questions in his weak blue eyes."

That passage was written in 1918 and it still startles with its terse and colloquial diction and its tone frustrated, cynical and fed-up. And there is the fact that its author, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, was a padre of the Church of England from an Anglo-Catholic parish. Vicars who constantly question things (and scatter their sermons with swear words like "bloody", as Studdert Kennedy did) were not so common in the early 20th century as they are these days.

The soldiers and, when he became a celebrity, the public, called him "Woodbine Willie" on account of the cigarettes he passed around with copies of the New Testament.

Witnesses confirm that his preaching held listeners spellbound. Some of the writings reprinted here for the first time in 60 years retain that entrancing force.

The poems recreate the argot and voices of the private soldier and recall Rudyard Kipling's war verse, as in "The Sniper" (1918): What's that? Got 'im through the 'ead, sarge?

Where's my blarsted cup o' tea?

However, the dropped aitches and so forth can be distracting and sometimes sentimentality intrudes in the poems. I preferred the monologues like the one quoted at the beginning. These journal-style recollections are poetic in their spare, strippeddown style and though rhetorical they still impress with the force of authenticity and real feeling. Plus, they seem so relevant to modern readers. If only those tough guys Bush and Blair had read Woodbine Willie instead of biographies of Churchill before they sent young soldiers to risk their lives. Willie describes a boy "all blown to bits" as he lay on his stretcher waiting for them to carry him to a shelter: "That poor lad... I wonder who he was. God it's awful. The glory of war, what utter blather it all is. War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs."

Whether it is in the autobiographical material, the theological discussions or the poems Studdert Kennedy seems to be constantly asking the same question in different forms: how to believe in God in spite of evil (war being, for him, the most "acute" evil)? He did not consider himself a great theologian, Kerry Walters explains in his biographical introduction. There is always a risk that justifications of the ways of God in the face of horrors will sound glib. In the case of Kennedy's thoughts, they are of interest, I think, because of his first-hand experience of war. His answer is that God is not a sadist, nor is he indifferent. He is not less than omnipotent as some Christians suggest. God suffers with humanity and is unwilling to force love on us, since love must be freely accepted. It's for humans to take up "the way of the Cross, the way of love" of their free will.

Studdert Kennedy carried his message of faith and love on behalf of the Church of England's new National Mission for Repentance and Hope ("hardly an adequate way to meet the end of a world", commented William Temple before he was Archbishop of Canterbury).

He visited the men at the Somme, at Messines Ridge, where he won the Military Cross, and at the final advance. After the war had ended he spent his final 10 years turning out books, pamphlets, poems and articles on social and economic problems.

For speed, Walters says, he dictated his work "pacing back and forth with great strides, his face screwed up in concentration, smoking non-stop".

In the later writings he connects the Gospel and the Sacraments with social justice. He emphasises the unity of mankind and cannot see the point of a life devoted to solitary contemplation. He has no time either for any notion of material poverty as linked to virtue: far from encouraging simplicity of life or anything like that, poverty "produces covetousness and envy"; it is "the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace".

When he writes of the "real presence" in the Eucharist he sounds a bit like a progressive Catholic: "We go to find Him [in the Eucharist], so that we may the better find him everywhere." It's fierce and unsettling stuff. He has replaced anger at war with anger at slum conditions "the fire of social righteousness". Without this, he says, the Christian Church is nothing but "a pernicious farce".

Cigarettes as well as lifelong asthma contributed to his heart stopping on March 8 1929, according to Walters. Which by my reckoning makes him only 46. Perhaps all that anger at injustice wore out his heart.

When P T R Kirk, the leader of the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for whom Studdert Kennedy preached sermons, suggested to the Dean of Westminster that the padre should be buried in the Abbey, the Dean replied: "What! Studdert Kennedy? He was a socialist!"

In the end the funeral was held in his working-class parish, St Paul's, Worcester. More than 2,000 mourners followed the. procession.

A plaque in Worcester cathedral commemorates "A Poet: a Prophet: a Passionate Seeker After Truth: an Ardent Advocate of Christian Fellowship". The mourners carried wreaths bearing among others messages "from a disabled Irishman", "from the little cripples", "the Worcester unemployed" and "from just an ordinary working girl from Liverpool".

They showered the coffin in packets of Woodbines.

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