Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 7th September 2014

7 September 2014 at 10:00 am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner

On the 4th August 2014 a moving and very memorable service took place here at Westminster Abbey to mark the outbreak of the First World War. The solemn commemoration recalled the beginning of The Great War; often called "The war to end all wars", which in fact was probably the most horrendous war ever conceived.

This morning I shall be talking about Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, a First World War Army Chaplain who's faith, even in the face of horrific warfare, remained strong and resolute. He managed to survive the war. Next Sunday I shall focus upon the poet Wilfred Owen, who's faith was shaken to the core by the horror of warfare. His work was characterised by his anger at the cruelty and waste of war, which he experienced during service on the Western Front. He did not survive the conflict.

It was during the First World War that army chaplains emerged as a vital contribution to the care and spiritual support of military personnel. At the start of the Crimean War there was only one chaplain for 26,000 troops (it increased to sixty as the need became clearer). However, during the First World War over a thousand chaplains served with the Allies, and a similar number served the opposing army.179 British chaplains died during the war, and three were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.

Some chaplains became well-known figures and among them was Studdert Kennedy, widely known as Woodbine Willie because of his practice of giving out Woodbine cigarettes after services. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, but was equally significant for his compassion and comfort of wounded soldiers. After the war he wrote and spoke extensively about fighting and faith, and became a national figure. Thousands lined the streets at his funeral and tossed cigarette packets on the hearse as a tribute.

Woodbine Willie joined the soldiers on the western front when they went over the top, and won the Military Cross when he ran through shells into 'no man's land' to obtain supplies of morphine. His speaking skills were used to maintain morale. Sickened by the needless slaughter, on his discharge in 1919, he spoke all over the country, opposing war and calling for an end to unemployment and poverty.

He recalls that, as a Padre, his ministry changed when he stopped talking to, and instead listened to, the troops. Through his magnetic preaching, he publicised their views on wanting to end war, their dislike of privilege, and their desire for the end of poverty. And through his collection of rhymes, many written in working-class dialect, he expressed their views in their own language. After the war he was appointed a chaplain to the king. In 1922 he left his Worcester parish to run the City church of St Edmund King and Martyr in Lombard Street. Critical alike of Marxist socialism and of capitalism, Studdert Kennedy commanded huge audiences in the years of the depression. He was sure that Christianity had political consequences, but it was religion not political oratory that met real human need. During these post war years he became a great social evangelist calling for reform. He gave away his possessions. His stipend was modest but he received large royalties – all of which he gave to charities. He left very little money.

Archbishop William Temple, described him as 'the finest priest I have known', and characterized him as evangelical without a trace of puritanism, and fired by a strong Catholic sacramentalism, with the cross at the heart of it all. He firmly believed that the suffering of war - and the suffering of the depression - were alike uniquely met by the crucified God. The Gospel he preached, embraced suffering, pain and despair. He came to realise that at the heart of why troops disbelieve and believe in God, why they decline and grow in character, how God became less real and more real to them was through suffering. That when we look to the Bible to understand this deep pattern, we see that the great theme of the Bible itself is how God brings hope, not just despite, but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of but because of what he suffered on the cross. And so even through the horror of war, he preached that its possible to find a peculiar closeness to God – one that comes only through and in suffering."

Studdert Kennedy's writing and preaching influenced an entire generation. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, described him as a 'true prophet' - and his message went on to inspire the likes of Desmond Tutu and Jürgen Moltmann. He knew that faith was not only possible after the hostilities ceased; it was necessary. His was not a disembodied or privatized faith; - he has been especially helpful in linking the Eucharist with social justice.

To repeat those words of Archbishop William Temple: "If to be a priest is to carry others on the heart and offer them with self in the sacrifice of human nature, the Body and the Blood, then Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was the finest priest I have known." Ultimately he failed in his attempt to fundamentally change the life of the church, but he never failed to apply his principles to his personal life. Looking for his first parish, he took the one with the lowest stipend. He frequently gave away his clothes and possessions to the poor. He shows us that individuals can point the way to a better society.

I finish with one of his rhymes entitled 'Indifference':

When Jesus came to Golgotha they hanged Him on a tree,
they drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
they crowned Him with a crown of thorns,
red were His wounds and deep,
for those were crude and cruel days,
and human flesh was cheap. 

 When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,
they never hurt a hair of Him,
they only let Him die;
for men had grown more tender,
and they would not give Him pain,
they only just passed down the street,
and left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do,"
and still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;
the crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,
and Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.

When he died, in 1929, exhausted at the age of 45, poor people flocked to his funeral in Worcester Cathedral. The streets were packed and the funeral procession was enormous. The streets were silent and the shops were shuttered and the crowds lined the route all the two miles to the cemetery.

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