This is a copy of my talk given on Remembrance Sunday 2015. My Bible Readings were Psalm 46:1-11 & Matthew 20:20-28.
As we continue to Commemorate the centenary of World War I, often described as: ‘The war to end all wars’ – which it wasn’t and was probably the most horrendous war ever – a war which saw a soldier dying every 15 seconds. 16 Million in total and, as we were reminded last year with the display of poppies at the Tower of London, 888, 246 of them British.
Some of you will know that, before I was ordained, I spent eight years in prison – as an officer! And, whilst I was training for Ordination, having realised that I probably wouldn’t be going into Prison Chaplaincy – I began to consider Army Chaplaincy
I went on a couple of training courses with the Royal Army Chaplains Department at Bagshot Park, Surrey – where the Duke and Duchess of Wessex now live! I also spent a two weeks on exercise with the 24th Airborne Division who are based in Thetford, Norfolk. The Army Chaplains’ Department was formed by Royal Warrant on 23 September 1796. However, it was during the First World War, that Army Chaplains emerged as making a vital contribution to the care and spiritual support of military personnel. 4,400 clergy volunteered to serve as chaplains during World War 1 and 179 died. Today I’m placing a cross in their memory.
Several army chaplains were awarded the Military Cross and three were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in the line of duty. These men weren’t the ‘meek and mild’ type of men usually associated with ‘men of the cloth’ but men who seemed to exhibit both the strength of character and compassion of Jesus himself as he journeyed to the cross.
When reading about Army Chaplaincy the name Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy M.C. always seems to crop up – and what an amazing man he was. Studdert Kennedy was born in Leeds in 1883, the son of a vicar. After reading divinity and classics at Trinity College, Dublin, he became a vicar himself, first in Rugby and then at Saint Paul’s in Worcester. At the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered to serve as an Army Chaplain on the Western Front.
He was well-known for going into no-man’s-land, in the thick of a battle, to comfort wounded soldiers and was never afraid to be close to the fighting. One famous story tells of him crawling out to a working party putting up wire in front of their trench. A nervous soldier challenged him, asking “Who goes there?” and he replied: “The church.” When the soldier asked what the church was doing out there, he replied “Its job.”
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.
His Popularity and relevance as a chaplain/padre owed a great deal to his genuine concern for the soldiers, sharing their experiences of trench warfare and communicating with them in a language they understood (industrial language!) not to mention his distribution of cigarettes as they went over the top – hence his nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’.
Job Description He viewed the chaplain’s role in this way:
Live with the men. Go everywhere they go. The line is the key to the whole business. Work in the very front and they will listen to you; but if you stay behind you are wasting your time. Men will forgive you anything but lack of courage and devotion … Take a box of fags in your haversack and a great deal of love in your heart, and go up to them: laugh with them, joke with them. You can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.
General Lord Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General Staff, recalling some of his own doubts and fears that he, and ordinary soldiers, experience in their tours of duty, understood the value of the ministry of a padre and instructed the Chaplain General:
To make sure that everyone deployed on operations has some understanding of the Christian message.
Should they fail to return from their tour of duty. FYI, Lord Dannatt is speaking at Chelmsford Cathedral 11/11 at 8.00 pm on ‘The Law, Morality and Armed Conflict.’ Details in our notices/website
On his Discharge in 1919, Studdert Kennedy was a changed man. His experiences in the trenches had left him deeply scarred – along with many others. Before the war he advocated that men should go and fight for their loved ones, and their country, but after the war he spent the remainder of his life campaigning for peace. He also wrote poetry, trying to put into words the things he had seen and what he felt. One is entitled Waste
Waste of muscle, waste of brain, Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health, Waste of beauty, waste of wealth,
Waste of blood, waste of tears, Waste of youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod, Waste of glory, waste of God – war!
He firmly believed that the suffering of war – and the suffering of the depression – were uniquely met by the crucified Jesus. 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.
He began to understand the great theme of the Bible of how God brings hope, not in spite of, but through suffering, just as Jesus saved us not in spite of, but through, what he suffered on the cross. And so even through the horror of war, he preached that it’s possible to find a peculiar closeness to God – one that comes only through, and in, suffering.
He was prepared publicly to raise the questions which men were asking: Why does God allow war? How can a God of love ignore human suffering? What is the use of the church? He did not avoid asking the awkward question: Does God even exist?
The Searchlight Theatre Company have a theatre production called ‘Poet & Padre’ based on the writings of Studdert Kennedy and they have the sketches on DVD. David Robinson plays lead role. Video
During the post war years he became a great Social Evangelist and was involved in the Christian socialist and pacifist movements, opposing war and calling for an end to unemployment and poverty. He gave away his possessions. His stipend/wage was modest but he received large royalties – all of which he gave to charities. He left very little money.
He toured the country giving public lectures It was on one of these tours to Liverpool in 1929 when he fell ill and Died, aged 46.
The Dean of Westminster Abbey at the time refused permission for Studdert Kennedy to be buried there because of his association with the Christian socialist movement. I know the church has made many mistakes over the years but that, if you pardon the expression, beggars belief! Especially when War Poets such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen are commemorated there.
Thousands turned out for his funeral procession, lining the roads from Worcester Cathedral to his old parish church of Saint Paul’s. They tossed packets of Woodbines onto the passing cortege – a gesture the Studdert Kennedy would probably have approved. Plaque at Cathedral.
Studdert Kennedy certainly left a Legacy both in the church and politically. Archbishop Rowan Williams:
In all his work, in his sermons, his meditations, his astonishing poems, so many of them cast in the voice of the ordinary soldier in the trenches full of protest and apparent blasphemy, Studdert Kennedy argues against the bland problem-solving God. His commitment is to the God who is discovered in the heart of your own endurance and pain – not a solution, not a Father Christmas or fairy Godmother, but simply the one who holds your deeper self and makes it possible for you to look out on the world without loathing and despair.
This God is not the God of comfortable Christianity but the God who enters the dark places of the front line and places of injustice. Studdert Kennedy’s actions and words were those of the Jesus he served. He didn’t just ‘talk the talk’ he ‘walked the walk!’
Archbishop William Temple, a contemporary of Studdert Kennedy said:
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.
He seemed to live out Jesus’ words from Matthew 20:26-28: … whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.