john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    He took up his cross:
    Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, 'Woodbine Willie'

    Good Shepherd Morning Prayer 8/3/2009

    Genesis 17.1-7,15,16, Mark 8.31-end

    Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.'
    Eighty years ago today, March 8th 1929, a priest called Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, but better known to many people as 'Woodbine Willie', was speaking at St Catherine's Church in Liverpool (nearby what is now the Women's Hospital). It was a meeting of the Industrial Christian Fellowship, an organisation which was devoted to Christian socialism and to encouraging workers to share the gospel on the factory floor and helping ordinary people to share the gospel in the streets.

    Woodbine Willie was a name which soldiers started to give to Studdert Kennedy when he was serving as their padre in the First World War, and became well known for always passing around to the men a packet of his favourite brand of cigarettes. He once advised a new padre: "Take a box of fags in your haversack and a great deal of love in your heart."

    The asthmatic and heavy smoker Studdert Kennedy hadn't been at all well when he came to Liverpool for that speaking engagement. It turned out to be the last appointment he ever kept, for he took ill that day and died at St Catherine's vicarage that same evening, aged just 45.
    Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.'
    I'm telling the story of Woodbine Willie today as a fine example of one who did just that, and was greatly admired by so many people across the nation for his devotion to Jesus and the gospel. Ordinary people whose lives he had touched - as his body was being taken across the Mersey by ferry, somebody stepped forward and laid a packet of Woodbines on his coffin. And archbishops too. William Temple wrote this tribute to him, "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 - to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - then Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was the finest priest I have ever known."

    Studdert Kennedy wasn't your normal sort of priest. For one thing, he didn't mind using bad language when he needed to. he opened an address to a gathering of the men of the British 4th Army School at St Pol in northern France in 1917 with the words "I know what you're thinking, here comes a bloody parson".

    That sort of language didn't go down well with some of his listeners, but it was the normal language of the troops he was talking to, and it is said that for thousands of men and women of his day Studdert Kennedy was the only man who could make God and Jesus Christ real, expressing the most profound truths in language that could be understood and appreciated by the simple and uneducated.

    Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was born in 1883 in Leeds, where his father was vicar of St Mary's, Quarry Hill. Theirs was an Irish family and Studdert Kennedy went to Trinity College, Dublin, before becoming a teacher. He didn't stay long in teaching because he was certain that he ought to be a priest. So he went to Ripon Hall theological college at Oxford, where he soon showed that he was destined to be a preacher of considerable power. While a curate in Rugby - working in a mission in the poorest slum area of that town - Studdert Kennedy discovered that if he didn't preach at least twice on a Sunday he was most unhappy. He was no orthodox preacher: one of his parishioners remembered a Christmas midnight mass and said,
    Even though I was still a boy, I remember vividly the passion of Woodbine Willie's sermons on those occasions. He never used the pulpit, but would sit on a seat on the steps up to the altar and just talk to everybody. He pulled no punches and was very much a working-man's priest. He used to hold his ... congregation spellbound.
    In his book Saints of the Twentieth Century Brother Kenneth records how "Once Studdert Kennedy was to tell a pious congregation with a beautiful and ancient parish church that sometimes he felt he would like to take a great sledgehammer and smash every stained glass window in the church, and then go out and celebrate the Eucharist in a field with a tea-cup and plate."

    And another time Studdert Kennedy wrote: "Nobody worries about Christ as long as he can be kept shut up in churches. He is quite safe there. But there is always trouble if you try to let him out."

    He devoted his life to trying to let Christ out of church. Geoffrey was generosity itself. His landlady, knowing he would give anyone the shirt off his back, made him give her all his money and would dole it out to him. She once gave him an overcoat - which he also gave away.

    In 1912 Geoffrey went to help his ageing and ailing father in Leeds, and in 1914 he married a local girl. His father died, and the parish wanted him to stay on, but instead he was offered three other livings. He took the poorest, St Paul's in the Blockhouse, Worcester - after asking his wife whether she would accept living in the vicarage. An article in this week's Church Times says that

    This desperately poor parish was to be his spiritual home for the rest of his life. Here his ministry was woven together with his theological understanding of suffering humanity and a suffering God, which was to occupy him throughout his life.

    Studdert Kennedy arrived in Worcester two months before the First World War broke out and in 1915, at the first opportunity, he became an army chaplain. He supported the war - he served fearlessly and faithfully in it and won the Military Cross for acts of conspicuous gallantry on the attack on Messines Ridge - but it raised a lot of questions for him as he saw the suffering of the soldiers and heard the questions they were asking.
    How could an omnipotent God stand by and watch the beloved creation tearing itself to shreds? If the explanation was that God, in some way, was suffering at the hands of human hatred, then how could God be said to be omnipotent?
    He wrote poems, in the language of the trenches, exploring these themes. And through these verses, 'Studdert Kennedy gave the simple soldier the dignity of straining and groping towards a recognition of God's place in the midst of suffering'.
    Only in Him can I find home to hide me,
    Who on the Cross was slain to rise again;
    Only with Him, my Comrade God, beside me,
    Can I go forth to war with sin and pain.
    After the war Studdert Kennedy became more and more in demand as a speaker and in 1921 he left the church in Worcester to become Chief Missioner of the Industrial Christian Fellowship, devoting the rest of his life to the task of serving the practical and spiritual needs of working people. It was demanding work, travelling all over the country, and because he was never a fit man his missions would completely drain him, he'd often end up in hospital. So it was perhaps inevitable that he should end his days many miles from home, at a vicarage in Liverpool while delivering a series of Lenten addresses.
    [A page in the Church Times published the week after his death] describes how St Catherine's was filled for a requiem just 24 hours after his death; and 2,000 people visited the church during the day. His body was taken in a cortege on the long journey to Worcester, stopping for impromptu services requested mostly by working men.
    In Worcester, his body lay in state in his beloved St Paul's, where thousands came to pay homage and old soldiers kept vigil. Grainy photographs show the streets of Worcester thronged as his coffin was taken from St Paul's to the Cathedral, which was packed with the poor, the unemployed, and ex-servicemen proudly wearing their campaign medals, just as Studdert Kennedy had always worn his MC.
    In tribute, Archbishop Temple called Studdert Kennedy 'One of God's greatest gifts to our generation' and Studdert Kennedy's friend Dick Sheppard called him 'a saint - a real saint'. This weeks' Church Times article, commemorating the 80th anniversary of his death, concludes by saying that 'To the poor, the workers, the workless, and the old soldiers he was one of their own'. Studdert Kennedy summed up his faith with the words: "I bet my life on Christ - Christ crucified."
    Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.'
    Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy took all these words to his heart, lived them out. We may never be as saintly as Woodbine Willie but we might take some things from his life which show us how we, too, can carry the cross in our lives, to live for the sake of the gospel.

    This sermon is substantially based on material from these sources:
    [1] Jonathan Gurling, Padre who offered a light to servicemen, Church Times, no.7616, 6 March 2009
    [2] Mike Oettle, Woodbine Willie, Saints and Seasons
    [3] The Comrade God in The Unutterable Beauty, The Collected Poetry of G. A. Studdert Kennedy