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Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy

G A Studdert Kennedy, 1883-1929. Priest and poet, and a saint with a small 's'. Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy was born in a poor area of Leeds in 1883, the son of a priest and the twelfth child in a household that would contain fifteen children. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School, Trinity College Dublin and Ripon, and had a very keen intellect, but he was also absent minded, a dreamer, a voracious reader, intense, loving, compassionate and empathetic to a sometimes frightening degree.
It was this empathy that was to define his ministry, in terms of both his care for others and his understanding of God. He struggled with the idea of a loving God sitting comfortably at a distance from the evils of the world, but grew to see God as one who suffers with us. Christ did not suffer on the cross and then retreat to a place above and beyond human suffering, but entered into an ongoing covenant with mankind, sharing the pain, and continuing to suffer. “All through the ages men have crucified God, not knowing what they did, crucified Him through their ignorance, stupidity, and imperfection as well as through deliberate choice of wrong against right. There has always been a voice crying in the heart of God, and appealing to His Fatherhood, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” (‘Food for the Fed Up’)
Image courtesy of creactions on


Father, if He, the Christ, were Thy Revealer,
Truly the First Begotten of the Lord,
Then must Thou be a Suff'rer and a Healer,
Pierced to the heart by the sorrow of the sword.

Then must it mean, not only that Thy sorrow
Smote Thee that once upon the lonely tree,
But that today, tonight and on the morrow
Still it will come, O Gallant God, to Thee.

At the outset of the First World War Kennedy believed strongly that all those who could fight should do so. It is thought that he considered enlisting as a soldier but, fortunately for those he served, he entered the trenches as a chaplain. His experiences during the war turned him into a vehement pacifist, who believed that "Real war is the final limit of damnable brutality, and that's all there is in it. It’s about the silliest, filthiest, most inhumanly fatuous thing that ever happened."

Image courtesy of Stockers9 on sxc.huAt that time chaplains were told to stay well behind the front line and away from the fighting. Kennedy completely disregarded this instruction. His own advice to chaplains in 1916 was strikingly different:

“Live with the men, go where they go, make up your mind that you will share their risks, and more, if you can do any good. You can take it that the best place for a padre is where there is the most danger of death. Our first job is to go beyond the men in self-sacrifice and reckless devotion. Don’t be bamboozled that your proper place is behind the lines – it isn’t.” (‘A Fiery Glow in the Darkness’, by Michael Grundy)

He saw that he had a responsibility to take Christ to the serving men; Christ, who would not abandon them when their need was greatest. He delivered emergency supplies across shelled areas, retrieved wounded men from no-man’s land, prayed with the dying and conducted burials as the battle raged around him. At quieter times he wrote and read letters for the men, chatted, told jokes and – his great love – preached about the love and presence of God in language that they understood.

He was known as Woodbine Willie because he always had a Woodbine to offer to a soldier – alongside a copy of the New Testament. It has been suggested that these offerings of cigarettes may have had a sacramental value. Even though he was loved and appreciated by those he served, he always felt that his actions fell short, writing in his poetry that "the men to whom I owed God’s peace, I put off with a cigarette".

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.
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Studdert Kennedy’s life is an example of mission at its finest. He put himself in the midst of the people when they were most in need of God’s presence. He took risks, caring more for those he served than for his own safety and comfort, and he identified with their experiences. No doubt such empathy with others caused him more pain than joy, but it gave him a passion and drive that can still be seen in his poetry, which is heartbreaking, uplifting, passionate, despairing and, above all, centred on Christ, who was made man, and whose life is still inextricably entwined with humanity in all of its glory and all of its darkness.



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