‘When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by./ They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die’ ... Selfridges in the Bullring has become a modern architectural symbol of Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
My choice of Lenten poem today is ‘Indifference’, or ‘When Jesus came to Birmingham,’ written by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy while he was a chaplain during World War I. Woodbine Willie felt God’s heartbeat for people and ministered faithfully, through practical love and through his poetry, to the ordinary soldiers living through ‘hell on earth’ in the trenches.
In his poem, Kennedy compares the behaviour of Christ’s contemporaries with our behaviour today towards the stranger and the outcast, and challenges us in Lent to consider whether we are following Christ to Golgotha.
Kennedy once wrote: “We have taught our people to use prayer too much as a means of comfort – not in the original and heroic sense of uplifting, inspiring, strengthening, but in the more modern and baser sense of soothing sorrow, dulling pain, and drying tears – the comfort of the cushion, not the comfort of the Cross.”
Woodbine Willie, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), was an Anglican priest-poet with an Irish background. He was given his nickname ‘Woodbine Willie’ during World War I because of his reputation for giving Woodbine cigarettes along with pastoral and spiritual support to injured and dying soldiers.
He was born in Leeds in 1883, the seventh of nine children born to Jeanette Anketell and William Studdert Kennedy, a vicar in Leeds. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and then went to Trinity College Dublin, where he received his degree in classics and divinity in 1904.
After a year’s training for ordination, he was appointed a curate in Rugby. In 1914, he was appointed Vicar of Saint Paul’s in Worcester.
On the outbreak of World War I, Kennedy volunteered as a chaplain in the British Army on the Western Front, and it was there he was given the nickname ‘Woodbine Willie.’
During the war, he was attached to a bayonet-training service, and toured with boxers and wrestlers to give morale-boosting speeches about the usefulness of the bayonet. In 1917, he ran into ‘No Man’s Land’ at the Messines Ridge, to help the wounded during an attack on the German frontline. For his bravery, he was decorated with the Military Cross.
His poems about his war-time experiences were published in Rough Rhymes of a Padre (1918), and More Rough Rhymes (1919).
But during the war, he was also converted to Christian Socialism and pacifism, which influenced his books Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921) – which included chapters such as ‘The Church Is Not a Movement but a Mob,’ ‘Capitalism is Nothing But Greed, Grab, and Profit-Mongering,’ and ‘So-Called Religious Education Worse than Useless’ – Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925).
After the war, Kennedy was appointed to the Church of Saint Edmund, King and Martyr in Lombard Street, London. But he soon moved to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, travelling throughout Britain on speaking tours.
He addressed the Anglo-Catholic Congress in London in July 1923, when he said:
“It is not enough to make the devotional life our main concern, and allow an occasional lecture or preachment on social matters to be added as a make-weight. The social life must be brought right into the heart of our devotion, and our devotion right into the heart of our social life. There is only one spiritual life, and that is the sacramental life – sacramental in its fullest, its widest, and its deepest sense, which means the consecration of the whole man and all his human relationships to God.
“There must be free and open passage between the sanctuary and the street. We must destroy within ourselves our present feeling that we descend to a lower level when we leave the song of the angels and the archangels and begin to study economic conditions, questions of wages, hours and housing. It is hard, very hard, but it must be done. It must be done not only for the sake of the street, but for the sake of the sanctuary, too. If the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament obscures the Omnipresence of God in the world, then the Sacrament is idolatrous, and our worship is actual sin, for all sin at its roots is the denial of the Omnipresence of God.
“I have been to Mass in churches where I felt it was sinful – sinful because there was no passion for social righteousness behind it. When ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make long prayers I will not hear you; your hands are full of blood ... Cease to do evil, learn to do well. Seek judgement. Relieve the oppressed. Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
“Remember that medieval ritual was a natural expression of medieval life, which, at any rate, tried to consecrate all things to God – tried to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and dedicated all arts and crafts, all human activities to him. In that setting it meant much; apart from that setting it means nothing, and worse than nothing – it is a hollow mockery. The way out is not to destroy ritual, but to restore righteousness, and make our flaming colours the banners of a Church militant here on earth ...”
Woodbine Willie was taken ill on one of his speaking tours and he died in Liverpool on 8 March 1929. He is honoured in the calendar of The Episcopal Church (TEC) on Thursday of next week, 8 March.
Woodbine Willie is mentioned by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake:
... tsingirillies’ zyngarettes, while Woodbine Willie, so popiular with the poppyrossies ...
He is also mentioned by the Divine Comedy in their song, ‘Absent Friends’:
Woodbine Willie couldn’t rest until he’d
given every bloke a final smoke
before the killing
Peter Ball’s cross in the north aisle of Birmingham Cathedral is made from a simple wooden sleeper, the Crucified Christ from copper and bronze foil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Indifference, by GA Studdert Kennedy
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 would not 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 winter 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.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.