Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Honouring Military Chaplains ...

My husband, once a British Army Chaplain who saw active service in the Aden Conflict, had a hero in the person of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. You probably haven't heard of Studdert Kennedy but you may recognize him as the World War I army chaplain and poet known as Woodbine Willie

Born in 1883, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy grew up the seventh of seven children in Leeds, England. He studied the classics and divinity at a variety of schools in Ireland and England before becoming an Anglican priest in 1914. A quiet, deep thinker and a dreamer all his life, (to the extent that he frequently missed appointments or arrived home from the store with the opposite of what he had been sent to fetch), he had an extraordinary mind combined with great humility, compassion, and generosity. (He frequently gave whatever he had to those in need, to the dismay of his housekeeper who finally locked up his best suit and banked his stipend, giving him only a small allowance.)

Studdert Kennedy's first church was St Paul's, Worcester. It was a large and very poor parish where he often visited public houses in the evening, sat in the bar and talked to the customers,    " ... in such a natural way that they did not resent it, but when the news went round that the young parson was in a public house men would flock there." 

Before he had been at St Paul's three months, war broke out and, after waiting until his responsibilities there could be handed over, Studdert Kennedy joined the army chaplaincy service in 1915. As a military chaplain, he was unconventional, to say the least, and the soldiers loved him. Though described as "impossible" and "quite mad" by those higher up, he preached with passion and humour using stories and poems and the language of the soldiers, and had the capacity to make even the most difficult subjects relevant and accessible to the men in the ranks. Within two Sundays of arriving at his first post in France, there needed to be three 'sittings' for his eleven o'clock service because the chapel was too small to hold all who wanted to attend.

However, the Padre didn't spend all his time in the chapel. Infantryman, Arthur Savage, met Woodbine Willie on the frontline:
Kennedy, an army chaplain he was and he'd come down into the trenches and say prayers with the men, have a cuppa out of a dirty tin mug and tell a joke as good as any of us. He was a chain smoker and always carried a packet of Woodbine cigarettes that he would give out in handfuls to us lads. That's how he got his nickname. He came down the trench one day to cheer us up. Had his Bible with him as usual. Well, I'd been there for weeks, unable to write home, of course, we were going over the top later that day. I asked him if he would write to my sweetheart at home, tell her I was still alive and, so far, in one piece. He said he would, so I gave him the address. Well, years later, after the war, she showed me the letter he'd sent; very nice it was. A lovely letter. My wife kept it until she died.
It was this time spent comforting soldiers in the trenches and several acts of heroism, such as volunteering to fetch much needed drugs from another Dressing Station under heavy fire and bringing stranded wounded men to safety, that earned him the Military Cross. His profound empathy for the emotional lives of the soldiers he served is evident in the words of his poem, Mates, read beautifully here.

After the war, Willie was appointed to St Edmund, King and Martyr Church in the slums of London, among the homeless and the unemployed. His experiences during the war had converted him to Christian Socialism and pacifism and he wrote about his beliefs in several books including Lies, Food for the Fed Up, and Democracy and the Dog-Collar.

Unlike the Master he served, who had taught and modelled the importance of taking time away to rest and refresh, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy "worked without ceasing" to teach, to preach, and to ease the suffering of those within his parish and beyond. His death came suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 46 when he developed influenza while delivering a Lenten course in Liverpool. Not wanting to disappoint those who were expecting him, he soldiered on and then collapsed under the strain of his longtime asthma and the influenza.

His funeral was packed to capacity and in the words of the same Arthur Savage quoted above:
The name Woodbine Willie was known to everyone in the land in those days. Died very young, he did, and at his funeral people placed packets of Woodbine cigarettes on his coffin and his grave as a mark of respect and love.

Today, all over the world, there are military chaplains of many faith traditions risking their health, and often their lives, to support and comfort those in the face of combat and their families left behind - to say nothing of the returning wounded warriors and their loved ones. Studies tell us that military chaplains live with a high degree of trauma exposure and are at risk for both burnout and compassion fatigue.

So, on Remembrance Day 2013, I invite you join me in remembering and honouring not only those who fight, and have fought, for us, but also military chaplains everywhere and their families. Their work is essential and they, too, need and deserve our care and support.

ps This will be my last post for the next month as I return to my writing desk in Ontario to continue work on the book on Chronic Sorrow. Til then, take care, everyone, and I'll see you again in December.  Jan