Presiding Bishop’s sermon at House of Bishops opening Eucharist

Posted Mar 11, 2013

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy
8 March 2013
House of Bishops opening Eucharist

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Churc

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a priest of the Church of England who volunteered to serve as an army chaplain in the First World War.  He was a notable and skilled poet, not unlike his predecessors George Herbert and John Donne, well rooted in the glory of God’s created order as well as the labors of a parish priest.  His later poetry reflected his war experience and his deeply Christian pacifism.


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 and waste of tears
Waste of youth’s most precious years
Waste of ways the Saints have trod
Waste of glory
Waste of God

Remember that in the very same era our predecessors and brothers ousted Bishop Paul Jones from this house because they thought his pacifism was profoundly un-Christian.  When Studdert Kennedy died in 1929 the Dean of Westminster refused to bury him because he was a socialist.

Studdert Kennedy is better known by his wartime nickname, “Woodbine Willie.”  Woodbine was a well-known cigarette brand, and the chaplain was famous for passing them out to soldiers while on his pastoral rounds.

As we began today, we prayed:

Glorious God, we give thanks not merely for high and holy things, but for the common things of earth which you have created:  Wake us to love and work, that Jesus may set our hearts ablaze and that we may recognize you in your people and in your creation…

Woodbines and their ilk aren’t included in chaplains’ kits today because we know so much about the evils of tobacco smoking.  We’d probably take seriously a charge of conduct unbecoming for anybody who did this today, or insisted that Jesus might “set our hearts ablaze” with cigarettes.  Yet we have lost the ability to see Nicotiana tabacum and its relatives as one of the “common things of earth which God has created.”  If we’re willing to look, it might be easier to recognize God in this common thing of earth than it is with mosquitoes.

Tobacco has been revered for eons by indigenous peoples of this hemisphere as an agent of healing and prayer.  Nicotine, which is the most significant active agent in tobacco, is a stimulant at small doses and at higher doses a sedative and anaesthetic.  It improves concentration and memory, counters depression, and reduces pain.  At higher levels it mimics opiates, increases serotonin output, and can promote psychoactive states.  Its use in prayer technically makes it an entheogen, like peyote, something used as an aide to promoting inward awareness of the presence of God.  Extracts of tobacco leaves promote wound healing and can cure a raft of skin diseases.  Tobacco is a potent vermifuge and an active insecticide.  The Europeans who first encountered it called it “the holy herb.”  Like many other good gifts of creation, it is also capable of being grossly misused, which is how we most often encounter it today.  Smoke-filled casinos and sleazy bars are filled with people seeking something beyond themselves but settling for reeking from an excess of the common things of earth.  Some would make their god the one in the verses of 2 Samuel we omitted:  “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the heavens trembled and quaked, because he [God] was angry.  Smoke went up from his nostrils, and devouring fire from his mouth; glowing coals flamed forth from him” (2Sam 22:8-9).

Studdert Kennedy dispensed Woodbines to answer the terror, pain, and despair of the men around him.  But he didn’t just pass out cigarettes.  He slogged through the mud and sat in the trenches with others who were freezing, bored, and frightened, and he scaled the walls of those trenches to retrieve the wounded and dying.  When he crawled out to one detail laying barbed wire and the sentry asked, “who goes there?” he responded, “the church.”   The next question: “what’s it doing out here?”  “Its job.”  To those men he was a human witness of “God with us,” Immanuel.  He took their pain into himself and let it be joined to transformation.

The Good Samaritan is remembered for similar efforts.  He encountered the wounded and used some good things of creation – wine, oil, and a beast of burden – to heal his neighbor.  Oil and wine are not just for dressing salads – both have some antiseptic qualities, and promote healing outwardly as well as by ingestion.  Consider the power of human touch (like the hugs we’ve heard referenced today) as the Samaritan gathered up that half-dead man and set him on his donkey.  And he kept spending himself in his neighbor’s interest, as the healing and companioning presence of “God with us.”

Gathering the good and healing gifts of God’s creation, human and otherwise, does offer outward and physical healing, and it also brings healing to the inner person.  It is a powerful antidote to violence – which literally means the sapping and destruction of the life-force within us.  Hope is restored as God’s presence is brought to awareness in the “common things of creation,” together with the image of God in a caring and healing neighbor.

Studdert Kennedy’s pacifism grew out of a deep awareness of the violence of war, and the ways human beings are deformed and diminished in its exercise.  His transformation into Christian pacifism and socialism resulted in a vigorous and prophetic voice for social justice, prompting Christians to get out of churches and into the streets.  One of his book chapters is titled The Church Is Not a Movement but a Mob.  He took up the healing of societies and nations, still in thrall to the powers and principalities of greed and domination.

We have similar work to do – our nations are still at war with others, we are still exploiting the poor, and human violence continues to terrorize the defenseless.  When we study war no more, when we no longer forge weapons of violence, and when we have begun to truly share God’s good creation, perhaps our souls will be healed enough that we can use the common things of the earth in ways that bless their goodness, rather than trying to exploit them as pseudo-gods.  Until then, this mob has abundant work to do in responding to all sorts of violence with care and solidarity and healing.  Here is Studdert Kennedy’s version of that ministry:

Stretcher Bearers

Easy does it — bit o’ trench ‘ere,
Mind that blinkin’ bit o’ wire,
There’s a shell ‘ole on your left there,
Lift ‘im up a little ‘igher.
Stick it, lad, ye’ll soon be there now,
Want to rest ‘ere for a while?
Let ‘im dahn then — gently — gently,
There ye are, lad. That’s the style.
Want a drink, mate? ‘Ere’s my bottle,
Lift ‘is ‘ead up for ‘im, Jack,
Put my tunic underneath ‘im,
‘Ow’s that, chummy? That’s the tack!
Guess we’d better make a start now,
Ready for another spell?
Best be goin’, we won’t ‘urt ye,
But ‘e might just start to shell.
Are ye right, mate? Off we goes then.
That’s well over on the right,
Gawd Almighty, that’s a near ‘un!
‘Old your end up good and tight,
Never mind, lad, you’re for Blighty, [1]
Mind this rotten bit o’ board.

We’ll soon ‘ave ye tucked in bed, lad,
‘Opes ye gets to my old ward.
No more war for you, my ‘earty,
This’ll get ye well away,
Twelve good months in dear old Blighty,
Twelve good months if you’re a day,
M.O.’s got a bit o’ something
What’ll stop that blarsted pain.
‘Ere’s a rotten bit o’ ground, mate,
Lift up ‘igher — up again,
Wish ‘e’d stop ‘is blarsted shellin’
Makes it rotten for the lad.
When a feller’s been and got it,
It affec’s ‘im twice as bad.
‘Ow’s it goin’ now then, sonny?
‘Ere’s that narrow bit o’ trench,
Careful, mate, there’s some dead Jerries,
Lawd Almighty, what a stench!
‘Ere we are now, stretcher-case, boys,
Bring him aht a cup o’ tea!
Inasmuch as ye have done it
Ye have done it unto Me.

[1] Slang for Britain, from Persian wilayah, came into use during the Raj. A Blighty wound got you out of action and back to good old England.