The Hardest Part by GA Studdert-Kennedy
Centenary edition of chaplain's post-First World War reflection remains as compelling as ever, challenging us to sit with the desolate and share the gospel of the servant Christ
The Hardest Part - a centenary critical edition
By GA Studdert-Kennedy
ISBN 9787 0 334 05656 0
Reviewed by Dr Martin M’Caw
Both introductory essays by Thomas O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell are essential reading providing a rich insight into Studdert-Kennedy as a man, priest, padre, poet and theologian who emerged amidst the mud and blood of the trenches, known as `Woodbine Willie' because of his practice of distributing Woodbine cigarettes together with New Testaments to the troops.
He was a vicar from Worcester of Irish descent who volunteered as an army padre when war broke out in 1914. Rather than an academic theological study of human suffering, S-K’s writing reveals a pastoral heart that shares the misery and pain of his fellows. He sees Tommy in the trenches as the average man, and the essence of the gospel and Church is the ‘appeal of the suffering God revealed in Christ to the heart of the average man.’
He developed an incarnational experiential theology expressing how God feels what we feel. The academic high churchman with a degree in classics and divinity from Trinity College Dublin sits in the trenches asking the same questions as the soldiers. ‘If God is almighty and perfect why have we got this bloody mess? Doesn’t God care about what’s happening or has he lost control?’
The chapter entitled ‘God and Democracy' takes us to the heart of his subject matter. It encapsulates S-K’s theological dilemma between God’s absolute sovereignty which produces ‘a repulsive fatalism’, and the obedient service of Christ in his journey to the cross. Were he alive today, perhaps a favourite hymn for S-K would be Graham Kendrick’s:
‘From heaven you came helpless babe
Entered our world, your glory veiled,
Not to be served but to serve
and give your life that we might live.’
The chapter on prayer is challenging. It is not ‘a magic cheque on the bank of heaven only needing the endorsement of Christ’s name to make it good for anything.’ Prayer is not about our perspective of immediate needs. God and his purpose must always come first because this is the way Christ prayed. Prayer is not for comfort, but confirming the purpose of Christ: a relevant topic for preparing sermons on prayer. In his chapters on Communion and the Church, S-K creates a chill wind to stimulate our thinking with evangelistic and ecumenical implications.
This is a book well worth purchasing. Although published 100 years ago, the subject matter is as contemporary as it gets. A century may have passed. The trenches have gone, but S-K’s fundamental questions remain the same in a world that endures the pitiless ambitions of religious fanatics, political bullies, the dereliction of the inner city and the bland materialism of suburbia. The Hardest Part is a blast from the past challenging us to sit with the desolate and share the gospel of the servant Christ.
Complicated theological algebra, both for S-K and ourselves, is for the classroom. Simple incarnational theology that God knows and feels our pain, grief and deprivation is the name of the game for battlefield, street, dole queue, hospital, prison and all the other places of distress and disillusion.
The Revd Dr. Martin M’Caw (retired Baptist minister; Wing Chaplain No.2 Welsh Wing RAF cadets).
(By a quirk of history, two of Studdert-Kennedy’s grandchildren attended Dean Close School in Cheltenham at the same time as Martin)